Monday, July 19, 2004
Morgan conflict makes for harsh politics in GOP's primary season

By David Rice
JOURNAL RALEIGH BUREAU, Wiinston-Salem Journal


For Republican state legislators, it's the ugliest primary season in years.

In districts scattered across the state, legislators associated with Republican Co-Speaker Richard Morgan - who made an alliance with Democratic Co-Speaker Jim Black last year - are locked in angry battles before Tuesday's primary that focus on party betrayals and breaking no-tax-increase pledges:

?In Moore County, the chairman of the local GOP has made the unusual move of endorsing Peggy Crutchfield, the challenger to the sitting Republican co-speaker. Morgan, in turn, has run ads that highlighted a 15-year-old conspiracy conviction against Crutchfield's husband for which he was later pardoned.

?In Iredell County, Rep. Frank Mitchell changed residences to run against Rep. Julia Howard, R-Davie, a close ally of Morgan. In one Mitchell radio ad, a barking dog complains about Howard's support for a tax on pet food. "Apparently she believes in taxing anything that wags its tail," the ad says. During a recess in the House Friday, Morgan, Howard and Rep. Wilma Sherrill, R-Buncombe, flew to Statesville on a state plane to announce that $56,000 for the Children's Museum of Iredell County will be restored in the state budget. Mitchell had criticized Howard for voting to cut the money.

?In Forsyth County, the chairman of the N.C. Republican Party traveled to Kernersville last week to label Rep. Michael Decker "the Republican Party's Benedict Arnold" for temporarily switching parties last year and taking away a Republican majority in the House. Decker, meanwhile, has dredged up two 1996 stalking charges against his opponent, Mayor Larry Brown of Kernersville. One of the charges was dismissed and Brown was cleared of the other.

?In Stokes County, an independent group has focused on Rep. Rex Baker, R-Stokes, for backing a budget last year that extended $400 million a year in sales and income taxes that were scheduled to expire. Baker counters that he kept Stokes County from raising property taxes by winning more than $2.5million in payments to the county to compensate for the loss of state reimbursements.

?And in Wake County, Rep. David Miner has spent $314,487 so far on a primary to keep a job with a base pay of $20,659.

"It's a family feud. It's the Morgan dozen or so versus the anybody-but-Morgan dozen or so," said John Davis, the executive director of N.C. FREE, a trade group in Raleigh that tracks state election trends.

Though North Carolina voters have seen tense Republican primaries before, "you've just never seen it so widespread," Davis said.

"What is different is that the Republicans are investing their political capital against each other in far greater numbers than ever before," he said. "It's much more widespread than just the one or two ugly primaries we've seen in the past."

Some consider the primary battles a referendum on Morgan and his actions as speaker.

John Hood, the president of the conservative John Locke Foundation, says that Morgan and his allies face opposition from two overlapping groups - party regulars who are angry at Morgan and his backers for "selling out" the GOP and two low-tax groups that opposed a budget last year that extended "temporary" taxes worth $400million a year for two more years.

"No matter how you parse the words, a vote for a budget that increases the tax burden over what it would have been will be viewed as a tax increase. Therefore these groups - Citizens for a Sound Economy and Americans for Prosperity - are attacking legislators who voted for such a budget," Hood said.

"It is not entirely an ideological fight, though there is some of that. But there is also this, 'You put your interests above the interests of the party,'" he said.

Morgan and his allies have run ads saying they cut taxes by voting for an increase in the state's child-tax credit and doing away with its marriage-tax penalty.

"It's malarkey," Hood said. "It makes a bill that raised taxes into an apparent tax cut. I find these ads the most odious ... telling a deliberate falsehood based on the assumption that people won't check it out."

Though candidates must report their individual campaign expenditures, Davis said that it's not clear how much the independent committees are pouring into legislative races.

Morgan spent $273,095 on his campaign through June 30 and had $686,240 in cash remaining. According to an N.C. FREE analysis, Morgan and his allies had $1.2 million in cash available for their campaigns June 30, and Morgan's rivals had raised $269,020.

Meanwhile, the N.C. Republican Main Street Committee, a so-called 527 committee affiliated with Morgan, had raised $160,000. And the N.C. Legislative Majority Committee, a group formed by Morgan opponents, had raised $200,000 to pump into radio ads in the legislative battles.

With turnout expected to be low Tuesday, "there are tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent to influence just a handful of votes," Hood said.

An analysis by N.C. FREE finds that though Morgan and five of his allies are vulnerable in their primary contests, just two of Morgan's rivals are.

"There are far more vulnerable Morgan allies than Morgan enemies in the primary," Davis said. "Almost all of them are safe Republican districts, so the fight is in the primary."

Though he was still in Raleigh as the legislature worked toward adjournment Saturday, Morgan said he is confident about his prospects - and those of Howard.

"I feel real good about my race. The people of Moore County have known me a long time. They're also intelligent voters - they see the outside intervention," he said.

Morgan attributed the harsh tone of Republican primaries to personality clashes.

"It's purely driven by people who did not get their way," he said. "They're sour and mean-spirited, and they have no interest in putting the state first. They want to hold every Republican to rigid standards, to check their brain at the door and plug in."

Hood said he won't be surprised if Morgan survives, but with low turnout expected, the races are hard to predict. If party activists dominate the turnout in Moore County, he said, they could spell trouble for Morgan.

Davis said that with the expected low turnout, candidates must work especially hard to make sure that their supporters get to the polls.

"One side is motivated by anger, and the other side is motivated tactically by a well-oiled machine that money can buy. I think it makes it impossible to predict," he said. "On a sleepy July 20, a mid-summer election day, who is more motivated to go out and vote?"

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• David Rice can be reached in Raleigh at (919) 833-9056 or at