RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Turnout during the early voting period for Tuesday’s primary election set a new record for midterm election years, with more than half a million ballots already cast. 

When early voting ended Saturday, the NC State Board of Elections said more than 576,000 votes were already cast. Four years ago, about 295,000 voters cast their ballots during early voting.

“I was stunned by half a million early votes coming in for this primary,” said Dr. Michael Bitzer, an expert on state politics at Catawba College. “I think this is all uncharted territory that we’re entering into with this primary election cycle.” 

Dr. Bitzer says it’s too early to know to what extent the increase in turnout is fueled by higher-than-usual interest in the primary and how much is driven by growing interest in voting early. Turnout in midterm primaries in North Carolina averages about 15 percent, according to NCSBE. 

“I suspect that we may be bumping up into the 20 percent mark when all is said and done,” said Bitzer. 

The data from the state shows a nearly even split between Democratic and Republican ballots cast so far, with about 290,000 voting the Democratic ballot and nearly 285,000 voting the Republican ballot. Unaffiliated voters can choose which party’s ballot they want. So far, about 62 percent of unaffiliated voters have chosen the Republican ballot.  

He says that split is likely attributable to there still being a competitive primary on the Republican side for our open U.S. Senate while the Democratic primary was largely resolved last year when all the major competitors to Cheri Beasley dropped out and endorsed her.

Among the Republicans, U.S. Rep. Ted Budd is holding a significant lead in recent polling, including one released by last week by CBS 17, Emerson College and The Hill. That poll showed Budd with support from 43 percent of likely Republican primary voters compared to 16 percent for his next-closest competitor, former Gov. Pat McCrory.

“It’s been looking more and more like Ted Budd was going to win this race. And, in recent weeks, looking at recent polls, it looks like he’s going to win comfortably,” said Mitch Kokai, senior political analyst at the conservative John Locke Foundation. “And, we also see that Club for Growth, which has been pumping a lot of money into that race, has decided to back off a little bit for the primary, which suggests they think he’s going to win comfortably.”

In the races for U.S. House, Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn (NC-11th) is fighting to keep his job as he faces seven other Republicans.

Cawthorn has been at the center of various controversies almost daily in recent weeks.  

On Monday, Newsweek reported that former President Donald Trump issued a last-minute plea to voters to give him a “second chance,” adding that “he made some foolish mistakes.” Cawthorn was recently caught with a loaded gun at the Charlotte airport, the second such time an incident like that has happened.  

 “Will that be enough to sway some reluctant or wary Republican voters to say give Madison Cawthorn a second chance?” asked Bitzer. “This is the real test case for how much the politics of personality can really play in the Congressional Republican ranks.” 

Kokai was skeptical about Trump’s statement having much impact, saying many voters have made up their minds whether they support Cawthorn or not.  

“I’m not sure that President Trump coming in now and saying give him a second chance does much to change the calculus,” he said.  

He added the key question is whether Cawthorn or anyone else wins with enough support to avoid a run-off this summer. To do that, the first-place candidate has to finish with 30 percent plus one vote.  

“There’s still that possibility, especially when you see that there are so many candidates on the ballot,” he said. 

Turnout in Cawthorn’s district has been higher during early voting than any other district in the state. That’s followed by the 4th district in the Triangle, a heavily Democratic district where candidates are vying to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. David Price. The 1st district in the eastern part of the state has seen the third-highest turnout. Democratic U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield is also retiring.