Election 2012: N.C. legislature

After two years of GOP rule, voters will get their say

Republicans expected to maintain majorities

jfrank@newsobserver.comOctober 27, 2012 

  • Senate District 15 Raleigh and northeastern Wake County Democrat Sig Hutchinson vs. Republican Neal Hunt Balance of jobs, environment crystallize in North Raleigh race. Analysis: Four-term Republican Sen. Neal Hunt is firmly part of the GOP power structure in the General Assembly as co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee and his membership on several other key committees. So it’s natural that he emphasizes his work balancing the state budget without a tax increase, which Republicans consider one of their most important accomplishments last session. Hunt, a business owner who served on the Raleigh City Council, says it is fiscal discipline that will make the state more competitive for new jobs. He tempers his pro-business image by insisting prosperity can’t come at the expense of the environment. But the environment is what separates him from his opponent, longtime parks and greenway advocate and conservationist Sig Hutchinson. Hutchinson, who owns a sales and communications consulting firm, supports a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for public transportation. Hunt is against raising any taxes at this time. Hunt wants to rein in the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, while Hutchinson complains that the GOP-controlled General Assembly has harmed the department through budget cuts. Hunt has benefited from $65,000 worth of advertising bought by the pro-business outside group Real Jobs N.C. Senate District 17 Cary, Apex and Holly Springs Democrat Erv Portman vs. Republican Tamara Barringer An open seat in a swing district makes it one of the state’s most competitive. Analysis: This campaign is taking place because of the resignation earlier this year of Richard Stevens, an influential legislator who left after a decade in the Senate. The district is almost evenly split among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters. Tamara Barringer is an adjunct assistant professor of legal studies at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and in a law firm with her husband. Her background is in tax and estate planning. She won the Republican primary and was then named by local GOP officials to serve the rest of Stevens’ term, which ends this year. She was formally sworn in earlier this month. Barringer is running on the GOP agenda of lowering taxes and reducing regulation in order to stimulate the economy. Government regulation is, generally speaking, “toxic” to businesses, she says. Erv Portman was appointed to the Cary City Council, later elected to the office, and then appointed to the Wake County Board of Commissioners. He owns a business that makes airplane parts and medical device components. Portman says he is pro-business and pro-education. He has said that lowering taxes isn’t the only way to attract industry. Senate District 18 Eastern Wake County and Franklin County Democrat Doug Berger vs. Republican Chad Barefoot A veteran Democratic senator is struggling to fight off a well-connected newcomer in a recrafted district. Analysis: A new district has weakened four-term Sen. Doug Berger’s Democratic base, giving him Franklin and the eastern side of Wake County down to Garner. He’s running against a candidate minted in the Republican takeover of Jones Street: Chad Barefoot, a former aide to House Majority Leader Paul “Skip” Stam. Barefoot, who now works at a public relations firm, stresses his conservative Christian values. He earned a master’s degree in Christian ethics at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest after graduating from Appalachian State with a degree in political science. He thought he was destined for a job in public management. He has said he decided to run for office because his grandparents live in Garner. Although they’re Democrats, he thinks Berger is too liberal for them. Barefoot has portrayed Berger as “a silly liberal” in a TV ad. Berger calls Barefoot a right-wing extremist. Berger, a lawyer, says he is not liberal and cites his ability to work with Republicans, his stance against the governor on some education issues, and support from gun-rights groups. Berger is stressing protecting education as a way to bring economic prosperity. He says he has worked to help small businesses. Barefoot is heavily backed with money from the state Republican Party and from Stam and others. He had accumulated close to $100,000 in the first half of the year, contrasted with Berger’s nearly $59,000. The pro-business outside group Real Jobs N.C. has spent $91,000 on ads to defeat Berger. House District 41 Morrisville, southwestern Wake County Democrat Jim Messina vs. Republican Tom Murry Republicans are favored, but Democrats need to win districts like this to take control of the House. Analysis: A newly drawn district favors freshman lawmaker Tom Murry, but a quarter of the voters are new to him. Murry positions himself on the Republican Party’s moderate side, but his caucus pushed him further right on major issues, offering an opportunity for first-time candidate Jim Messina to claim the incumbent is out of touch in a suburban Raleigh district with a number of swing voters. Murry, a pharmacist, and Messina, who works for an Internet strategy firm, are working hard on the retail politics level; they’ve been knocking on doors for weeks and standing outside polls for hours. But Murry also is using his money advantage to air TV ads that feature his mother telling the candidate’s story and describing his commitment to education. Both sides are fighting the election in voters’ mailboxes, sending fliers that trade accusations on education and fracking that don’t tell the whole story. Pat McCrory endorsed Murry and could give him a boost (McCrory’s sister works as Murry’s legislative assistant). Messina will need a big showing from President Barack Obama. House District 49 Raleigh Democrat Keith Karlsson vs. Republican Jim Fulghum A long-shot district for Democrats, but an untested Republican candidate provides an opportunity. Analysis: The partisan makeup of the district gives Republican candidates an advantage, but Karlsson believes that voters’ interest in improving education will give him an edge. Fulghum, a neurosurgeon, is making his first run for office, but he has experience working with legislators. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as state health officials were still figuring out how to respond to HIV infection and AIDS, Fulghum argued unsuccessfully for mandatory testing for a wide range of people, including people admitted to hospitals, food service workers, barbers and cosmetologists, and for testing patients even if they didn’t want it. He did succeed in getting the state to end anonymous HIV tests in 1994. Fulghum said he has no continuing interest in changing the state laws on HIV testing. A top concern for him now is controlling the Medicaid budget. Karlsson, a retired software engineer who earned a law degree this spring, ran two unsuccessful campaigns for Raleigh City Council in the mid-1990s. Karlsson and other Democrats hammer the Republican legislature on its education budgets. A Democratic Party mailing describes Karlsson as a “college professor.” He said he was a visiting assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in 1980-1981. Staff writers Craig Jarvis, Lynn Bonner and John Frank
  • More information Staff writers Craig Jarvis, Lynn Bonner and John Frank

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.”

Frank: 919-829-4698

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