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Cape Fear region 2024 primary election results: Brunswick incumbents hold fast, upsets in Pender

A group of voters stand in line at the Leland Cultural Arts Center.
Nikolai Mather
One of the Brunswick County polling locations during the 2024 primaries.

The preliminary election results showed that Brunswick County skewed more moderately conservative, while populist candidates pulled more votes in Pender County than the state average. New Hanover County remained purple — with education a defining issue.

It was almost entirely Republican primaries at the local level across the Cape Fear region — offering a glimpse into what flavor of conservatism is drawing the most voters to the polls.

One surprise, for some, at the Council of State level was Michele Morrow's victory over incumbent Catherine Truitt in the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Morrow, who won by a comfortable 4-point margin, previously lost in a 2022 race for the Wake County school board. At the time, according to WRAL, she pushed conspiracy theories about Covid-19 vaccines and unfounded allegations of fraud in the 2020 election. Morrow has been endorsed by Moms for Liberty, and her supporters have accused Truitt of helping to push 'woke' ideology in the public school system — even though Truitt herself ran on a campaign to do the opposite, posting on X (née Twitter) last week that she would "keep working to get woke politics out of our public schools."

Otherwise, when it came to statewide and federal races, there were few surprises: Josh Stein announced he'd cinched the Democratic nomination for governor early in the evening, followed shortly afterward by Jeff Jackson announcing he would be the Democratic party pick for Attorney General. Mark Robinson, meanwhile, easily defeated challengers Dale Folwell and Bill Graham for the Republican nomination in the gubernatorial race.

Former President Trump took just shy of 74% of the vote, with Nikki Haley taking just over 23% of the vote. President Joe Biden took roughly 87% of the vote — with roughly 13% of unaffiliated and Democratic voters who took part in the Democratic primary voting "no preference," at least in part to protest Biden's support of Israel in its conflict with Hamas.

At around 24% of registered voters, statewide turnout was relatively weaker than in the 2020 presidential primary, which saw over 31% turnout.

Brunswick incumbents hold fast

In Brunswick County, which had only Republican primaries for local races, incumbent candidates largely held fast against challengers.

In the county commissioner race for District Five, which includes Leland and the northeastern part of the county, longtime incumbent Frank Williams defeated Eric Tammaru by a roughly two-to-one ratio,

Tammaru pushed hard against increased development in the county, going as far as suggesting a moratorium on new building. Williams, meanwhile, noted it would be difficult to address the county’s workforce housing shortages without more residential growth.

In District Three, three-term commissioner Pat Sykes easily beat challenger Jwatana Gardner Frink, taking nearly 80% of the vote. During the campaign, Sykes told WHQR she thought the county could "slow down" development and still provide more workforce housing; Frink, meanwhile, said the county had failed to do enough to provide affordable housing.

For school board races, current chairman Steven Barger won a second term, easily defeating challenger Shirley Babson with roughly 64% of the vote. Barger said one of his top priorities was lobbying the state for better teacher pay; Babson, who served for years starting in the 1970s, has more recently lost re-election bids in 2016 and 2020. She told WHQR she returned to politics to help fight "woke" educational policies.

Incumbent David Robinson passed away suddenly in the final weeks of the campaign — and in that race, challenger Catherine Cooke won a three-way race with about 41% of the vote. And in the race to fill the seat of incumbent Ed Lemon, who chose not to run again, newcomer Vickie Smith took nearly 80% of the vote, easily besting Lavar Marlow.

While deeply conservative, Brunswick County saw populist candidates like Trump and Robinson perform less strongly, both landing three to four points below the statewide results. Truit actually won in Brunswick County, edging out Morrow by about one point.

At over 27% voter turnout, Brunswick was ahead of the state average, but still lower the county's 2020 nearly 32% turnout.

Upsets in Pender County

The primary election brought several upsets to Pender County, which featured only Republican primaries for local races.

Two-term incumbent commissioner Jackie Newton came in last, just behind second-place Max Southworth-Beckwith and top vote-getter Ken Smith. Smith, a current school board member, largely declined to speak to the press, including WHQR, during the campaign. He won by nearly 20 points, based on preliminary results.

Incumbent Fred McCoy was defeated by challenger Brent Springer, who took over 60% of the vote. During the campaign, Springer called for more support for the Sheriff’s Office, citing the potential for increased crime as the county continues to grow.

Meanwhile, incumbent chairman Brad George held on to his seat by a comfortable 20-point margin against challenger Joe Cina. A former school board member, George was appointed to the board of commissioners last year after Jimmy Tate’s resignation. George criticized the county for what he called uncontrolled growth, and called to lessen the burden on Pender County taxpayers.

And, in the county’s only primary for the board of education, incumbent Phil Cordeiro lost to challenger Tommy Reeves. Reeves, a hardware store owner, declined interviews with WHQR during the campaign, saying he preferred to spend his time at the polls. He defeated Cordeiro by more than a 2:1 ratio, according to preliminary voting results.

Overall, more populist candidates had an edge in Pender County. Trump and Robinson both beat their statewide performance by five to six points, and Morrow beat Truit by a roughly 16-point margin. At around 21% Pender's turnout was below the state average, as it was in 2020.

New Hanover County school board primaries

The New Hanover County Board of Education has three open seats, as Republican Stephanie Kraybill and Democrat Hugh McManus have both chosen not to run for reelection and Democrat Stephanie Walker is running for a seat on the county's Board of Commissioners.

By a five-point margin, David Perry was the top vote-getter in the Republican primary for the New Hanover County school board, which saw five GOP candidates vying for three spots.

A former Libertarian candidate for state representative, Perry also previously sued the school district over Covid mask mandates, although the suit was eventually dismissed. During his campaign, Perry was critical of student performance, supported firing superintendent Dr. Charles Foust, and suggested changing state law to allow the district to arm teachers to deal with student discipline.

Related: Unpacking our forum for Republican candidates in the 2024 New Hanover County school board primary election

Natosha Tew and Nikki Bascome won the remaining two spots in the GOP primary. The other two candidates, Aubrey Tuell and Dr. Kimberly McDuffie Murphy aren’t currently close enough for a recount.

In the Democratic primary, there were technically four candidates for three spots. However, Cynthia Munoz announced earlier this year she was dropping out — and ended up in last place in the polls by at least 8 points. That leaves top vote-getter Tim Merrick, along with Judy Justice and Jerry Jones, Jr., to advance to the general election.

At around 22%, voter turnout was lower than the state level; in 2020 New Hanover County primary voter turnout was roughly on par with the state average.

Not surprisingly for a purple county with more left-leaning unaffiliated voters, Trump and Robinson ran four or five points below the state average. However, in an indication of the importance of education as a key issue, Morrow ran five points higher in New Hanover County than statewide — performing almost as strongly as she did in Pender County.

What's next

Preliminary voting totals won’t be finalized until the county canvass on Friday, March 15. County boards of election usually meet at 11 a.m. on that day.

Because vote totals can shift as election officials review absentee ballots, voter registration challenges, and other issues, it's possible some candidates could come close enough for a recount. That's allowed when the difference between two candidates is less than 1% of the total votes cast between the two of them.

For example, in the New Hanover County Board of Education, third place Nikki Bascome received 9,207 votes and fourth place Aubrey Tuell received 8,892, a margin of 315 votes.

The 1% margin would be 181 votes — meaning Tuell would have close that gap by 134 votes to get within the recount range.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.