- Associated Press - Friday, February 28, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina’s top judicial leader appeared likely to be Republican for years to come and GOP U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger got a late primary challenge from a tea party supporter as candidate filing ended Friday.

Two more U.S. Senate candidates also filed before the noon deadline, bringing to 12 those seeking to take Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan’s seat from her. Three state parties will hold primaries May 6.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Mark Martin, who announced months ago his plan to run for chief justice, got an unexpected rival from Superior Court Judge Ola Lewis of Brunswick County a couple hours before filing closed. Lewis had said previously she was running to take on Associate Justice Cheri Beasley, who already had received a challenger.

“I courageously seek this opportunity to run for the open seat of chief justice and to compete for it fairly,” Lewis said in a release, adding she was standing figuratively on the shoulders of the first elected black District Court judge from more than 40 years ago, who was a Republican.

Lewis, who is also black, and Martin are both registered Republicans, and no Democrat filed for the chief justice post, which already must be vacated in August by outgoing Chief Justice Sarah Parker when she reaches the mandatory retirement age of 72. Parker, a Democrat, has been chief justice since 2006. Since only two filed for the job, Lewis and Martin advance to the Nov. 4 general election.

Although court races are officially nonpartisan, the court’s political makeup is closely watched. Four of the seven current justices are Republican. A spokeswoman for Lewis’ campaign said Lewis was traveling Friday and unavailable for further questions.

Martin said he’s the best choice to lead the state’s highest court and state court system because of his 15 years as a justice. He says he’s got the endorsements of all five living former chief justices.

“I feel like I’m the most qualified person to lead our court system and confront the challenges that we have in our justice system,” Martin said. “It’s very important that one has served on the Supreme Court to actually lead the Supreme Court.”

Martin also served on the Court of Appeals and as a Superior Court judge. Lewis highlighted 24 years of courtroom and judicial experience, including time as a District Court judge.

Pittenger, in his first term representing the 9th Congressional District, will compete against Michael Steinberg of Matthews in the primary.

Steinberg and Pittenger both ran in an 11-person GOP primary in 2012 in the race to succeed then-Rep. Sue Myrick, also a Republican. Steinberg said Friday he’s running again because he said Pittenger voted to raise the debt ceiling and accuses him of giving up on repealing the federal health overhaul law. Pittenger also is failing to protect constituents against government spying, according to Steinberg, who finished 7th in 2012.

Pittenger campaign spokesman Kevin Wilkinson said Friday that the congressman “is focusing on getting the economy moving, creating jobs, reining in spending and repealing Obamacare.”

Eight Republicans filed for the U.S. Senate primary, including Alex Bradshaw of Icard, who filed Friday morning. So did Democrat Ernest Reeves, Hagan’s second primary challenger. Even the Libertarians will have a rare Senate primary.

In the north-central 6th District, nine Republicans and two Democrats have filed to succeed the retiring U.S. Rep. Howard Coble, who with nearly 30 years on Capitol Hill is the longest-serving North Carolina Republican ever in the House.

The 12th District race to succeed Democratic Rep. Mel Watt has several candidates but is made complicated by Watt’s resignation in January to become director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Gov. Pat McCrory has decided that a special election to serve out Watt’s current two-year term will be held concurrently with the regular election for the seat for 2015-16. Two candidates are running for the full term but not the unexpired term.

Among other statewide and federal races, only Court of Appeals Judge Donna Stroud appears to be running unopposed for re-election.

Voters this year also will pick District Court and Superior Court judges, district attorneys, county commissioners and school board members and all 170 members of the General Assembly.

Unaffiliated and write-in candidates still can attempt to enter races later.

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