Two years ago, Republicans took control of the statehouse for the first time in 140 years and pushed an agenda that significantly shifted North Carolina to the partisan right.
As voters decide whether to give them a new lease at the General Assembly, this year’s legislative races focus on the Republicans’ record.
GOP candidates are highlighting their efforts to cut government regulations, balance the state budget amid a revenue shortfall and bring more accountability to schools. Democratic candidates say Republicans led the state down an extreme ideological path that produced a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, opened the state to offshore drilling and natural gas fracking, and cut hundreds of classroom teachers.
Given that Republicans crafted new legislative districts to their favor and hold a campaign cash advantage, it’s likely that they will retain control of the state House and Senate. But two dozen competitive legislative races across the state – including a handful in the Triangle – will serve as a referendum on Republican rule.
“It’s part of incumbency,” said state Rep. Tom Murry, a Republican running in a competitive local district. “Anybody can promise the world, but the best judgment of what I will accomplish is what I’ve done.”
The stakes are high. Republican legislative leaders are promising a tax overhaul that could reduce or eliminate personal and corporate income taxes and leave a hole of more than $10 billion in the $20 billion state budget. Other top priorities include tougher immigration laws, fast-tracked energy exploration, expanded school choice and reduced regulations on industry.
The likelihood of Republican Pat McCrory winning the governor’s race, as polls suggest, would give the GOP control of the entire lawmaking process.
Voters “will get a government that will balance the checkbook, see efforts to streamline the work of state government and (trim) regulations,” said Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican.
Democrats are pledging a more moderate approach with a focus on job creation and restoring cuts to education spending. The economic plan Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton has pitched in the governor’s race – including tax credits for businesses that hire unemployed workers – also would get more attention.
“We can either move forward, or as the legislative session did, go far backwards,” said Rep. Rick Glazier, a Fayetteville Democrat.
New political landscape
The legislative landscape looks far different heading into this election. Republicans redrew boundaries for state House, state Senate and congressional races in a way that gives them the chance to expand their majority.
A number of prominent Democrats were forced into the same district as one another, such as former House Speaker Joe Hackney and Rep. Verla Insko of Chapel Hill and Reps. Grier Martin and Deborah Ross in Raleigh. Hackney and Martin decided not to run again.
Combined with other retirements, this year’s election will produce 38 new House members and 13 new senators, one of the largest turnovers in recent years.
Of the 170 legislative seats – 120 in the House and 50 in the Senate – about 40 percent are settled already because the candidates face no serious opposition. Most of the other races favor one party over the other, leaving about a dozen House and a dozen Senate races in the margins.
“There are some competitive districts, but not as many as there used to be,” said Dee Stewart, a GOP strategist. “The Republicans are fortunate in that they have the wind at their backs.”
Republicans control the state Senate 31-19, and political forecasters don’t expect the election to alter the margin much. At best, Democrats are hoping to get two seats to break the GOP supermajority to override gubernatorial vetoes.
“We’re optimistic,” said Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, referencing recent polls. “We are running against an exceptionally unpopular Republican legislature.”
A poll from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling shows half of voters disapprove of the state legislature, with Republicans viewed slightly worse than Democrats.
In the House, Democrats are trying to prevent Republicans from adding five additional seats, which would give the GOP a veto-proof supermajority. If McCrory wins, it may not matter as much. Republicans control the chamber 68-52.
State Rep. Deborah Ross, a leading Democrat, believes her party can win a few open seats. But she is realistic about Democrats’ chances of the nine-seat gain needed to win a majority.
“I don’t pretend there will be a flip, but we will be competitive in a number of races,” she said.
The competitive seats are greatly influenced by the presidential and gubernatorial races. Democrats hope President Barack Obama’s campaign can turn out its voters in huge numbers and help lift a few candidates down the ballot. Republicans suggest McCrory’s popularity in the governor’s race will boost their candidates.
“It will depend on the top of the ticket,” Ross said. “When people split their ticket, it’s a big question about what they are going to do down ballot.”
A financial advantage
In addition to the new maps, Republicans are buoyed by a huge fundraising advantage over Democrats. Now in power, Republicans are getting thousands of dollars of contributions from special interests that lobby the legislature. It’s a reversal from when Democrats held control and the money advantage.
The disparity is most notable in the Senate, where Republicans raised more than three times as much as Democrats through midyear.
The campaign cash is helping to fuel a barrage of colorful TV ads and mailers, particularly in the most contested races.
Outside groups are also pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into House and Senate districts, though the effort is so far smaller than the 2010 elections. A conservative group called Real Jobs, backed in large part by donor Art Pope of Raleigh, spent at least $1.5 million two years ago in 19 districts and helped push Republicans into power. This year, the group has raised $850,000 to pay for attack ads against Democrats.
The N.C. Chamber and Americans for Prosperity also are spending hundreds of thousands to support mostly Republican candidates.
A Democratic group called Common Sense Matters wants to counter the conservative effort but can’t match spending from the other side, campaign reports show.
Nathan Babcock, an N.C. Chamber political strategist, said he expects all outside spending in key legislative races to top $1 million. “What we are hoping to accomplish is a legislature that is more pro-business,” he said.
A debatable record
On the campaign trail, Republicans are touting their accomplishments from two years in power. The stump speeches and advertisements particularly emphasize jobs and education, but not all of them accurately describe the record.
A mailer from the N.C. Chamber sent in multiple legislative districts across the state promotes the Republican candidates’ plan “to create 10,000 jobs.”
It referenced a bill from 2011 to allow offshore drilling and fracking, a controversial process of drilling for natural gas. But it didn’t mention that most of those jobs are projected for 10 to 20 years from now and attributed to an industry-sponsored study that overestimated current offshore oil projections.
In other advertisements focused on education, Republican candidates try to make it appear as if students are doing worse than they are, even while embellishing their own education bona fides. Likewise, Democrats exaggerate the effect of education budget cuts, while forcing the Republican legislature to shoulder responsibility for problems it doesn’t directly control.
Democrats said that the GOP-led legislature cut $1 billion from education. But Democrats cite a projected budget from 2011, not what the legislature has committed to spend over two years. The state budget for K-12 public schools is about $500 million higher this year than it was in 2010. Community colleges and the UNC system are running on less than they had two years ago.
Another frequent Democratic claim said the legislature “fired thousands of teachers,” but the number needs context. State Department of Public Instruction data show the state lost 915 teachers in the last school year and 2,042 teaching assistants.
Thomas Little, a political analyst at UNC Greensboro who studies state politics, said the rhetoric from each party shows the clear choice voters have this election.
“To me, it’s as clear as it’s been in a generation,” he said. “Democrats are the least conservative caucus, and the Republican caucus is the most conservative caucus I can remember.”