Call it a family feud - or a battle for the heart and soul of the North Carolina Republican Party.
In primaries clustered in the Triad and scattered across the state, Republican legislators who backed Republican Richard Morgan and Democrat Jim Black as co-speakers of the House last year face challenges from other Republicans who question their loyalty to Morgan.
John Davis, the executive director of N.C. FREE, a business group that tracks state election trends, likens the Republican primaries that took shape with the close of candidate filing yesterday to a family dispute.
"This is exactly like one of those domestic-disturbance calls on reality-cop shows," Davis said. "The best thing to do is stay out on the porch and watch through the window, because if you get involved, they're both going to jump you."
The campaigns before the July 20 primary, where turnout is expected to be low, could be pitched and feisty. In Northwest North Carolina, they include:
??Rep. Frank Mitchell, R-Iredell, a frequent critic of Morgan, says he has moved into a house he owns in the district of Rep. Julia Howard, R-Davie, a staunch Morgan ally. Observers across the state will be watching the race between the strong-willed, sometimes stubborn Howard and the wisecracking Mitchell.
"They think that mess in Iraq is something - this'n here is going to be worse," Mitchell said this week. "We don't take prisoners."
?Rep. Michael Decker of Walkertown switched parties to become a Democrat in January 2003, forcing a partisan tie in the House that led to the election of co-speakers. He switched back to be a Republican and faces a challenge from Walkertown Mayor Larry Brown.
Brown says that unlike Decker, he will support the Republican nominee for speaker, even if it is Morgan. "That's definitely what (Decker) should've done," Brown said. "He sold out. He sold his vote for a Democratic dollar.... And the taxpayers have been paying for it ever since."
?Rep. Rex Baker, R-Stokes, one of the Republican co-chairmen of the House Budget Committee under Morgan, faces a challenge from Bryan Holloway, 26, a high-school history teacher in King.
"I think Republicans across the state feel that Morgan has betrayed the Republican Party as a whole," Holloway said. "And I think they should look at are they voting for real Republicans when they vote for Richard Morgan and his supporters."
?And in the new 74th District created by the map that legislators adopted in November, Forsyth County Commissioner Debra Conrad-Shrader is one of seven Republicans running. Conrad-Shrader said she had lunch once with Morgan last year - and her opponents have suggested ties between her and Morgan ever since.
Conrad-Shrader said she will support whomever the House Republican caucus nominates for speaker, whether it's Morgan or someone else.
"This whole Richard Morgan thing is driving me nuts. It's distracting," she said.
"There's been more sightings of Richard Morgan in Forsyth County than Elvis ... and none of this is true.
"When I go down there, I don't plan to be anybody's little puppet," she said. "No individual is going to tell me what to do."
In other races, Rep. David Miner of Cary, a Morgan ally and a co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, faces a challenge from conservative Nelson Dollar.
Also in Wake County, Rep. Rick Eddins, a Morgan ally, faces a primary as well. Rep. Sam Ellis - a voluble critic of Morgan - also faces a primary challenge as well from Jeff Eddins, a Knightdale councilman.
And Rep. Keith Williams of Jacksonville, a freshman Republican who backed the co-speakers, faces a challenge from George Cleveland, a former chairman of the Onslow County Republican Party.
Morgan's critics say that he and about 15 allies sold out the Republican Party by sharing power with Democrats in the House and backing a budget that raised taxes, continuing $384 million a year in sales and income taxes that were scheduled to expire last June.
But Morgan dismisses talk that the July 20 Republican primary will be a referendum on his leadership.
"That's pizzazz - a show term," he said. "We have a Morgan protection plan in place. I plan to support the people who support me."
And Morgan is already moving to protect his allies, running radio ads in Winston-Salem, Burlington, Jacksonville, Wilmington, Raleigh and, beginning next week, in Charlotte.
Dubbed "Main Street," the ads feature House Republican Leader Joe Kiser talking about two tax cuts that were included in the state budget last year.
"Under the leadership of our Republican Speaker Richard Morgan, we took the steps necessary to remove the marriage penalty tax for couples who file their taxes jointly," Kiser says in the ads.
"In addition, we expanded the child tax credit for working families with dependent children in order to reduce their tax burden. It is because of strong leaders like Speaker Morgan (that) Republicans were able to shape a legislative agenda that focused on finding real solutions to real problems."
Morgan's political consultant, Paul Shumaker, also dismisses the complaints as bitterness from hard-liners aligned with Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, who lost out in the race for speaker last year. Shumaker characterizes Morgan and his allies as a modern breed of pro-education Republicans.
"What I see is a battle shaping up between the Republican Party of the '80s and the Republican Party of the 21st century," Shumaker said.
"Those who didn't support the coalition will have to stand on the record of not supporting the public schools, of voting against doing away with the marriage penalty and (against) the child tax credit," he said.
John Hood, the president of the conservative John Locke Foundation, agrees - but only up to a point.
"This is a real effort to win control of the state party," he said.
Hood disagrees that the conservatives challenging Morgan supporters in the House are waging a personal battle. Most of the challengers are Reagan-Bush-Helms conservatives who don't even know Morgan, he said.
"What is happening is mainly ideological," he said. "Their impression is that Richard Morgan has led a Republican splinter group toward a more-moderate course that involves tax increases and little diligence on cutting spending."
Hood said that Morgan's radio ads don't tell the whole story about the sales- and income-tax increases that were part of the 2003-05 state budget.
"These radio ads do not communicate the truth of what happened last year. They try to convert a tax-increase bill into a tax-cut bill," he said.
"It does not tell the whole story. That (marriage penalty and child credit) stuff was in the bill, but it does not communicate the tax-increase items."
The fact that legislators will be in session in Raleigh until early July, just weeks before a midsummer primary where low turnout is expected, could make the primary difficult for Morgan's allies, Hood said.
"My guess is it's going to disproportionately draw your core Republican conservative base. That's not good for Morgan," he said.
• David Rice can be reached in Raleigh at (919) 833-9056 or at email@example.com