The swell of unaffiliated voters in fast-growing legislative districts where people are cringing over the controversial law known as HB2 may result in erosion of large Republican majorities in the state legislature.
House Bill 2 is figuring prominently in Wake County in Democratic candidates’ ads against Republican incumbents.
The law limits protections for LGBT people, forbidding cities and counties from enacting or enforcing broader rights in local ordinances. The law squelched a Charlotte ordinance that would have allowed people to use the bathrooms of the gender with which they identify. HB2 triggered an economic, cultural and political backlash that has had musicians canceling concerts, college sports organizations moving tournament games, and other state governments banning official travel to North Carolina.
Clearly, if HB2 had not happened, I think that traditionally those races would not be competitive.
Chris Sinclair, a Republican political consultant
Republican and Democratic campaign consultants say HB2 is giving Democratic challengers a boost in Wake districts held by Republicans.
“Clearly, if HB2 had not happened, I think that traditionally those races would not be competitive,” said Chris Sinclair, a Republican political consultant.
Sinclair said that media coverage of HB2, particularly in Wake County, has overshadowed the message of economic growth that Republicans want to emphasize.
“People living here can’t get away from it,” he said. “It’s in the psyche and it’s a local issue that will drive a lot of the discussion.”
A mailer from Democratic challenger Susan Evans’ campaign against incumbent Republican Sen. Tamara Barringer in Cary features a picture of a deflated basketball, a symbol of the sporting events pulled out of the state in protest of HB2.
The decisions cost Cary ACC soccer and tennis championships and NCAA soccer, lacrosse, baseball and tennis championships. Officials expect a multimillion-dollar loss for Cary.
In another competitive race, in a House district in Wake County where Democrat Cynthia Ball is challenging Republican Rep. Gary Pendleton, a piece of voter mail connected Pendleton to HB2 and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, even though Pendleton skipped the special session in March in which the legislature passed the law. The mailer came from an outside group supporting Democrats, NC Families First.
Evans represents a Wake County school board district that encompasses Senate District 17. She said the nature of the district’s growth, voters’ concerns about public education and their distaste for the economic consequences of HB2 give her a chance to win.
“People are bringing it up to me, even if I don’t bring it up,” Evans said. “It’s very much in the forefront of their concerns.”
HB2 has become a balancing act for Barringer. She voted for the bill but called for its repeal in September.
Barringer said she had reservations about the law from the start. She was one of three Republican senators to not sign a letter calling the legislature back to Raleigh in March to pass it. She wants to replace the law with another written with broader input. “The goal is safe and secure bathrooms, without hurting North Carolina’s economy, our brand,” she said.
“It’s a policy decision not a political decision,” she said of her call for repeal. “Whether it helps me or hurts me, the bottom line, it needs to be done.”
Prospects for a repeal, promoted by the state restaurant and hotel lobby in September, fell flat. Election Day approaches with the debate as hot as ever.
HB2 might not have mattered as much if it had been part of campaigns in these districts when they were first drawn, but elections in Wake are being transformed by population growth and a rise in unaffiliated voters.
Barringer’s Senate district is one of the fastest growing in the state. It has added about 33,000 registered voters since the district was drawn.
In some of the districts constructed in 2011 to have more registered Republicans than Democrats or unaffiliated voters, the unaffiliated outnumber people claiming party allegiances.
Nearly 38 percent of voters in Barringer’s district are unaffiliated, according to a mid-September analysis of voter registration data by Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College.
That’s up from a little more than 31 percent, numbers the legislature used when it adopted district boundaries just five years ago.
Unaffiliated voter increases in urban and suburban areas are “certainly because of millennials,” Bitzer said, and they have policy and ideological views aligned with those of Democrats.
“Urban areas are becoming more Democratic in nature,” he said.
Republicans are largely playing defense this year in Wake because they already hold most of the districts considered competitive.
Brad Crone, a Democratic political consultant, said unaffiliated voters in Wake are more focused on jobs, economic issues and roads than they are social issues. “HB2 is one of those issues that they say is a black eye for the state,” Crone said.
“What Wake County Republicans realize is they cannot toe the line of the North Carolina Family Policy Council and the North Carolina Values Coalition and win over unaffiliated voters,” Crone said, naming prominent pro-HB2 groups.
I think that every Democratic candidate for the state legislature in Wake County will probably be outspent.
Brad Crone, a Democratic political consultant
Barringer, who is running for her third full term, said the district has always had a large proportion of unaffiliated voters and her challenge is making sure so many new people get to know her.
She points to bills she’s sponsored on foster care and business corporation revisions that passed the House and Senate unanimously as a display of her interest in bipartisan policy goals.
“Once they know who I am and what I’ve worked for, they’ll vote for me,” she said of new voters.
Libertarian Susan Hogarth is also running.
HB2 may be a liability for Republican candidates in Wake, but they have more money behind their campaigns. Incumbents usually have a fundraising advantage, and the state GOP, party leaders and supportive outside groups have moved in to help.
“I think that every Democratic candidate for the state legislature in Wake County will probably be outspent,” Crone said.
The state Republican Party set up a website attacking Evans and is peppering voters in her district with mail blaming her for a rise in school crime and an increased dropout rate, even though both have fallen during her time on the Wake school board.
Evans said she knows that her campaign could be outspent this year, but she is expecting in-person and telephone conversations with voters will make a difference for her. Along with her opposition to HB2, she’s running hard on her support for public education.
“Working families, they care about public education,” she said. “That message is resounding with them.’ ”
Education: Bachelor of science and law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill
Professional experience: Clinical Assistant Professor of Legal Studies in the Kenan-Flagler Business School, UNC-Chapel Hill; attorney in private practice for more than 20 years
Political experience: Two-plus terms in the state Senate
Family: Husband, three children
Education: Bachelor of science from UNC-Chapel Hill in business administration with a concentration in accounting
Professional experience: Former certified public accountant and small business owner
Political experience: Member of the Wake County school board
Family: Husband, two adult daughters
Education: Bachelor of science in biology from Kansas State University
Professional experience: Research technician for Duke University
Political experience: Has been a candidate for state Senate, state House and Wake County commission seats