Districts drawn to heavily favor Republicans will give Wake County’s incumbent state legislators a big advantage over their challengers this year.
But several of the county’s races for the General Assembly appear competitive, and some are even drawing big advertising spending by an outside political group.
On Thursday, a judge ruled that 28 House and Senate districts statewide are unconstitutional racial gerrymanders, but left them in effect for this November’s election cycle.
The state’s 170 districts have been in place since the 2012 election, and some of them have produced close elections and even a few upsets.
Wake County has a number of districts where Democrats have come close to taking GOP-held seats in recent elections. In one of them – House District 41 in southwestern Wake – Democrat Gale Adcock knocked off incumbent Republican Rep. Tom Murry in 2014.
Adcock’s victory in District 41, along with Republican John Alexander’s razor-thin victory in Senate District 15, were Wake’s closest contests in 2014.
Those districts aren’t being hotly contested so far this election cycle. Alexander’s challenger, Democrat Laurel Deegan-Fricke, reported raising just $1,900 in the second quarter of 2016, while the Republican incumbent brought in $51,000.
So far, Republicans haven’t mounted a serious effort to take back Adcock’s seat. Her GOP challenger, Chris Shoffner, had raised less than $1,000 by June 30, while Adcock ended the reporting period with $116,000 on hand.
But while those two districts have lopsided fundraising this year, others in Wake could see closer contests, based on campaign finance numbers and previous election results.
Democrats admit the gerrymandered districts means they likely won’t be able to take control of either the House or Senate this year. But the party hopes to flip enough seats so Republicans won’t have a veto-proof majority if Democrat Roy Cooper wins the governor’s race and gets control of the veto stamp.
Here’s a ranking of Wake County races to watch:
1. House District 49
Who’s running? Republican Rep. Gary Pendleton, a retired brigadier general who owns a financial consulting company, is seeking his second full term. He faces Democrat Cynthia Ball, a certified mediator who’s making her first run for elected office.
The district: Stretches from Raleigh’s Five Points up Creedmoor Road toward Falls Lake
Fundraising: Pendleton has a cash advantage ($266,000 on hand as of June 30) but raised less in the second quarter, $23,000. Ball raised $114,000 during the same period and has $146,000 on hand.
2014 results: 52 percent for Pendleton, 48 percent for Democrat Kim Hanchette
Worth noting: Pendleton has been a leading advocate for state employee pay raises, something that plays well in a district with state workers.
2. Senate District 18
Who’s running? Republican Sen. Chad Barefoot, a former aide to Rep. Paul Stam, is seeking his third term in the Senate. His challenger is Gil Johnson, chairman of the Franklin County school board and a retired air traffic controller.
The district: Franklin County, eastern Wake County, Rolesville, parts of Wake Forest, Garner and Willow Spring
Fundraising: Barefoot has a cash advantage ($91,000 on hand as of June 30) but raised $17,000 in the second quarter to Johnson’s $43,000. Johnson has $39,000 on hand.
2014 results: 53 percent for Barefoot, 47 percent for Democrat Sarah Crawford
Worth noting: Barefoot led the charge to redraw Wake County commissioner and school board districts, which were recently struck down in court. Will he face any backlash from voters?
3. House District 40
Who’s running? Republican Rep. Marilyn Avila, a former chemist and hair salon owner, has served in the House since 2006. She faces Democrat Joe John, a former N.C. Court of Appeals judge and former director of the State Crime Lab.
The district: Northwestern Wake County around Falls Lake and Brier Creek
Fundraising: Avila has a cash advantage ($75,000 on hand as of June 30) but raised less than her opponent in the second quarter, $20,000. John raised $53,000 during the same period and has $52,000 on hand.
2014 results: 54 percent for Avila, 46 percent for Democrat Margaret Broadwell
Worth noting: This year’s election marks the first time Avila has faced a challenger who’s held a statewide elected office before.
4. Senate District 17
Who’s running? Republican Sen. Tamara Barringer, a UNC School of Law professor, is running for a third term in the Senate, where she’s a close ally of Senate leader Phil Berger. She faces Democrat Susan Evans, who has served on the Wake County school board since 2011.
The district: Southwestern Wake County, including Apex, Holly Springs and Fuquay-Varina
Fundraising: The two campaigns were evenly matched in funding at the beginning of July, when both had just over $90,000 on hand. Evans had a stronger second quarter, raising $83,000 while Barringer brought in $36,000.
2014 results: 58 percent for Barringer, 42 percent for Democrat Bryan Fulghum, who was a restaurant cashier at the time and didn’t raise much money.
Worth noting: District 17 is among the fastest growing legislative districts in the state, according to the UNC Carolina Population Center. That influx of newcomers has the potential to diminish the district’s Republican tilt.
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GOP senators get outside boost
A group called Carolina Partnership for Reform is spending more than $300,000 to run ads crediting Republican state Senate candidates with giving teachers raises. The ads are running on NBC affiliate stations during the Olympics.
Carolina Partnership for Reform has been a licensed state charity — a social welfare organization that does not have to disclose its donors.
The partnership also has a blog that often promotes positions of Senate Republican leaders.
The ads are classified as “non-candidate issue ads,” but those running in Raleigh, Greensboro and Wilmington markets feature individual Republican senators, who like all legislators, are up for re-election this year.
All the ads end with the name of the candidate and “working to raise teacher pay.”
Three nearly identical ads featuring Sens. Chad Barefoot of Wake Forest, Tamara Barringer of Cary, and John Alexander of Raleigh cost $229,000, according to Federal Communications Commission filings.
An ad running in the Greensboro market features Sen. Trudy Wade and cost about $91,000 to air.
The group has also purchased time in Wilmington for about $53,000 for an ad that highlights Sen. Michael Lee.
Carolina Partnership for Reform director Jeff Hyde responded to an inquiry with an email that said the group would seek to “promote free enterprise” and educate the public about the benefits of policies that promote “individual liberty, economic prosperity and restraints on the size and scope of government.”