Taylor Batten

Competitive elections at last? Not so fast

N.C. Sen. Joel Ford files for reelection last month. He’s in a crowded primary but he or another Democrat is likely to win the seat in November.
N.C. Sen. Joel Ford files for reelection last month. He’s in a crowded primary but he or another Democrat is likely to win the seat in November. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

North Carolina politicos were positively giddy this week over how much competition there will be in this year’s elections for state House and Senate seats. But as hip hop group Public Enemy warned, don’t believe the hype.

Yes, 473 candidates met Wednesday’s deadline to file, perhaps an all-time record. There will be a Democrat and a Republican on the November ballot in 169 of the 170 districts. Compare that with 2016, when 41 House candidates and 13 Senate candidates had zero opposition in the primary or general – nearly a third of legislators winning their seats before a single vote was cast.

“With all these legislative candidates, no one’s getting a free ride,” the headline on the News & Observer’s story said.

Dallas Woodhouse, the state Republican Party’s executive director, said the crowded ballots “will forever put to rest the idea that Republican-drawn legislative maps keep people from running for office.”

Hold the confetti. The engagement is encouraging. But one party still has a huge advantage over the other in the vast majority of districts, thanks in part to continued gerrymandering and in part to how politically segregated our communities are. Scores of candidates will get nearly a free ride. I’ll bet I can correctly name which party will win all 17 Mecklenburg County districts right now, two months before the primary and eight months before the November election.

There are 12 House districts and five Senate districts in Mecklenburg. Eleven of those 17 are Democratic locks, among the most Democratic enclaves in the state. They voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump and Roy Cooper over Pat McCrory by massive margins. House 102, Rep. Becky Carney’s district that covers parts of north and east Charlotte, voted for Clinton 79-16 and for Cooper 80-17.

Three districts are solidly Republican (though in an aberration, one of them, in north Mecklenburg, voted for Cooper by a hair, angry at McCrory over tolls on I-77).

That leaves just three Mecklenburg districts that can be considered remotely competitive. They are House 104, represented by Republican Andy Dulin; House 105, represented by Republican Scott Stone; and Senate 41, represented by Republican Jeff Tarte. The two House districts lean solidly Republican while Tarte’s seat is truly competitive between the parties.

Dulin’s district voted for Clinton 50-44 and for Cooper 50-48. But it voted heavily for other Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, Treasurer Dale Folwell and, tellingly, all appellate judges, of whom voters know little other than their party.

Stone’s district was similar, but splitting almost exactly evenly on Trump-Clinton and McCrory-Cooper.

Tarte’s is the one true swing district. It voted for Clinton 50-45 and for Cooper 53-44, but for Forest 51-46 and for Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr 49-47.

Given the power of incumbency, I’ll predict 11 Democrats and six Republicans winning in November, the same as we’ve had, though results in other states suggest a Democratic wave may be building. Such a result wouldn’t help Cooper break the Republicans’ super-majority that overrides vetoes.

One other thing stands out when you study the numbers: just how unpopular Pat McCrory became with fellow Republicans in his hometown. In House 98 in north Mecklenburg, Forest easily won the lieutenant governor’s race 58-39, yet McCrory lost. In House 104 and 105 and Senate 39 and 41, Forest outperformed McCrory by 14 to 15 percentage points. Quite a nosedive for the seven-term mayor.

It’s heartening that so many candidates are on this year’s legislative ballot. Just don’t expect it to change very much when it’s all said and done.