On Hillsborough Street in the heart of Raleigh, the North Carolina Democratic headquarters buzzes with political operatives strategizing to end the Republican Party’s veto-proof majority in the State House of Representatives.
Less than a mile down Hillsborough sits the state Republican headquarters. When asked about the Democrats’ goal, party spokeswoman Kami Mueller scoffed. “That’s an unrealistic pipe dream,” she said.
Back at Democratic HQ, Mueller’s words cause Grier Martin to pause. He is a Raleigh lawmaker overseeing races for the House Democratic caucus.
“I won’t comment on what Kami might be dreaming,” Martin said. “But let’s put it this way. We feel that the unpopularity of Donald Trump and Gov. McCrory and beyond has provided us an outstanding chance to break the supermajority and bring balance back to state government.”
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And so it goes as Nov. 8, Election Day, approaches in the battle for control of the House.
In the 120-member chamber, Republicans hold 74 seats, Democrats 45, and one lawmaker is unaffiliated but aligned with Republicans. By controlling three-fifths of seats, Republicans have a supermajority, which allows them to override any veto by the governor if nearly all GOP members support it.
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 conservative economic and social agenda at times so contentious it has drawn international attention. The supermajority has given Republicans great leverage, which the Democrats could eliminate by netting four seats.
Polls show Roy Cooper, the attorney general and Democratic gubernatorial nominee, in a close race with Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. If Cooper unseats McCrory and the Democrats take those four seats to end the supermajority, Cooper could successfully veto bills he and fellow Democrats dislike.
In a recent interview, Republican House Speaker Tim Moore of Kings Mountain discussed a different destiny. Moore said early polls done by his caucus made him think Republicans could increase their supermajority by picking up two seats.
New House Majority Leader John Bell of Goldsboro is also bullish. “We have challenges but we also have excellent candidates, especially in several rural races,” Bell said. “We’re getting their names out there and telling the good story of what’s going on with the economy.”
Local issues at play
North Carolina’s population boom has brought a flood of moderate voters unaffiliated with either party. State Board of Elections data shows the number of unaffiliated voters has doubled since 2004.
As executive director of the nonpartisan research group the N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation, Joe Stewart tracks legislative races. He said an already substantial urban-rural cultural divide has deepened.
Since the 2010 census, 49 counties have lost population while Raleigh and Charlotte have blossomed. The 2016 legislative session showcased urban-rural fights for budget resources and also over social issues.
House Bill 2 played this way, Stewart said – dismissed in cities as discrimination and embraced by the countryside as a safety issue. “Rural communities lose youth to the cities and resent urban dynamism and more liberal attitudes,” he said. “How we resolve this is a major issue for the future of North Carolina.”
Democrats say they could net up to 12 House seats. “It all depends on which way the winds blow,” Martin said.
They also say having Hillary Clinton atop their ticket has energized their statewide coordination. Campaign resources are flowing from Clinton to Cooper and U.S. Senate candidate Deborah Ross and further down the ticket.
Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse sees it differently. “In House races,” he said, “there is less money and less media attention. People forget that very often it is local issues that rule the day.”
Local issues are in play in the Outer Banks’ District 6, where a seat opened with the resignation of Rep. Paul Tine of Dare County, the House’s only unaffiliated member. Republican Beverly Boswell, a Dare County commissioner, is battling a fellow commissioner, Democrat Warren Judge, who has raised more money.
A flier earlier this year targeted Boswell for allegedly writing bad checks almost two decades ago, including a bounced $54 check to a beauty salon. Boswell dismissed the accusations and pointed out that the funder, North Carolina Families First, is a super PAC that spent about $1.6 million during the 2014 election cycle targeting Republicans, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
District 8, which covers Pitt and Wilson counties, features a close fight between two-term incumbent Republican Rep. Susan Martin and Democrat Charlie Pat Farris. A trial lawyer active in the community, Farris had about $51,000 on hand at the end of June, while Martin had $154,000.
