SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. – This picture-perfect country town of quaint storefronts and golf courses seems an unlikely setting for a civil war, but it is ground zero of a bitter fight that has torn the state Republican Party in two.
Dueling advertisements and accusations come to a head in Tuesday's primary pitting Richard Morgan (search), co-speaker of the North Carolina House, against Peggy Crutchfield (search), a political novice who enjoys the backing of Morgan's adversaries.
Morgan is the highest ranking Republican in state government, but he has become the No. 1 target of the conservative wing of his own party.
Morgan's opponents accuse him and a handful of allies of selling out their party's fiscal principles to broker a 2003 power-sharing agreement with Democrats that made Morgan co-speaker of the House of Representatives.
In May, the Executive Committee of the state Republican Party adopted a resolution that bars Morgan from holding party titles for five years.
Since January, when Crutchfield, a former local United Way chairwoman, announced her candidacy for the Republican nomination in Morgan's district, anti-Morgan forces have lined up behind her.
Morgan's obsession with building a political fiefdom in Raleigh has caused him to forget his constituents back home, Crutchfield said.
"He has been unaccessible to people in the community," she said during an interview in Southern Pines. "I do realize that you have to work with both sides of the aisle at the North Carolina Legislature, but you don't give up your principles. You don't betray your teammates."
Morgan has a large fundraising advantage over Crutchfield (as of April, about $700,000 vs. less than $100,000) and has been filling the radio airwaves with attacks on her. And he has taken the battle against his GOP foes beyond his own 52nd District, funneling money to challengers trying to oust House GOP incumbents he views as disloyal.
"I look at this as the battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party," Morgan said. "I've written a lot of checks to try to help them win their elections. I'm interested in helping the folks who have helped me."
Crutchfield and Morgan have traded accusations that the other is soft on tax issues, but some say their race turned particularly ugly when Morgan went after Crutchfield's husband.
Ken Crutchfield Sr. received a suspended sentence and probation in 1989 for his no contest plea to a charge that he participated in a plot to profit illegally from a trash-bin deal.
Then-Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat, pardoned him in 1994.
In a radio spot, Morgan alleged Crutchfield was trying to hide her husband's past when she moved from Winston-Salem to Moore County.
"We know Richard Morgan, and we know his conservative record. But do we really know Peggy Crutchfield?" the ad's announcer said.
Crutchfield called the ad "a contemptible, transparent smear."
Morgan said he was just making sure voters know all about his opponent.
"I think the people of Moore County know me and know my record," Morgan said. "My life has been an open book."
The chairwoman of the Moore County Republican Party, who normally would stay neutral in a primary race, has endorsed Crutchfield. Elizabeth Kelly said Morgan "has done nearly irreparable damage to our party."
The fight alienates some voters, even as it intrigues others.
"The race has turned nasty," said Bob Kennedy, a golf ranger at the Pinehurst Resort, after finishing a BLT at Max's Diner in Southern Pines. He doesn't know who he'll vote for, but doesn't blame Morgan for working with Democrats. "I think any leader has got to work with people and make accommodations."
North Carolina's Republicans have a history of intraparty feuds. In the 1970s, backers of U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms and other former conservative Democrats tangled with supporters of Gov. Jim Holshouser.
Back in the 1950s, the battles were within the Democratic Party, as progressive and segregationist Democrats fought for the upper hand.
This particular feud dates to the 1990s, when Morgan, a lieutenant to then-House Speaker Harold Brubaker, butted heads with Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston.
Democrats retook control of the House in 1999, and the Morgan and Daughtry factions have been at odds ever since.
It looked like the GOP retook control of the House after the 2002 elections, as the party held a 61-59 advantage. But Morgan and a handful of other House members refused to endorse Daughtry for speaker. One House member, Rep. Michael Decker, switched parties to spite Daughtry, dividing the chamber at 60.
After a week of intrigue, Morgan and Rep. Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, cut a deal to share the speakership, angering Republicans who believed Morgan betrayed them.
"Richard Morgan has power in the House thanks to the Democrats," said Art Pope, a wealthy ex-House member who is raising money to help anti-Morgan candidates. Morgan retorts that Pope is a "silver-spoon whiner."
Pope and others charge that Morgan has even started behaving like a Democrat, approving state budgets that kept in place two temporary taxes designed to cover a deficit that reached $1.6 billion earlier this decade.
When the House approved new district boundaries last year, opponents said Morgan drew the lines to benefit allies at the expense of his Republican enemies. Some GOP incumbents got lumped into the same new districts, others now face difficult primary challenges.
Rep. Sam Ellis, R-Wake, whose primary opponent is getting advice from Morgan's chief political strategist, charged that in redistricting, Morgan went "out and waged war on his own party."
Ellis said Morgan has held up an Ellis-authored bill to protect rape victims only because Ellis' name is on it and has made the party's internal fight "totally a personal battle," rather than a philosophical one.
"Richard is calling for a purge of the party, and that's the only thing that I have agreed on with him in the past four years," Ellis said.