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With candidate filing in less than 2 months, 2016 North Carolina campaign decisions accelerate


RALEIGH, North Carolina — Moving North Carolina's primaries for hundreds of elected posts up by seven weeks to align with early presidential contests could save counties money, reduce voter confusion and boost overall turnout.

But the late change also could generate more uncertainty about who will run, how they'll raise money, and who will advance to the general election.

The General Assembly agreed before going home two weeks ago to hold all primary elections March 15, including presidential preference voting that Republicans in charge had decided in 2013 to move up to make North Carolina more relevant in the nominations. A $2 billion statewide bond referendum also will be on the ballot.

"I would anticipate with the presidential primary being there, we would expect to see a larger turnout," said Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, a key senator on election matters. The highest recent primary voter turnout in a presidential election year was 37 percent in 2008.

Without changing the law, primary races for governor and other Council of State seats, U.S. Senate, Congress, the legislature, judgeships and county positions would have been held May 3, costing counties at least another $9 million to operate a separate primary. GOP lawmakers had seemed OK with two primary dates until several weeks ago.

The consolidated March primary means incumbents and potential candidates must decide sooner whether they'll run. The filing season begins Dec. 1 and ends Dec. 21 — 10 weeks before the usual late February deadline.

"Obviously everybody's timeline has got to be moved up," said Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, who was expected on Monday to formally announce his bid to challenge Republican Gov. .

Cooper said the primary shift hasn't affected his plans. He's been preparing to run for close to two years now, but pointed to legislative candidates in particular having to accelerate their decision-making.

Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, cited the early primary date in deciding to announce his retirement on the House floor at 4:15 a.m. just moments before the recent session ended: "The new filing schedule means that I should make this decision and let the public know sooner than I would have wished."

Democrat Sarah Crawford of Raleigh, who ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 2014, is weighing a similar bid in 2016. She downplayed the earlier primary date as just one of several considerations in her decision-making.

Even with a May primary, "candidates need to be making up their minds anyway between now and the end of the year," Crawford said.

There will be three weeks more time between the filing deadline and the March election compared to having the primary in May.

Longtime Republican consultant Dee Stewart anticipates the price for 30-second TV ads approaching the March primaries to be at least twice the rate for the May 2012 primaries. Air time will be in high demand as super PACs and presidential candidates buy up spots.

This could benefit incumbents and put challengers at a disadvantage to raise money needed to run credible campaigns. Stewart also expects greater use of mailers and social media more to get his clients' messages out.

"We're going to have to rely more on lower-cost forms of communications, and we're going to have start earlier," he said.

Still, the combined primaries should worry some Republican General Assembly incumbents facing challengers who may get votes from people energized by certain presidential candidates, David McLennan, a Meredith College political science professor.

During debate on the legislation creating the March primaries, Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, warned colleagues about being on the same ballot as those running for president when there's an anti-incumbency mood among the electorate.

Added State Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake: "Over the next five or six months between now and the primary, things might work out differently than you think."

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