The 2016 general election is more than 10 months away, but 53 legislators – nearly a third of the N.C. General Assembly – learned Monday that they’ll get another term.
That’s because no one filed to run against 40 House members and 13 senators by Monday’s noon deadline.
The number of uncontested candidates is similar to the last election, in 2014, when 56 legislators didn’t face opponents. In many of the districts with only one candidate, one party has such a lopsided advantage that the minority party typically doesn’t field a candidate, a product of a redistricting process that often lumps like-minded voters into the same districts.
Some other races have fielded several major-party candidates – but from the same party. Those seats are likely to be settled March 15, though some of those winners will face Libertarians in November.
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The effect is that, despite their strength in statewide politics, Republicans aren’t even running a candidate in 29 House races and six Senate races held by Democrats.
Democrats do not have candidates in 28 House races and 12 Senate races.
“Ideally we would like to have candidates in every race,” said House Majority Leader Mike Hager, a Republican from Rutherfordton who’s running unopposed.
But Hager admits that recruiting candidates in heavily Democratic districts is a hard sell.
“Why put yourself out there and get eaten by the wolf?” he said. “We always look at the ones we feel are competitive.”
The lack of competition is often blamed on gerrymandering, the practice of drawing oddly shaped districts to favor the party in power. The district lines favored a Democratic majority until Republicans drew new districts after the 2010 Census.
Lawmakers from both parties floated legislation earlier this year to create a nonpartisan redistricting process that would result in more competitive elections, but House and Senate leaders refused to bring the proposal up for a vote.
The advocacy group North Carolinians to End Gerrymandering Now says the 53 uncontested races shows a change is needed.
“When voters don’t have a choice, they don’t ask questions, and issues won’t get discussed,” said former Raleigh Mayor Tom Bradshaw, one of the group’s leaders. “Voters may feel that their votes don’t count when there is only one box to check. That is not what we want in North Carolina.”
In Wake County, for example, Democratic Sen. Dan Blue hasn’t faced an opponent since 2010. Next year will be the third election in a row in which voters in his district don’t have a choice.
Opponents of the Republican-led redistricting maps have challenged them in court, arguing that the districts are racial gerrymanders designed to weaken the influence of black voters. Last week, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the maps in a 4-3 split along party lines; an appeal to the federal courts is expected.
Some unopposed candidates say their lack of an opponent isn’t because of the district lines. Rep. Kelly Hastings, a Cleveland County Republican, said he’s unopposed next year in part because he’s focused on his district’s needs, particularly road projects.
“I’ve had Democrat opponents, and I’ve had Republican opponents,” Hastings said. “It’s not I like had a free ride in my career.”
While the current districts might discourage participation in some legislative elections, both parties have a candidate next year in nearly all of the state’s 13 Congressional districts. Many of the districts will hold primaries between several candidates from the same party.
Democrats hold only three of the state’s congressional seats, but the party will have a candidate in all 13 races next year – even Republican-leaning ones where an upset is unlikely.
Josh Brannon, a software developer from Boone, ran against incumbent Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx in 2014, and he’d been hoping someone else would accept the challenge this election cycle.
“I had not intended to run again,” the Democrat said after filing for election Monday morning. “When I found out that no one had filed to run, I could not let them win by default, so I’m back.”
Thomas Mills, a blogger and political consultant who lives in Raleigh, filed a few minutes before Monday’s deadline to challenge incumbent U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson when he learned Hudson would otherwise be re-elected by default.
Mills doesn’t live in Hudson’s district, which stretches from Lumberton to Lexington, but legally he doesn’t have to. He said he grew up in the district and knows it well.
“None of these guys deserve a pass,” Mills said.
Mills and Brannon will have 10 months to campaign, but lesser-known candidates who will be voted on in the March primaries likely will struggle to gain recognition with voters.
“All of the energy and attention and focus is going to be on the presidential primaries,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College. “This is going to require more of a ground level campaign than … an air war.”
Charlotte Observer staff writer Jim Morrill contributed to this report.
Other election filing developments
A three-way primary for Gov. Pat McCrory: Charles Kenneth Moss of Randolph County is the third Republican to join the governor’s race. Moss, a former preacher and technical school instructor, ran against McCrory in the 2012 primary. He received only 1.5 percent of the GOP primary vote then, so don’t expect him to pose much of a threat to the governor. McCrory’s other challenger is former state Rep. Robert Brawley of Mooresville.
A Democratic primary for attorney general: State Sen. Josh Stein of Raleigh has been the only Democrat running for attorney general for months. Marcus Williams, a Wilmington attorney and Democrat who ran for U.S. Senate in 2008 and governor in 1992, filed for the post.
“Now, more than ever, there is a need in North Carolina for a firm, compassionate, objective and impartial administrator and fighter for justice for all citizens,” Williams wrote on his website.
Republicans also have a primary for attorney general between state Sen. Buck Newton and Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill.
More Council of State candidates: Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler will have a GOP primary challenge from fellow Republican Andy Stevens of Greensboro.
Former Onslow County Commissioner Joe McLaughlin has joined two other Republicans in challenging insurance commissioner Wayne Goodwin, a Democrat who has no opposition from within his party.
Mazie Ferguson, who leads the Greensboro Pulpit Forum ministerial alliance, is running in the Democratic primary for labor commissioner against former Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker. No Republicans have challenged incumbent Cherie Berry.
Senate race draws a crowd: Former candidate and Cary obstetrician Greg Brannon became the fourth Republican candidate seeking the U.S. Senate seat held by Richard Burr.