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Republicans are stepping up their support for independent state House hopeful Ken Fontenot as he inches closer to a November showdown one signature at a time.
The North Carolina Republican Party distributed a mailer to 6,000 Wilson County homes this week and state Rep. Susan Martin, R-Wilson, has recorded a robocall urging voters to sign Fontenot’s ballot access petition.
“A lot of people are aware of what’s going on, but the mailers are very good because it brings the opportunity directly to their door,” Fontenot said.
As an unaffiliated candidate, Fontenot must gather about 2,200 signatures — representing 4 percent of registered Wilson County voters — in order to be listed as a challenger to eight-term state Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, a Wilson Democrat. There is no Republican candidate in the race.
Fontenot said his campaign had collected nearly 1,400 signatures as of Friday afternoon. He believes the mailers, which he said were approved by the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement prior to distribution, will help close the 800-signature gap before the May 8 deadline to submit the petition.
“This is definitely going to be a game-changer and push us over the top,” he said.
N.C. GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said state party officials are backing the Wilson County Republican Party in its effort to boost Fontenot’s campaign.
“This is not something we normally take part in,” Woodhouse told The Wilson Times in an email. “However the uniqueness of Mr. Kenneth Fontenot’s candidacy, plus the desire to assist Wilson County in securing the public debate so deserved in Wilson County, demanded action on our part.”
A man and woman in voting booths adorn the cover of the three-panel mailer, which bears the message: “We deserve a choice at the ballot box. We deserve a voice for Wilson County.”
Each mailer includes a perforated, detachable form with space for up to two registered voters to sign Fontenot’s unaffiliated candidate nomination petition. The reverse side of the form is printed with a prepaid business reply mail label addressed to the North Carolina Republican Party.
Woodhouse said the petition forms were sent to “voters of all and no political party” and emphasized that signing the petition would place Fontenot’s name on the ballot but does not obligate people who sign it to vote for him.
“We believe voters of all political affiliations, even if they intend to vote for the incumbent, will like the idea of having competition on the ballot,” Woodhouse said. “If the incumbent is the best choice for Wilson County, her supporters should have no fear of an open, honest, transparent and competitive debate in the marketplace of ideas. For the good of Wilson County, they should sign the petition.”
Martin’s robocall echoes that theme and encourages county residents to sign the petition regardless of how they plan to vote.
“I want to make sure you have a choice on the ballot this November for the state House,” Martin says in the recorded phone message. “Right now only one candidate will be on the ballot. We need your help to change that. I am supporting Ken Fontenot’s efforts to get on the ballot as an unaffiliated candidate. To do that, we need you to sign a petition that is being sent to you. I have already signed the petition and am asking all registered voters to please sign and allow Wilson County citizens to have a choice.”
Martin states in the recording that the North Carolina Republican Party paid for the call.
The mailer touts Fontenot’s experience as a Marine Corps veteran, Baptist pastor and teacher and states that he is “committed to our conservative values.”
While many of Fontenot’s positions may align with the Republican platform, Woodhouse said voters should also note the candidate’s choice to eschew party labels.
“Mr. Kenneth Fontenot is not a member of the Republican Party,” Woodhouse said. “He is his own man with his own ideas. However, he is a independent voice that many of our Republicans wanted the opportunity to support. So we decided to assist in the effort.”
Fontenot said being unaffiliated allows him to define himself instead of being pigeonholed as a partisan.
“The two-party system has always had some drawbacks,” he said. “One of the things I’ve enjoyed about being independent is that people will actually ask me what I think about the issues, which is refreshing.”
Democrats accounted for 29,606 of Wilson County’s registered voters in the 2016 presidential election, with 13,766 Republicans, 12,175 unaffiliated voters and 130 Libertarians on the voter rolls.
Under election maps taking effect this November following the 2017 court-ordered redistricting process, House District 24 will encompass all of Wilson County. Martin, a Republican wrapping up her third term representing District 8, will retire at year’s end when her home is drawn out of her district.
Republicans say they’ve embraced the philosophy of voter choice. When the state elections board voted to recognize the Green Party and extend North Carolina ballot access to its candidates, the N.C. GOP issued a news release congratulating the party and welcoming it to state politics.
“We also wanted to support our Republican legislators’ efforts to expand choice and competition on the ballot,” Woodhouse said. “The General Assembly recently greatly reduced the signature requirements for unaffiliated and third-party candidates to access the ballot. Just this week the Green Party became a fully recognized party that can field candidates this fall.”