SOUTHEASTERN, N.C. — In a wide-open race to serve redrawn House District 19, two Republican primary candidates have accused one another of being a “fake Republican” and a political opportunist.
Name-calling and ugly campaigns aren’t unusual. Even inter-party squabbling during primary season is to be expected. “Is it difficult? Yes.” Will Knecht, Chairman of the New Hanover County GOP said of primary disagreements. “But is it the American way? Yes.”
Campaign material and Facebook posts from candidates Charlie Miller and David Perry have focused on who’s the real Republican. Ironically, both men have previous affiliations with other political parties.
People are free to change their minds. Certainly, the GOP — or any party for that matter — doesn’t maintain a rubric that requires one, two, or ten years of political affiliation to count as a viable member. So why are these two fighting? And what is a real Republican, anyway?
Miller v. Perry
Perry threw the first punch. Miller, the apparent front-runner, has more public service experience with 26 years with the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office and four terms on the Brunswick County Board of Education. In his first campaign mailer, Miller’s committee delivered material featuring a photo of him with President Donald Trump, with the slogan, “vote to support the Trump agenda.”
On Facebook, Perry said the Chief Deputy was pandering. “There is absolutely NOTHING that either of us can do from the NC General Assembly to support President Trump’s agenda,” he wrote.
From there, things escalated. Miller fought back with mailers that quoted Perry’s post and labeled him a “fake Republican.” A provoked Perry has not let up since, questioning his high school education-level and whether Miller is a ‘liar.’ With donations from Tim Moore’s campaign and Miller’s former employer, Duke Energy, Perry has said his opponent is part of the establishment, recruited to be a “yes man.”
Reached by phone, Perry said the “fake Republican” label crossed a line because it implies he lacks integrity. Asked whether referring to Miller as a “swamp creature” in a post asking voters to “drain the swamp” also crossed a line, Perry said ‘probably.’ Still, he stands by his posts but said the banter is regrettable.
“I wish it never happened,” he said. “I wish we could talk about the issues. But unfortunately, Mr. Miller has been light on substance.”
Rs, Ds, and Ls
The Miller campaign has spent $19,200 on three sets of mailers this quarter, according to his committee’s North Carolina State Board of Elections finance report. In all, Miller’s campaign has raised $24,300 in the first quarter compared to Perry’s $6,760 — $2,486 of which Perry donated to his own campaign.
In 2005, Miller switched from Democrat to Republican, from Republican to Democrat in September 2008, and back to Republican in November 2009, according to the Brunswick County Board of Elections. The timeline coincides with Sheriff John Ingram’s political path to his role. Ingram was first appointed as Sheriff to fill a vacancy from former Sheriff Ron Hewett’s arrest in May 2008. Ahead of the November 2009 election, Sheriff Ingram announced he was changing parties from Democrat to Republican. This didn’t settle well with area Democrats, as Ingram had reportedly said he would “die a Democrat.”
In North Carolina, county sheriffs and registers of deeds can require the political loyalty of their employees. In Young v. Bailey, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favor of a sheriff who fired his deputy sheriff for not donating to his campaign.
Perry posted about Miller’s past voter registration history in a “timeline of a truly fake Republican.”
“If that’s not political opportunism, then I don’t know what is — or career opportunism,” Perry said in an interview. Miller could not be reached for an interview.
According to New Hanover County Board of Elections records, Perry first registered as an unaffiliated voter after moving to the area in 2012 and switched to the Libertarian party in 2016. He describes himself as a lifelong Republican who worked on Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, but eventually grew tired of “big government Republicans” who have dominated the party since.
In 2018, he ran an unsuccessful bid as a Libertarian in House District 17, which has since been redrawn. House District 19 includes nearly all of the former southern House District 17 in New Hanover County and now, coastal Brunswick County. Because of a court-ordered redistricting, House District 19 has no incumbent.
By April 2019, Perry announced in a Facebook video he was switching parties after New York passed the Reproductive Health Act, which de-criminalized abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy, permitting them under certain conditions.
He firmly denies the switch had anything to do with political opportunism. However, he acknowledges it was politically convenient. “Am I more electable? I’ll admit that.”
Perry still leans Libertarian, with concepts like cutting funding for “useless and ineffective state bureaucratic agencies” like the Department of Transportation” in favor of a county-controlled system. “Most of the time, government is not the solution to our problems,” he said. “Government is the problem.”
Pro-life, pro-gun rights, pro-Trump — for most Republicans these issues aren’t up for debate. For New Hanover County GOP Chairman Knecht, the issues that divide these candidates are minor.
“You’re talking about two guys that agree on probably 98% of things,” he said. “The debate is on the fringe. It’s this little bit they might disagree on. It’s on just the outer edges — I mean the extreme outer edges.”
Brunswick County GOP Chairman Richard Leary said the strongest candidates embody traditional Republican values, including fiscal conservatism, lower taxes, fiscal responsibility, free-market capitalism, a concern for illegal immigration, and letting people keep more of their money.
Lately, he said the party is attracting more unaffiliated and traditionally moderate voters as Democratic party moves further left. “Our registration continues to grow,” he said.
County parties do not endorse candidates during partisan primaries, leaving it to the candidates to duke it out. ” Knecht explained, “It’s what they’re forced to do in a primary. How do I create a difference? How do I show that I’m the person to vote for?”
Both candidates are “diametrically different” from Marcia Morgan, he said, the Democratic frontrunner in House District 19. Morgan lost to incumbent Ted Davis in the 2018 House District 17 race by just a 2.4% margin.
The real choice, Knecht said, isn’t Perry or Davis, it’s between “conservative or socialism” (Morgan’s campaign does not identify as socialist).
Compared to Brunswick County, which is led by all Republican Commissioners, New Hanover County can be purple. Southern New Hanover precincts sided with Davis, but precincts near downtown Wilmington picked Morgan.
“At the end of the day if we injure each other so badly that we end up walking wounded into the general election and end up losing the war, we have injured ourselves,” Knecht said.
Chairman Leary said RINOs (Republican In Name Only) to him are simply registered Republicans who lean liberal. The real concern, Leary said, are people who take on a political identity as a strategy to manipulate the system.
Leary cited the 2018 state supreme court race, when the longtime Democratic attorney Chris Anglin switched parties three weeks before filing. The General Assembly tried to intervene by banning his party from appearing on the ballot, but Anglin successfully fought the legislation in court. With the primary canceled, Anglin split the vote between Republicans, enough to give challenger Anita Earls a winning edge.
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