- Associated Press - Saturday, January 2, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The North Carolina primary ballot is usually long in any presidential year because there are also always nominee elections for governor and other Council of State positions, and for Congress and the Legislature. U.S. Senate nominations and a $2 billion bond question also sit on this year’s ballot.

The greatest change about the 2016 primary is the March 15 election date - nearly two months earlier than normal because lawmakers wanted North Carolina to have more influence in the presidential nomination process.

With party candidate filings completed before Christmas, here are some races to watch in the 10-week sprint to the election:

PRESIDENT

The State Board of Elections meets Tuesday to choose slates of presidential candidates for the Democratic, Republican and Libertarian primaries. The parties turned in proposed candidate lists totaling 28 names, although the approved count should be less since some candidates dropped out. A California businessman also appears to have enough signatures to get on the Democratic ballot through the petition process.

GOVERNOR

Gov. Pat McCrory has two challengers in the Republican primary, including former Rep. Robert Brawley of Mooresville. Brawley got in the race on the momentum of unhappiness about new Interstate 77 toll lanes. He’s seeking to expand that energy statewide. Brawley may require McCrory to spend campaign money he wanted to keep for the Nov. 8 general election.

Attorney General Roy Cooper and Durham lawyer Ken Spaulding are the top Democratic primary contenders. Cooper has a fundraising and recognition advantage, but Spaulding has sought traction by aligning Cooper with McCrory and by attracting support from black voters.

U.S. SENATE

Republican Sen. Richard Burr got an unexpected challenge when Greg Brannon decided to run again. The Cary OB-GYN and tea party favorite finished second to Thom Tillis in the May 2014 primary. Brannon had run for more than a year. This time, he’ll have less than three months, but he’s got a ready-made fundraising operation. Burr has been accumulating campaign money and benefits from incumbency advantages. Two other Republicans also filed.

Former state Rep. Deborah Ross of Raleigh and Spring Lake Mayor Chris Rey are the leading Democratic candidates. Ross has strong ties to the party’s liberal wing. Rey has endorsements from local government leaders. Two other Democrats are in the race.

CONGRESS

Rep. Renee Ellmers is again the target of fellow Republicans who believe she left her conservative, tea party roots after first winning in 2010. She’s got three challengers in the 2nd District primary, including 2014 rival Frank Roche.

Taylor Griffin, who almost defeated 3rd District Rep. Walter Jones Jr. in the 2014 primary, entered a rematch. Jones has been a GOP target for clashing with the Republican establishment. A third Republican is running.

Mooresville attorney George Rouco is running against 9th District Rep. Robert Pittenger. Pittenger has said the FBI is investigating his family’s business. He denies any wrongdoing.

COUNCIL OF STATE

With Republican Dan Forest elected lieutenant governor by less than 7,000 votes in 2012, four Democrats have filed to try to beat him, including 2012 nominee Linda Coleman.

With Cooper running for governor, Republicans sense a chance to win the attorney general race. State Sen. Buck Newton of Wilson and Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill are in the GOP primary. State Sen. Josh Stein of Raleigh is the heavy favorite to be the Democratic nominee.

LEGISLATURE

Announced 2016 retirements of veteran legislators increased the primary candidates for those open seats.

Four Republicans have filed to try to succeed 13-term Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus. There are three-way GOP primaries for seats held by departing Rep. James Langdon, R-Johnston, and Sens. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, and Stan Bingham, R-Davidson. Five Democratic or Republican candidates are running to succeed Rep. Paul Tine of Dare County, the General Assembly’s only unaffiliated member.

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