North Carolina Republicans looked headed toward maintaining their veto-proof majorities in the General Assembly.
Lawmakers’ campaigns came against a backdrop of hyper-partisanship, acrimonious social legislation and slippery coattails from unpredictable presidential, gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races.
“I think that people weighed the economic successes of the state — versus everything else,” Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said. “And Trump actually ended up being a plus for the Republicans.”
“North Carolina is a very competitive state and it will continue to be,” he said by phone with the din of a victory party in the background. “It still has a red streak. For the North Carolina Republicans this is four elections that we have won.”
Raleigh Democratic Rep. Grier Martin oversaw races for the House Democratic caucus. Reflecting on the Democrats’ evening, he said the districts were drawn to favor Republicans and some of the districts were ruled unconstitutional.
“The political winds were against us,” Martin said. “But we’ll be back.”
Republicans have controlled the General Assembly since 2011, when they took charge of both the House and Senate for the first time since Reconstruction. During the 2015-2016 legislative session, they controlled the Senate 34-16 and the House 74-45 with one GOP-leaning unaffilated member.
By controlling three-fifths of seats in each chamber since 2013, they held supermajorities, which allowed them to override any veto by the governor if nearly all GOP members supported it.
To end the supermajority, Democrats on Tuesday needed to win either five net seats in the Senate or four net seats in the House.
Republicans looked unlikely to lose many seats and in the Senate, could even pick up at least one to strengthen their majority.
Since 2012, when Republicans trounced Democrats by increasing their majorities in the state Senate and House and also won the governor’s mansion, they have implemented a contentious conservative economic and social agenda. That led to a slew of lawsuits over voting rights and other issues.
This year many had privately worried about negative fallout from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and the controversial House Bill 2 limiting anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people, all of which Democrats attempted to exploit.
Pollsters and pundits also predicted North Carolina’s population boom had brought enough moderate voters unaffiliated with either party to swing many close races. Joe Stewart, executive director of the nonpartisan research group the N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation, tracks legislative races. He pointed to the state’s growing urban-rural cultural divide.
All 50 Senate seats were up for election, but 15 senators faced no challengers and most seats were not considered truly competitive, a result of legislative districts drawn to favor Republicans.
The Republicans managed to flip the District 13 seat, which includes all of Robeson and Columbus counties. There Democratic Sen. Jane Smith was seeking a second term. Smith lost to Danny Britt, a Republican and Lumberton attorney.
Wake County’s District 18 featured the Senate’s most expensive race, where two-term Republican Sen. Chad Barefoot was leading Democrat Gil Johnson. Between the two, they raised roughly $828,000, according to the N.C. State Board of Elections.
Barefoot’s past two victories were close and this year he was an HB2 defender.
In another Wake County race in District 15, Republican Sen. John Alexander was leading Democrat Laurel Deegan-Fricke.
District 17 saw two-term Republican Sen. Tamara Barringer, a UNC School of Law professor, leading Democrat Susan Evans, who has served on the Wake County school board since 2011.
District 9 on the coast featured the Senate’s second-most expensive race and also one of the youngest candidates, 28-year-old Democrat, attorney and minister Andrew Barnhill, who was trailing one-term Republican Sen. Michael Lee, a Wilmington attorney.
According to campaign finance reports, they spent $773,689 in a race featuring some of the year’s most creative mudslinging. Barnhill, an attorney and minister, once took a mission trip to South Africa to help the poor. An N.C. GOP-created website — partyboybarnhill.com — was amplified with $120,000 worth of TV ads that accused him of spending his time in Africa at a casino.
In Eastern North Carolina’s District 1, which runs through parts of Beaufort, Camden, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Hyde, Pasquotank and Perquimans counties, two-term Republican Sen. Bill Cook was leading Democrat Brownie Futrell, a retired Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper publisher.
In the Piedmont’s District 27 which includes Guilford County, two-term Republican Sen. Trudy Wade was leading Democrat Michael Garrett, a marketing firm owner. Garrett blasted Wade’s HB2 support, environmental record and efforts to restructure the Greensboro City Council, where she once served.
The Great Smoky Mountains’ District 50 hosted a rematch between Republican two-term incumbent and orthodontist, Sen. Jim Davis, and Democrat and pediatric nurse Jane Hipps of Waynesville. Davis beat Hipps in 2014 and was leading this year.
Of all 120 House seats up for election, 58 House members had no challengers and about 15 seats were considered up for grabs.
House Republican leadership was bullish and even predicted they could increase their supermajority by picking up two seats. But in the days before polls opened, Woodhouse also pointed out that House races could be fickle given their very local nature.
Early results on Tuesday showed the Republicans maintaining their majority and controlling 74 seats. Both parties appeared to flip four seats, essentially cancelling each other out.
Democrats saw gains in urban areas.
In southeast Charlotte’s District 88, Democrat Mary Belk was slightly ahead of Republican Rep. Rob Bryan. Also in Charlotte, District 92 showcased the changing nature of the state’s urban districts as Democrat Chaz Beasley was leading Republican Danae Caulfield for the seat formerly held by Huntersville Republican Charles Jeter.
In the Raleigh area, Democrats also led in House District 40, where Republican Rep. Marilyn Avila, a former chemist and hair salon owner, was trailing Democrat Joe John. Avila has served in the House since 2006.
And in Raleigh’s District 49, which stretches from Five Points up Creedmoor Road toward Falls Lake, Republican Rep. Gary Pendleton, a retired brigadier general who owns a financial consulting company, was trailing Democrat Cynthia Ball, a certified mediator who’s making her first run for elected office.
Republicans made gains in District 119 where a two-term incumbent who also served three terms in the Senate, Rep. Joe Sam Queen of Waynesville, was trailing challenger Republican Mike Clampitt.
The Outer Banks’ District 6 was an open seat after the resignation of Rep. Paul Tine of Dare County, the House’s only unaffiliated member. Republican Beverly Boswell, a Dare County commissioner, had battled Democrat and fellow Dare County Commissioner Warren Judge, until Judge died of heart failure. Judge’s name remained on the ballot and his wife Tess would have served the term. Late results showed Boswell winning.