Susan Martin has become a House leader on finance and business issues. In 2014 she won 61 percent. This year her husband made headlines for campaign shenanigans after a security camera caught him peeling a Farris sticker from a brewpub’s front door. The pub owner said he is friendly with both candidates. Meanwhile Martin’s husband, an orthopedic surgeon, apologized and called himself “a bonehead” for pulling the stunt.
District 35 is in Wake County and includes portions of Knightdale, Rolesville and Wake Forest. Second-term Republican Chris Malone is opposed by Democrat Terence Everitt, a Wake Forest attorney. The district leans Republican and both have raised about the same amount of money.
In 2014, against a Democrat who hardly campaigned, Malone received 56 percent of the vote. This time around, Everitt is hitting Malone hard for his support of HB2.
Another lively urban clash is underway in vacant District 92 in Charlotte. Democrat Chaz Beasley and Republican Danae Caulfield are squaring off for the seat formerly held by Huntersville Republican Charles Jeter, with ample money and ample issues, including the proposed Interstate 77 toll road.
Beasley is a young, Harvard-educated, African-American candidate, the kind of profile the state Democratic Party wants to see giving more election night victory speeches.
Democrats could well have more bargaining power next year.
“One thing is for sure,” Bell said. “Both sides of the aisle will be relieved on Nov. 9. This has been a grueling election cycle.”
House District 35
Education: Bachelor of arts, St. Mary of the Plains College
Professional experience: G4S Compliance and Investigations
Political experience: Two terms, N.C. House; Wake Forest Town Board of Commissioners; Wake County School Board; Wake County Republican Party House District 40 chairman
Family: Wife Becky and three children
Education: Bachelor of arts, Rutgers University; law degree, Catholic University Columbus School of Law
Professional experience: Attorney, Law Office of Terence J. Everitt
Political experience: Board of directors, Wake Forest Area Chamber of Commerce; Wake County Transit Advisory Committee
Family: Wife Jennifer and two children
Education: Virginia Wesleyan College
Professional experience: Hotel, cottages, rental home in Kill Devil Hills; formerly operated the Sands Restaurant in Nags Head
Political experience: Dare County Board of Commissioners; Jamestown Town Council; Outer Banks Tourism Board; Dare County Airport Authority
Family: Wife Tess; four children and grandchildren
Education: Some college, Edgecombe and Pitt Community Colleges
Professional experience: Medical assistant
Political experience: Dare County commissioner; president of the PTSA at First Flight High School; Kill Devil Hills Planning Board and Historical Landmark Commission.
Family: Four children
Education: Bachelor of science, master of business administration, University of Richmond
Professional experience: IBM certified sales specialist and client representative
Political experience: Two terms, N.C. House; Roanoke River Basin Bi-State Commission; Governor’s Task Force on Mental Health and Substance Use; Southern Legislative Conference Fiscal Affairs & Government Operations Committee; board of directors for Wilson Education Partnership; vice president, Toisnot Middle School Parent Teacher Organization
Family: Husband Lew; two teenage daughters
Charlie Pat Farris
Education: Bachelor of arts, law degree, UNC-Chapel Hill
Professional experience: Attorney; N.C. National Guard service
Political experience: Governor’s Crime Commission; North Carolina Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission; City of Wilson Zoning Board; Wilson County Zoning Board
Family: Two sons
Education: Bachelor of arts, Harvard; law degree, Georgetown
Professional experience: Attorney, Alston & Bird LLP; legal extern, U.S. Senate; legal extern, N.C. Supreme Court
Political experience: Former president, Young Democrats of Mecklenburg County
Family: Fiancée Whitney and future stepdaughter
Education: Graduated summa cum laude from Johnson and Wales University; electronics and avionic electrical systems tech degree, U.S. Air Force
Professional experience: Real estate broker; U.S. Air Force
Political experience: Huntersville Town commissioner
Family: Husband Joe; two boys and one girl