North Carolina will be a major battleground in the fight for the U.S. Senate this year, with an election already drawing millions of dollars in outside spending and a Republican primary that will test the strength of the tea party.
With five Republicans hoping to oust incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan, the Senate race is the state’s marquee contest of 2014.
But it’s not the only one.
• Republicans will fight to keep the legislative super-majorities that helped them make dramatic changes last year. Democrats, stuck with districts drawn by the GOP in 2010, will try to whittle away at their numbers.
• Voters in the 12th Congressional District will elect their first new representative in 22 years. They’re likely to face a special election and an overlapping regular election that could leave the seat vacant for months.
• And Mecklenburg County voters will elect a new sheriff and could elect new county commissioners, scrambling the board yet again.
Historically, so-called off-year elections tend to favor the party that doesn’t control the White House. This year Republicans say they’ll have another advantage: the new health care law, still recovering from its botched roll-out.
“The longer it’s in the news the better off Republicans are,” said Dee Stewart, a Republican consultant from Raleigh.
Tom Jensen, director of the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling firm, said he’s seen that in his polling. Since the Republican-led General Assembly ended last summer, Democrats fell from a 9-point lead on the generic ballot to a 2-point lead.
“Voters always pay closer attention to national politics than state politics,” Jensen said. “So the Obamacare issues have made things harder for Democrats at the state level too, and not just for Kay Hagan. …
“When Republicans got control of state government in 2010, it had pretty much nothing to do with anything happening in Raleigh. It was just a reflection of unhappiness with Obama. … In some ways it’s looking like 2010 all over again.”
But Democrats will try to make state races about state issues. They’ll try to harness outrage over GOP policies such as those on voting, unemployment and teacher pay – sentiment galvanized by the “Moral Monday” protests – into energy at the polls.
“There are a number of issues that are firing up Democrats,” said state Sen. Joel Ford of Charlotte. “And you have these outside groups that are continuing to remind North Carolinians of the negative impact of the public policy passed by this current leadership.”
Both sides will have reinforcements.
In 2012, outside spending in N.C. state races topped $14.5 million, according to the Institute for Southern Studies. Groups already have spent $4 million in the U.S. Senate race and are expected to invest in legislative races as well.
The Institute found that 90 percent of the outside spending came from just 10 groups, most of which tilted to Republicans. GOP-leaning groups outspent their Democratic-leaning counterparts 2-1.
Key races – particularly for the U.S. Senate and 12th Congressional District – will be shaped, if not decided, in primaries. That means that millions of dollars may be chasing a small number of voters.
In 2010, the last off-year election, just 14 percent of registered North Carolina voters went to the polls in the primary. Just 7 percent turned out in Mecklenburg County.
Turnout in that summer’s statewide runoff was even worse: 4.5 percent statewide, 2.2 percent in Mecklenburg.
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