- Associated Press - Saturday, March 12, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - In-family squabbles sometimes can be more intense and ugly than fights with strangers.

This holds true again this year in some North Carolina General Assembly primary races, particularly for House Republicans facing challengers who believe the incumbents from their own party aren’t true conservatives. Representatives who’ve defied the chamber’s leadership are fighting to keep their seats, too.

House and Senate seats open in 2017 due to pending retirements also attracted more candidates for Tuesday’s primary. And special interest groups and individuals are injecting money into races to try to influence outcomes. The North Carolina Chamber has spent at least $260,000 in independent expenditures backing candidates, according to campaign reports. A political committee associated with the N.C. Association of Realtors has spent more than $400,000.

Heavy spending and vitriol are front and center in southwestern Wake County, where veteran GOP Rep. Nelson Dollar, senior co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, is being challenged by home inspection company owner Mark Villee.

Dollar has been criticized for pushing a 2015 chamber budget that spent hundreds of millions of dollars beyond what hardline conservatives wanted. He’s also backed the solar energy industry and retaining a renewable energy mandate for electric utilities.

“Mr. Dollar is not the conservative he claims to be,” Villee said, adding his recent voting record shows “he’s more a Democrat than a Republican.”

While Dollar’s campaign is outraising Villee handily, a group called StopNelsonDollar.com has raised $90,000 and sent mailers attacking Dollar. The group lists two donors to-date - conservative businessman Bob Luddy and a new entity called Factum LLC.

Group mailers accuse Dollar of helping his wife, Lorrie, get a court system job after a personnel shake-up at the Department of Public Safety. Dollar said the accusations are “total lies,” and his wife, a veteran state government manager, “would never need my help” to get a position.

Dollar has labeled Villee a puppet of special interests. Dollar, meanwhile, has been the subject of glowing mailers from associations representing the state’s hospitals, home builders and state employees.

“The folks who are concerned about jobs and who are concerned about making sure that we strong, conservative, business-oriented government want to support my campaign,” Dollar said.

Former Harnett County school board chairman Chuck Levorse is challenging Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, a top lieutenant of Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland. Lewis has gained enemies since becoming the House Rules Committee chairman. He also was the subject of an unsuccessful effort by state activists to remove him as a Republican National Committee member.

Lewis said Levorse’s candidacy is “the collusion of people that have opposed me politically for years joining together with a handful of disgruntled elected members of the General Assembly who see this as an attempt to weaken Speaker Moore.”

Levorse, who has been promoted by a conservative PAC, said Lewis talks about laws he helped pass that cut taxes but now also charge sales taxes on automobile repairs and appliance installments.

“Lowering taxes and replacing them with other taxes,” Levorse said, is “just a gimmick to a lot of people.”

Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus, has a primary against Concord lawyer Michael Fischer. A group called Cabarrus Jobs Now has spent more than $90,000 on TV ads and mailers opposing Pittman and supporting Fischer.

Pittman is associated with North Carolina House Conservatives, comprised of many legislators who’ve expressed unhappiness with the chamber’s leadership. The group’s leading spokesman is Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, who ran unsuccessfully for speaker in late 2014 and last fall accused Moore of resorting to “the old style of dirty politics” and consolidating power with his friends.

A local political organization recruited Lane Burris, a former textile industry and sheriff’s office worker, to challenge Burr.

Burr said the emergence of a new Raleigh-based group called the Conservative Future Fund sending mailers attacking him raises suspicions that establishment Republicans are out to get him. A mailer quotes Moore previously criticizing Burr as “ineffective and irrelevant.”

“When you speak out, you put a target on your back,” Burr said.

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