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Races to watch in 2014

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  • Seven races to watch

    Here’s an early look at a few races. Filing for office runs from Feb. 10-28.

    U.S. Senate

    Big picture: In North Carolina’s highest-profile race, national Republicans already have taken sides in a GOP battle that will test tea party muscle. The winner will take on Sen. Kay Hagan, one of the nation’s most vulnerable Democratic incumbents.

    Bottom line: With the help of GOP congressional leaders and Karl Rove, former adviser to President George W. Bush, House Speaker Thom Tillis has built a fundraising edge over four GOP opponents.

    But physician Greg Brannon has enlisted the support of Sen. Rand Paul and hopes to become the favorite of tea party Republicans. Broadcaster Bill Flynn of Forsyth County and Heather Grant, a Wilkes County nurse, also have appealed for tea party support.

    Meanwhile, Charlotte pastor Mark Harris, a leader of last year’s successful fight to pass the so-called marriage amendment, hopes to win conservative and socially conservative Republicans.

    And that’s just the first round.

    Super PACS on both sides already have poured more than $4 million into the race, most against Hagan.

    12th Congressional District

    Big picture: The district, which snakes from Charlotte to Greensboro, will get its first new representative since Democrat Mel Watt first won in 1992.

    Bottom line: So far six Democrats are running in the heavily Democratic – and majority African-American – district.

    Gov. Pat McCrory is expected to schedule a special election shortly after Watt’s resignation takes effect Monday. The timing of the election could affect other races. If the primary – or runoff – are held concurrently with the regular May 6 primary, for example, it could increase minority turnout and impact races such as the sheriff’s contest.

    Mecklenburg County has more than half the district’s population and four candidates running: state Sen. Malcolm Graham, former Charlotte City Council member James Mitchell, school board counsel George Battle III and attorney Curtis Osborne.

    The other two candidates hail from Guilford County. State Reps. Alma Adams of Greensboro and Marcus Brandon of High Point are trying to break Charlotte’s two-decade hold on the seat.

    General Assembly

    Big picture: Democrats could focus their firepower on a relative handful of districts, possibly one in Mecklenburg, to whittle away at Republican super-majorities. Outside groups on both sides are expected to pour in big money.

    Bottom line: Democrats need four seats in the Senate and six in the House to deprive the GOP of its veto-proof majorities. Republicans built those majorities by drawing favorable districts in 2010 and targeting competitive ones in 2012, when they won 13 of 15 “swing” districts.

    One was Mecklenburg’s District 92.

    The district stretches down the Catawba River from Huntersville to Lake Wylie. Though Democrats narrowly outnumber Republicans, Republican Charles Jeter of Huntersville won with 51.4 percent of the vote in 2012. Democrat Robin Bradford, who lost, says she’s considering running again.

    In 2012, Jeter got more than $116,000 from the state GOP. The pro-Republican group Real Jobs NC, backed by conservative financier and now state budget director Art Pope, spent at least $11,000 against Bradford.

    The Tillis seat

    Big picture: One of the county’s highest-profile contests will be for the seat being vacated by House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius.

    Bottom line: The GOP primary pits current and former Cornelius town officials.

    Former Mayor Lynette Rinker was the first in the race. Recently re-elected Commissioner John Bradford jumped in last month. GOP sources say Bradford already has made a six-figure loan to his campaign.

    Though Republicans outnumber Democrats in the north Mecklenburg district, Democrat Natasha Marcus hopes to galvanize anger at GOP legislative policies and give voters “a real choice.”

    Kicking off her campaign in Davidson, the Democratic organizer and former lawyer promised to be “a champion for social policies that are inclusive and respectful for all.”


    Big picture: The county will elect a new sheriff – only its fourth in 32 years – to replace retiring Democrat Chipp Bailey.

    Bottom line: Three candidates already are running: Democrats Irwin Carmichael and Antoine Ensley and Republican Chris Hailey.

    Carmichael is a captain in the department and a black-belt karate instructor who teaches martial arts to deputies and other law enforcement officers.

    Ensley, a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer, is the City of Charlotte’s Human Resource Consultant. He lost to Bailey in the 2010 primary.

    Hailey lost to Bailey in the general election. He’s a former N.C. Highway Patrol officer who currently heads public safety training at Central Piedmont Community College.

    District Attorney

    Big picture: Republican Andrew Murray will try to win-re-election in an increasingly Democratic county.

    Bottom line: In 2010, Murray succeeded Democrat Peter Gilchrist to become Mecklenburg’s first new district attorney in 35 years. He could be in good shape to win again.

    Murray already has raised around $200,000 toward his re-election race and Tuesday has a fundraiser with Lt. Gov. Dan Forest at Myers Park Country Club.

    But other numbers would seem to favor Democrats.

    They already outnumber Republicans in Mecklenburg. And since 2008, the county has seen a net increase of 14,700 Democrats and 26,100 African-American voters and a loss of 13,900 Republicans and 11,800 white voters, according to a new analysis by Democracy North Carolina.

    Even so, Democrats may give Murray a virtual pass.

    “I wouldn’t be surprised if nobody ran against him,” said Charlotte Mayor Pro Tem Michael Barnes, who lost to Murray four years ago.

    County commission

    Big picture: After another year of turmoil on the board, voters could make some mischief of their own.

    Bottom line: With demographic changes in their favor, Democrats will be expected to keep the three at-large seats that largely determine who controls the board. But who fills those seats will be interesting.

    Pat Cotham, ousted as chair by fellow Democrats, could find bi-partisan support in a re-election bid that could end with her once again leading the ticket – and in line for her old job.

    Democrat Trevor Fuller, who ran his first race in 2010, will now be running as the incumbent chairman. At-large incumbent Kim Ratliff also is expected to run.

    Things could get interesting if former county manager Harry Jones runs for an at-large seat. Cotham engineered his firing last year.

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.

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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