RALEIGH - The tight campaign to become North Carolina's next lieutenant governor continued Wednesday, with both sides gearing up for a recount battle that could drag on for weeks.
Democrat Linda Coleman sent a fundraising email to supporters asking for money to keep her contest against Republican Dan Forest going for state government's No. 2 executive position.
"We need you your immediate contribution to make sure that every vote is counted," the Coleman email said. "We know the tea party will stop at nothing to win this race and we have to stop them."
Forest, the son of retiring U.S. Rep, Sue Myrick of Charlotte, leaned on his party's tea party and evangelical blocs. Forest's team also geared up for an extended fight Wednesday by reaching out to contributors and hiring an attorney, campaign manager Hal Weatherman said.
Coleman trails Forest by about 11,400 votes out of nearly 4.4 million cast, or about 0.26 percent. That's outside the margin that would entitle the Democrat to ask for a recount if the numbers hold after county elections boards hold an official count late next week. State law states that the difference in a statewide race like this one has to be 10,000 votes or less before a recount is required.
The margin could change because tens of thousands of possible counting errors and provisional ballots and mail-in absentee ballots have yet to be counted by county elections boards, state elections board executive director Gary Bartlett said. If Coleman continued to trail by more than 10,000 votes once the official statewide count is complete, she could try to persuade the elections board a recount is needed because irregularities bring the totals into doubt, Bartlett said.
Lieutenant governors are elected independently from governors and the two offices can be held by members of opposing political parties. The job has limited authority and exists mainly to identify who takes over if something happens to the governor, which has happened five times. The lieutenant governor also presides over the state Senate, sits on the state's community college and school boards, and can be assigned other duties by the governor.
Forest started reaching out to donors again to prepare for a recount fight, noting that hiring attorneys is costly, Weatherman said.
"We're preparing for any legal challenges. We're not going to sit back," Weatherman said. "We're obviously preparing to protect our rights and protect the voting process to make sure that the votes are counted correctly if it goes to a recount."
Forest's campaign reported raising nearly $870,000 as of last week and reported having $45,542 on hand on Oct. 20, the date his quarterly report was tallied. Coleman reported raising $406,386 by this week and her campaign said it had about $135,000 on hand Oct. 20.
Coleman's campaign also has gotten hundreds of thousands of dollars in support from the State Employees Association of North Carolina, the union for 55,000 state workers and retirees. SEANC plans to continue backing Coleman, spokesman Kevin LeCount said.
"We're going to do the maximum support that we can to help make sure that every vote that was cast is properly counted. We certainly know that there are tens of thousands of provisional ballots out there. And we also know that provisional ballots typically trend to a Democratic candidate," he said. "We think that there will be enough that she could overtake the lead."
SEANC and its national parent backed Coleman with nearly $400,000 for advertising to help her win the Democratic Party primary in May. The union reported spending $250,000 for advertising on Coleman's behalf last month and giving another $12,000 to her campaign committee.
While wanting to help Coleman, SEANC must consider how far to go considering that it will have to pursue its interests in a state capital that in January will have the first Republican governor in 20 years and a General Assembly in which the GOP expanded its majorities, said David McLennan, a political scientist at William Peace University in Raleigh.
"Basically, the lieutenant governor has limited power," McLennan noted. "The question is if I were to give money to support a recount, I want to give it only if there is a legitimate chance that it could succeed. Just giving money for a fruitless act is not a very smart move."