RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Republican campaign to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Howard Coble in North Carolina's 6th Congressional District grew heated as voters began winnowing the GOP field from nine candidates to one or possibly two.
Accusations made by two candidates and an outside political committee and threats of litigation over TV ads increased tensions in the GOP primary campaign's final days and uncertainty for Tuesday's outcome. Early in-person voting ended Saturday.
Rockingham County District Attorney Phil Berger Jr. seemed to have the inside track for the nomination in the north-central Piedmont district when Coble announced six months ago his 15th term would be his last. Berger wears the tough-on-crime mantle, is the son of powerful state Senate leader Phil Berger and benefits from a super PAC backing him.
But well-funded rivals have laid their own claim as Coble's successor, including Greensboro city councilman Zach Matheny, former international banker Bruce VonCannon and Baptist minister Mark Walker. While all three have lamented the intraparty fighting, VonCannon pushed back with a negative TV ad directed at Berger when the super PAC went after him in a commercial.
"We have not wanted to bloody anyone's nose, but when your own nose has been bloodied, it's obvious to fight back," VonCannon said.
The leading vote-getter must exceed 40 percent to avoid a mid-July runoff. There will be no runoff for Democrats, as only two candidates are running in the primary for the 6th District, comprised of all or portions of 10 counties, six of which run along the Virginia border.
The other Republican candidates are state Transportation Department employee Mike Causey; attorney Kenn Kopf; Guilford County Commissioner Jeff Phillips; cleaning products company founder Charlie Sutherland; and financial adviser Don Webb.
Berger is still considered the GOP primary favorite, said David Holian, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. But a well-funded rival can't be counted out in a midterm election year.
"I wouldn't be surprised if he avoids a runoff," Holian said in an interview, but "a candidate with money who can get a message out can take advantage of the low information election."
In the Democratic primary, Laura Fjeld, a retired University of North Carolina system administrator, has raised the most funds of any 6th District candidate so far at more than $416,000 in contributions and personal loans, federal reports show. She's running against 12-year Guilford County Commissioner Bruce Davis.
The district, made less Republican in the 2011 redistricting, still leans to a GOP candidate based on voter registration and past election results. Low approval ratings for President Barack Obama and the federal health care law would make it difficult for the best-positioned Democrat to win, Holian said.
The pro-Berger super PAC, Keep Conservatives United, has raised more than $150,000 and produced mailers supporting Berger and opposing Matheny, Walker and VonCannon, federal disclosure forms show.
When the super PAC ran a TV ad alleging VonCannon had previous business ties to Chinese textile makers as North Caroilna plants closed, VonCannon fired back at Berger with his own commercial accusing Berger in part of going light on prosecuting a child molester.
The two campaigns said the ads maligning their respective candidates were lies and threatened or prepared to sue. Berger ran a response ad featuring a murder victim's daughter calling Berger "a tough prosecutor" who worked to stop parole for her father's killer.
"My opponents are desperate in the 11th hour of this campaign and they will stop at nothing to impugn my reputation," Berger said in an interview.
Walker, of Summerfield, who got in the race eight months before Coble's decision to retire, said trying to stay above the fray is the path to electoral success. "We chose to stay positive and focus on our message," he said.
The Republican field largely agrees on big issues, such as tax and regulation reform to encourage job creation. They offered varying degrees of passion for dismantling the health care overhaul. Matheny calls himself a "reasonable Republican" more interested in talking about replacing the health care law.
"I'm more of a realist and a solution driver, rather than just saying repeal it," Matheny said.