On a brisk Halloween morning, state Rep. Martha Alexander marched door to door in the Ashbrook neighborhood off Park Road, armed with a list of Democratic and independent voters.
For her, its a grassroots strategy thats tried and true.
But this isnt like any previous campaign for the 10-term Charlotte lawmaker. Her race has become a magnet for money not only from the Republican Party, but from outside groups including Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group working to influence N.C. elections.
Alexander, 73, is running in N.C. House District 88 against Rob Bryan, a lawyer and former Mecklenburg County Republican chairman. The district, which runs south from Dilworth and Myers Park to I-485, was dramatically redrawn by Republicans in the General Assembly last year.
Now, its one of Mecklenburgs two contested House races and one of about a dozen in the state that Republicans are targeting and bankrolling in hopes of increasing their House majority. They need four seats for a veto-proof super-majority.
The other contested race is in District 92, which runs from Huntersville to Lake Wylie. There, Democrat Robin Bradford faces Republican Charles Jeter in a district evenly balanced between the parties.
The two Mecklenburg districts are very important to me personally, says N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Cornelius Republican. Theyre an important part of getting us to that super-majority.
A super-majority would have allowed House Republicans to override vetoes of measures such as a voter ID bill by Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue. Even with the prospect of a Republican governor in Pat McCrory, it would smooth passage of GOP tax reform and pro-business regulatory changes.
Republicans are investing heavily in both districts, as are some outside groups. And they like their odds, particularly in Alexanders district.
The NC Free Enterprise Foundation, a pro-business group that tracks N.C. politics, calls Alexander the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent seeking re-election.
In her old district, Democrats outnumbered Republicans 2-1. Six precincts had African American majorities, traditionally stalwart Democratic voters.
In the new district those six precincts are gone. Registered Democrats barely outnumber Republicans.
And Bryan has a lopsided financial advantage. He has raised more than $287,000 to Alexanders $35,000.
Nearly $114,000 has come from individuals. Political action committees, many representing other Republican lawmakers, gave him another $50,000 and the state GOP contributed nearly $120,000, mainly in the form of mailers that attack Alexanders voting record.
The Republican Party raised $7.2 million to the Democrats $4 million. As it did when Democrats had control of the legislature, money flows to power. Tillis has raised $1.5 million and given his party $730,000.
On top of the party money, Americans for Prosperity, a group founded by the conservative Koch brothers and tied to the Tea Party, has spent at least $7,300 on his behalf. An N.C. Chamber group kicked in at least $5,700.
They want this seat and this is the one theyve targeted, Alexander says.
A group called Support NC is making calls and sending texts on Alexanders behalf, although a spokesman declined to say how much its spending.
Alexander and Bryan have said education is a big issue for each of them, though Bryan would favor more of what he calls educational freedom, including voucher-like programs for low-income students. He generally favors smaller state government and less regulation.
Bryan, 41, makes the case that he would be more effective in a GOP-dominated legislature.
If your district rep is actually close to House leadership, he says, youve got a voice with the party driving the agenda.
Outsiders in District 92
District 92 is a new district that virtually spans the western length of Mecklenburg County, hugging the Catawba River to the South Carolina line.
Jeter, 39, is a Huntersville town commissioner who prides himself on working across the aisle. Like Bryan, he also has benefited from outside funding.
He raised about $25,000 from individuals but has gotten $116,000 worth of help from the state Republican Party.
The conservative group Real Jobs, backed by the Republican Governors Association and conservative donor Art Pope of Raleigh, has raised $850,000 to pay for ads. Its spent at least $11,000 against Bradford.
Both parties understand that this is a close election seat, Jeter says. In Mecklenburg when we have 12 House seats and only two are being contested, youre going to get a lot of money thrown in those races.
Bradford, 49, says shes raised about $15,000.
Im doing a purely grassroots campaign, she says. People appreciate that a lot more, especially in this economy.
Bob Hall, director of Democracy North Carolina, a group that advocates campaign finance reform, says even small House district races are increasingly expensive.
The whole process is getting turned into a money auction where having access to money is turning into the most important issue in deciding who wins, he says. It was bad before. Its much worse now.
Alexander plans to continue running her own grassroots campaign. She takes heart in Barack Obamas 2008 performance, when he swept Mecklenburg County and narrowly carried her current district.
I can win this race or I wouldnt be in it, she says.