North Carolina GOP Chairman Pope won't seek re-election; Collins quickly builds support



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RALEIGH, North Carolina — The North Carolina Republican Party chairman announced Monday he won't seek another two years on the job when his term expires in June. Within hours, a potential successor with the backing of the party's establishment surfaced.

Claude Pope Jr., a former Wake County GOP chairman now living at the coast, didn't give a specific reason for his departure after one term in a statement. But he mentioned wanting to return to his business interests — he operates a grocery on Bald Head Island — and spending more time at home after lots of traveling since early 2013.

"It would be a fantastic time to be the chairman of the party for the next two years," Pope said in an interview, but felt like his work as a "citizen activist" should be limited. Pope said he would continue to hold party fundraisers and help his ultimate successor.

Regional party leader Craig Collins of Gastonia disclosed by midday he would run for chairman at the party convention June 5-7 in Raleigh.

Collins said he'd already received the endorsement of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who had essentially hand-picked Pope for the post two years ago. McCrory confirmed support for Collins later Monday, saying in a prepared statement that Collins meets the test of someone "who can build on Chairman Pope's successes, expand the party and lead the party to new heights."

"I am confident that if elected, he will be an outstanding NCGOP chairman," McCrory said.

A spokesman for Richard Burr and Thom Tillis also said the state's two GOP U.S. senators support Collins. State Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, endorses Collins too, Berger's campaign spokesman said. House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, gave his endorsement Monday night in a brief interview.

Collins, an attorney, is currently chairman of the Republican's 10th Congressional District committee. If elected, Collins said he would "raise a tremendous amount of money for the party and I'll put together the best possible team to get in the trenches and build a powerhouse grassroots organization."

Whoever succeeds Pope gets a state party that may be at its healthiest ever both politically and financially.

Pope said he was pleased most with keeping blocs within the Republican Party united after a contentious U.S. Senate primary last May and for overcoming revenues lost when the legislature eliminated the option for income tax filers to earmark $3 for state parties. Democrats have struggled to make up for their lost check-off money, which totaled $1.5 million in 2012.

The GOP holds both chambers of the General Assembly and the Executive Mansion simultaneously for the first time in 140 years, as well as 10 of the 13 U.S. House seats and both Senate seats, thanks to Tillis' victory over Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan last November. The victories mean North Carolina will have the sixth most delegates among the states at the 2016 Republican National Convention.

"It's always better when you go out on top," Pope said.

Current Vice Chairwoman Carolyn Justice of Hampstead also confirmed Monday she was seeking re-election to her current post. Justice is a former state House member and Pender County commissioner.

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