Last month’s sudden resignation of a Mecklenburg County lawmaker has boosted Democratic hopes of breaking the Republican grip in the North Carolina General Assembly.
Republican Rep. Charles Jeter’s decision makes it more likely that his district, which twice voted for President Barack Obama, will flip to Democrats.
It would be one of four seats Democrats need to crack the GOP’s “super-majority” in the 120-member House, the number needed to over-ride a gubernatorial veto.
Analysts say Democrats stand a good chance to win those – and more.
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“The advantage for Democrats is striking, and it’s growing,” says John Davis, a Raleigh consultant who follows legislative politics. “So I don’t think there’s any doubt that they have an opportunity this year, particularly if the Democratic-friendly turnout in presidential years follows course.”
A “super-majority” in both the House and the Senate would allow Republican lawmakers to over-ride any vetoes by a governor. The General Assembly over-rode eight vetoes by former Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, including bills on abortion and regulatory changes.
Legislators also over-rode seven vetoes by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. One was a bill that allows magistrates to recuse themselves from performing same-sex marriages.
One reason for Democrats’ optimism is that several contested seats are in the state’s largest urban counties, which are increasingly Democratic. Another reason: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
“In 2016, it’s the presidential contest that cast the largest electoral shadow over North Carolina’s campaigns, principally down-ballot,” says Joe Stewart, executive director of the N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation, which tracks legislative races.
Republicans, who took control of the General Assembly in 2010, currently have a lock on it, with 75 seats in the House and 34 in the 50-member Senate.
Democrats appear to be targeting around a dozen races, according to political operatives and analysts. Republicans, while playing defense on many of those, also see pick-up opportunities of their own.
At the top of the Democrats’ list are as many as eight districts in Mecklenburg and Wake, the state’s largest counties. One Democrat call them “ground zero” in the fight to chip away at GOP control.
Mecklenburg County has added 30,492 voters since August 2008, according to elections data compiled by the Civitas Institute. Of those, Democrats have added more than 10,000 and unaffiliateds, nearly 27,000. Over the same time, there are 8,000 fewer Republicans.
Wake has added 52,695 voters over four years. More than four out of five are independents. Less than 3 percent are Republican.
Jeter’s District 92 stretches south from Huntersville to the South Carolina line. Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 3,000. Unaffiliated voters outnumber them by almost 2,000. It’s the most Democratic district in the state represented by a Republican.
Danae Caulfield, a former Huntersville town commissioner, is expected to take Jeter’s spot on the ballot. She faces Democrat Chaz Beasley, an Ivy League-educated Charlotte lawyer whose campaign has raised over $103,000 and has $75,000 in the bank.
“It’s a seat that Democrats can win,” Beasley says. “(And) I’m going to work really hard to win it.”
Democrats believe they also have a chance to unseat three other Mecklenburg Republicans: Reps. John Bradford in District 98, Rob Bryan in District 88 and even Bill Brawley in District 103.
Bradford, a first-term lawmaker from Cornelius, faces Jane Campbell, an independent backed by Democrats. The suburban district in north Mecklenburg leans Republican. Bradford won the seat in 2015 with 55 percent of the vote against a well-funded Democrat.
The race pits Bradford, a co-sponsor of House Bill 2, the law that among other things prevents local governments from adopting strict anti-discrimination ordinances, against a Campbell, a former Navy officer who is gay. LGBT groups, who invested heavily in last year’s Charlotte city races, could pump resources into the contest.
And voter anger over Interstate 77 toll lanes also could be a factor. Though Bradford tried to block the project, many voters have blamed Republican Gov. Pat McCrory for allowing it to continue.
In southeast Charlotte District 88, Bryan also won 55 percent of the vote in 2014. And in District 103, Brawley cruised to a third term with no fall opposition. Both are Republican districts but Democrats say they could go be pick-ups if it the electoral winds blow their way.
In Wake County, Democrats are looking at seats held by Republicans Gary Pendleton, Marilyn Avila, Chris Malone and even Nelson Dollar, the House budget chairman.
Money will be a factor in almost all the races, both from the parties and outside groups. In 2014, The N.C. League of Conservation Voters, for example, spent over $540,000 trying to unseat three Buncombe County Republicans, two of whom lost their seats.
The Trump factor
Another wild card is Trump.
The New York Times reported Friday that Republican strategists said Trump trails Democrat Hillary Clinton by as much as 10 points in Republican-leaning suburban legislative districts. And Republican Sen. Jeff Tarte of Cornelius told Politico that “Trump’s in serious trouble.”
“I’m in much different shape,” Tarte said. “but it’s closer than it should be. I’m feeling the impact of the top of the ticket.”
Rep. Grier Martin, a Raleigh lawmaker overseeing races for the House Democratic caucus, said Trump, as well as controversial GOP measures such as HB2, signed by McCrory, make him optimistic.
“We see voters are making the connection between Trump and the Republican candidates for the legislature and Gov. McCrory,” he says, adding that Republicans have “created an environment where we can end the Republican super-majority and bring some balance to government.”
Some Republicans, who hope to flip Democrat-held seats in Buncombe County and elsewhere, say they don’t believe any losses will be as bad as Democrats hope.
“I know that Democrats are very optimistic, but I personally feel that there optimism is unwarranted,” says GOP Rep. John Szoka of Fayetteville who oversees campaigns as head of the House GOP Conference.
“I think that when folks cut through the fluff and the misquoted statistics, we’ll return with a majority. And I believe we’ve got a great opportunity to hang onto a super-majority.”