GOP grip on General Assembly will be hard to break

jmorrill@charlotteobserver.comFebruary 28, 2014 

North Carolina Republicans appear poised to keep their solid majorities in the General Assembly, while Democrats face an uphill battle to even chip away at them.

That’s the outlook after Friday’s close of candidate filing, which left nearly a third of the state’s 170 lawmakers unopposed, essentially guaranteeing their re-election.

In Mecklenburg County, eight of 15 state lawmakers are unopposed. Two more face no opposition after the May primary.

Friday saw election lineups set across the state in races from courthouses to Congress. Some contests, particularly for open seats, drew a crowd of candidates. In others, incumbents and even newcomers virtually won free tickets to office.

Early analysis of General Assembly races gives Republicans the upper hand, with both parties targeting their efforts and money at a relative handful of competitive districts.

Districts drawn by GOP lawmakers in 2011 are a big reason for Republican optimism. Those districts helped Republicans to their current 33-17 edge in the Senate and 77-43 margin in the House, both veto-proof majorities.

Democrats “kind of need a tsunami effect to get across some of these district lines,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College. “It would have to be a big wave to push some of these districts into Democratic hands. I just don’t see it happening.”

To erase those so-called supermajorities, Democrats need a net gain of four seats in the Senate and six in the House.

“I’m very encouraged,” said Casey Wilkinson, House caucus director for the state Democratic Party. “We recruited very strong candidates. The board is set up for us to be playing offense and them to be playing defense.”

Safe districts

Republicans don’t appear worried.

“We certainly won’t take anything for granted, but I think we’re poised to retain a supermajority and possibly make gains,” said Ray Martin, director of the party’s Senate caucus.

Most state legislative districts are safe for one party or another.

Nathan Babcock, political director at the N.C. Chamber, said 28 of the 50 Senate districts lean Republican; 16 lean Democratic. That leaves just a half-dozen that both parties will fight for.

In the worst-case scenario for Republicans, he said, the party would win 28 seats. In the best, they’d take 34 – one more than they have now.

In the House, Babcock counts 14-18 competitive districts. Democrats could virtually sweep those races and still find themselves in the minority, he said.

“It’s very clear that there’s no chance for Democrats to get the majority back,” he said. “The best they could hope for is to … maybe crack the supermajorities.”

One competitive race could be in House District 92 in western Mecklenburg County. In 2012, Republican Charles Jeter won the district with 51 percent of the vote, even though it was also carried by President Barack Obama.

With help from his party, he vastly outspent Democrat Robin Bradford, who Friday filed to challenge him again.

Much unknown

Matt Bales, research director for the pro-business N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation, said the number of competitive races won’t really be known until candidates show how much money they can raise, how they campaign and to what extent outside groups get involved.

But Democrats say voters are motivated by the Republican-controlled legislature, which passed laws affecting everything from voting laws to abortion to unemployment compensation.

“This election will be a referendum on what the legislature has done,” said Ford Porter, director of the Senate Democratic caucus. “And I think we’ve got the right candidates to amplify that.”

Moral Mondays, the series of NAACP-led protests against Republican policies, have kept those policies in the news. Josh Thomas, who oversees Republican House campaigns, calls the protests “a two-edged sword.”

“The more (Democrats) drift to the left, the more they run conservative Democrats into our camp,” he said.

In addition to all the unopposed candidates, many face only a primary. That means the winner of the primary will move on with no opposition.

That’s true in crowded races such as Senate District 40 in east and northeast Mecklenburg, where five Democrats are vying for the seat being vacated by Sen. Malcolm Graham, who’s running for Congress.

Brent Laurenz, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Voter Education, said when candidates run unopposed, “voters don’t really have a choice when they go to the ballot box.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059

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