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Durham Primary 2020: Live coverage


Natalie Murdock’s primary night watch party ended in gleeful dancing and cheering, music carrying onto the sidewalk outside Beyu Caffe in downtown Durham.  

At 10:45 p.m., Murdock took center stage to declare victory as the likely next state senator for North Carolina District 20. The excited crowd, filled with the Democrat’s family, friends and supporters, whooped and chanted. 

“I think it’s a testament to me working in the community for so many years, it’s a testament to my hardworking team, and it’s a testament to the women’s vote,” said Murdock, a Durham Soil and Water District supervisor.

Murdock held the watch party with Durham Public Schools Board of Education candidate Jovonia Lewis, who ran unopposed in her district. Their collaboration was symbolic of Murdock’s efforts during her campaign to uplift other women running for office in North Carolina. 

Natalie Murdock gives a victory speech during her watch party on Super Tuesday. Photo by Rebecca Schneid

In her victory speech, she highlighted the struggles of black women in Durham County, specifically around health care and homelessness.

“This evening shows the power of black women,” Murdock said. “Black girl magic is a very real phenomenon… Who better than us to go into government and say ‘we need this representation and we deserve it?’” 

Her mother, Christine Murdock, told 9th Street Journal she saw tonight as the culmination of her daughter’s long-time interest in government and hope for change-making.

“I know she just wants to help the people of Durham — that’s her goal,” she said. “I’ve seen this coming years ago, since she ran for president of the student body in fourth grade. It’s in her blood.”

Murdock publicly recognized that a significant portion of the district voted for Pierce Freelon, who came in second. 

Durham County’s voter turnout was up nearly 2% from the 2016 primary election. Just under 90,000 people voted, which is about 39% of those eligible. According to a 9th Street Journal analysis, part of that gain may have involved one-stop early voting, which saw nearly 12,000 more participants this year.

Murdock said she is prepared to win over Freelon’s voters. 

“I think it’s very important that I represent the entire district, not just the people that voted for me, so I will try to reach out to all individuals,” Murdock said.

Murdock emphasized her commitment to Democrats flipping the state senate, and thanked organizations like Emily’s List, a PAC that helps Democratic women get elected to office. 

“From here on out, I am determined to take that Senate by at least one seat, so that we can actually fund Medicaid, so that we can actually fund education, so that we can actually do something with our roads and bridges,” she said.

The crowd clearly felt her energy, exploding into cheers and chanting as she finished her speech: “We are going to take that Senate!” — Rebecca Schneid

9th Street reporter Jake Sheridan contributed to this post.

County Commissioner Heidi Carter speaks to supporters after winning one of five Democratic primary spots. Photo by Victoria Eavis


After it was clear Heidi Carter very likely secured another term as a county commissioner, she stood off to the side, arm in arm with her husband.

Looking exhausted, she had just given a victory speech at the People’s Alliance election night gathering at Motorco Music Hall.

Despite a recent letter from county manager Wendell Davis accusing her of harboring inherent bias towards people of color, she secured a nomination for the Durham County Board of Commissioners. 

To win, Democratic candidates needed to be a top-five vote getter out of a field of 15 candidates. Carter finished third with 12.85% of the vote.

That win all but guarantees her another term because Durham voters lean Democratic by wide margins.

“My passionate advocacy for our school children has not waned at all. My desire to make sure we have more widespread prosperity in durham continues to drive my actions,” she said earlier on Tuesday, before she knew the fate of her campaign.  

The turbulence started about two weeks ago, after Davis’ letter went public. “Since 2016, you have demonstrated a consistent pattern of disparate treatment towards me and employees of color,” Davis wrote in his letter. “Bigotry is cloaked in the most liberal of circumstances,” Davis he closed.

Carter “unequivocally” denied that her actions are racially motivated or biased. 

Davis’ criticism and Carter’s response ignited passionate criticism and support for the commissioner. 

Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson reaffirmed her support for Carter, along with the People’s Alliance. City council member Javiera Caballero endorsed Carter Monday.

The county manager could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. Commissioners announced plans this week to start an independent investigation into his accusations against Carter. — Victoria Eavis.


Pierce Freelon reveled in the atmosphere of his election night watch party at NorthStar Church of the Arts.  

“My mom is here. I’m in the house my father built. My best friends are playing,” he said, pointing to the front of the church, where a jazz band had taken over the altar. “It feels like home. There’s a good vibe.”

Freelon’s State Senate District 20 campaign slowly fizzled out as the votes rolled in — but the band kept playing. Natalie Murdock won with 45.2% of the vote, and Freelon came in second with 37.1%. Gray Ellis placed third with 17.7%. 

Murdock kept the lead all night, though Freelon made small gains. Attendees of the watch party-turned-jazz-concert didn’t seem to notice when the projector switched from an anime fight scene to election results. 

When the results first showed up around 8:15, Murdock had 2400 votes on Freelon. As that window narrowed by a couple of hundred, some supporters clapped and bobbed their heads. It could’ve been the music or the votes. 

Pierce Freelon checks election results with his wife, Katye Proctor Freelon. Photo by Corey Pilson

Freelon was dancing on stage when the next update — and incremental gain — came. Then he took the mic. 

“Bull City! How’s everyone doing today?” Freelon shouted over the music. “I know that whatever happens tonight, we’re going to do great. We’re going to do good. We’re building a foundation.”

