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Morrow’s ‘rare’ primary upset a signal from voters

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(The Center Square) – Michele Morrow won less than 1 million North Carolina Republican voters on Tuesday, while Catherine Truitt collected their campaign dollars.

In November, she’ll try to take down Democrat Mo Green when the full 7.4 million registered can cast a ballot.

Her triumph in the race for state education superintendent was arguably the primary election’s biggest surprise, thanks in part to the deep red platform she built to win over conservative voters from Murphy to Manteo.

In total, Morrow secured a four percentage point victory, winning by less than 37,000 voters out of more than 873,000 that cast a ballot.

The last time an incumbent cabinet member lost a seat during the primary was in 1992 when Harry Payne Jr. defeated John Brooks, a four-term superintendent whose reelection bid came in the aftermath of a chicken plant fire in Hamlet that killed 25 workers.

Truitt was the education advisor for former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who lost in 2016 with Republican majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly. She drew endorsements from former Lt. Gov. Dan Forrest, the unsuccessful GOP gubernatorial candidate in 2020, and “Brunswick County conservative” state Reps. Charlie Miller and Bill Rabon. Brunswick was one of just three counties bordering the ocean that she won.

Morrow noted her 52.3%-47.7% edge from more than 76,000 voters in Wake County, where she lost a race for school board in 2022. She said before Primary Election Day that “schools should be a gateway to America’s bright future. But, certain politicians and their lobbyist friends use our schools like cash registers for kickbacks.”

“As superintendent, I will stand up to greedy politicians and ensure taxpayer funds get to the classroom,” Morrow said.

Truitt, in a social media post Wednesday morning, said North Carolina rebounded from the pandemic faster than “the rest of the nation” thanks to steps she took as superintendent.

“We put phonics-based reading back in classrooms, we prioritized workforce readiness to align the K-12 system with our rapidly changing job market, and we championed and delivered choice for families,” she said.

Morrow, in her campaign, said Truitt opposed policies that parents wanted most: a Bill of Rights that protected their authority, more social workers for students and universal background checks for school staff.

She said under Truitt’s watch that social studies standards began incorporating critical race theory and that districts pushed sex surveys without parents’ consent. She also tripled the Department of Public Instruction staff and gave significant raises, in addition to two bad audits, Morrow said.

Counties near urban areas mostly went for Truitt, such as Gaston and Mecklenburg (Charlotte), Forsyth and Guilford (Triad), Cumberland (Fayetteville) and Pitt (Greenville). She won a lot of rural eastern counties while Morrow seized many rural ones in the foothills and mountains, and was strong on the Interstate 85 corridor.

Morrow, for now, will need to go 2-for-2 beating the campaign financing element. Green had more than $142,000 cash on hand at the February filing, and Morrow just more than $12,000. Truitt’s campaign had more than $230,000, plus her party’s preference of implementing school choice during her watch – and still lost.

In an email to The Center Square, N.C. State University Department of Political Science professor Steven Greene wrote, “Catherine Truitt, a former teacher, has worked to implement a fairly mainstream Republican vision for K-12 public education in this role.

“But, the Republican primary electorate instead chose a candidate with no education experience whatsoever, who homeschools her children, and is all-in on the culture war politics of schools. It symbolizes a Republican Party that values culture war politics and hot-button issues over pragmatic approaches to achieving real policy goals.”

He calls it “one race symbolizing the Trump-ification of the Republican Party.”

David McLennan, Meredith University professor of political science and director of the Meredith Poll, cautions reading too far into the tea leaves for the general election. He says usually less than a quarter of registered voters cast ballots in primaries, and that was the case (24%) Tuesday.

“The Republican Party has become more radical on social issues,” he said in an email to The Center Square. “Morrow represents primary voters’ desire to fight culture wars, particularly in schools.”

He added that although Truitt faced criticism for crossing the aisle on public education issues, Morrow “is decidedly a culture warrior.”

“The same voters that overwhelmingly supported Mark Robinson for the Republican nomination for governor also supported Morrow,” he said.

Dallas Woodhouse, state executive director of American Majority, noted two-thirds of unaffiliated voters – the state’s largest bloc at more than 36%, who can choose which party primary they wish – chose Republican ballots. In 2016 on Donald Trump’s first run for president, it was about 75%.

“Once they are on your side they stick with you,” he wrote in an email to The Center Square. “This trend projected a very good year for GOP in 2016 and Dems in 2008.”

Still, Woodhouse said Council of State incumbents losing in primaries is among the rarest of occurrences in state elections. He noted it took an unfortunate fatal plant fire to knock out the labor commissioner more than 30 years ago.

For Truitt on Tuesday, he said, “That loss is extremely rare.”

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