As Murdock’s lead widened, the three dozen supporters at NorthStar left. Freelon ran back and forth from the back of the sanctuary to the computer up front, refreshing it every few minutes.

“I’m mostly just feeling disappointment at the results so far, but also a genuine sense of gratitude for the campaign we ran,” Freelon told 9th Street Journal. He added that he didn’t plan to concede until all precincts reported. 

“Durham is an incredibly unique city. It’s resilient. It’s creative. It’s dynamic. And I think our campaign is all of those things also,” said Freelon. “I hope, if nothing else, it was a reflection of this city, and that the people who have helped mold me are proud of the job we did and are ready for what’s next.” 

And what is next? 

“Sleep, in the immediate future,” said Freelon, laughing. “I’ll start there and see where we go.” 

 He walked out of the church while the band kept playing. — Jake Sheridan

Gray Ellis talks with supporters at his watch-the-vote gathering at Bull McCabe’s Irish Pub Tuesday. Photo by Corey Pilson


When around 70% of precincts had reported and state Senate candidate Gray Ellis was still polling in last place, his supporters started trickling out of Bull McCabe’s Irish Pub.

First they hugged Ellis and took photos with him. “It was an honor and a pleasure. I’m proud of you Goddammit!” one woman yelled on her way to the door.

Ellis, a local lawyer, political newcomer and transgender man, finished last with 17% of the vote on primary night. 

The Democrat said he was proud of that outcome given that he was in the campaign for only eight weeks without the endorsements from major local political action committees.

“It’s great that folks in Durham showed how accepting they can be. Hopefully I have played a part in opening more hearts and minds to acceptance of folks who feel they have no opportunities or voice,” Ellis said. 

Ellis’ drive to win a primary and take a seat previously occupied by former state Sen. Floyd McKissick was clear in campaign finance reports. His campaign committee spent $71,024.19, with political consulting the largest single expense, according to Board of Elections data.

Most of the money came from Ellis himself, the candidate said Tuesday night. 

As of Feb. 11, the campaign raised $7,369.33, board records show. Matthew Lewis, the  campaign finance manager, said donations reached about $14,000 by primary day. 

As of Feb. 14, Natalie Murdock raised $29,024.00 and spent $19,775.81. Numbers were not available for Pierce Freelon. 

As Ellis’ election results watch party waned, cheers and chatter from  neighboring Bernie Sanders supporters took over. 

“I’m proud of running a campaign that showed who I really was,” Ellis said as the night and his campaign ended. — Victoria Eavis


Three out of four incumbent Durham County commissioners — Wendy Jackson, Heidi Carter and Brenda Howerton — won Tuesday’s Democratic primary vote. So did two newcomers, Nimasheena Burns and Nida Allam, with 56 of 57 precincts reporting. Incumbent James Hill finished second to last in the 15-person race.


With 25 of 40 precincts reporting, Democrat Natalie Murdock is maintaining her lead in the race for a state Senate seat.


Natalie Murdock, the early front-runner in the Democratic state Senate primary race, checks preliminary vote counts with supporter Antonio Jones at Beyu Caffe. Photo by Corey Pilson


Earliest results from the Board of Elections include just absentee votes. It’s impossible to know if what we see here will hold.

But this early, the race for the Democratic nomination for state Senate District 20 is between Natalie Murdock and Pierce Freelon.


At least 17.7% of registered voters in Durham County didn’t wait until Super Tuesday to vote. 

A total of 40,614 people cast their ballots via one-stop, or in-person early voting. Even though that figure doesn’t include mail-in votes, it’s well past the 13.6% of registered voters who voted early in the 2016 primary election. 

9th Street Journal crunched a voter history report to get an idea of how early voting trends are changing. 

Two populations — all early voters in 2016 (one-stop, curbside and mail-in) and one-stop early voters in 2020 — seem similar in race and gender. 

The proportion of unaffiliated voters, however, jumped from about 15% in 2016 to about 27% in 2020. In North Carolina, unaffiliated voters can choose which primary they participate in.

The proportion of Republican voters decreased from about 17% to 5%. The proportion of Democrat voters barely declined — 68% to 67% — but over 7,700 more Democrats voted early this year. 

Over 46% of the early vote came in the last three days of the early vote period. Durham County’s eight one-stop voting sites saw a major uptick during this time. The analysis doesn’t include absentee ballots. 

One reason early voting might be up: There was more time to vote. Early voting lasted 10 days during the 2016 primary and 17 days this time around.  — Jake Sheridan

Campaign signs have been everywhere for weeks in Durham, including outside Southwest Regional Library in Durham. Photo by Corey Pilson

Editor’s note: Yes, Durham voters are tuned into presidential politics this Super Tuesday. They are also making decisions with immediate local impact.

Whoever wins one Democratic primary vote will very likely be Durham’s next District 20 state senator. Three candidates Natalie Murdock, Pierce Freelon and Gray Ellis are competing to be the fresh face who succeeds longtime state Sen. Floyd McKissick in Raleigh. 

Voters will also decide whether County Commissioner Heidi Carter will have a spot on November’s ballot, allowing her to run for re-election. Durham County Manger Wendell Davis recently accused Carter of being biased against him and all people of color, igniting passionate criticism and support for the commissioner.

Follow 9th Street’s live coverage of this and more as it unfolds, right here …