President Trump and North Carolina’s Republican lawmakers’ policies aren’t just making Democrats mad – they’re making Democrats run.
With the close of the candidate filing period last week, the Democratic candidate ranks have swelled to include a candidate in every one of the 120 state House races and all 50 state Senate races. Republicans scrambled to meet the wave by putting up a candidate in every race save one House race.
Longtime observers of the legislature say this is the fullest field in memory and perhaps in North Carolina history. Gerrymandering has rendered some districts solidly in favor of one party or the other. Usually, there might be a primary in those safe districts, but from there the winner marched through the general election uncontested.
In 2016, nine Senate Republicans and four Senate Democrats faced no challengers, as did 22 House Republicans and 19 House Democrats. After the primaries, only one party fielded a candidate for more than 70 of the 170 legislative seats.
Thom Little, a UNC-Greensboro political science professor told WRAL in 2016 that the uncontested races showed a lack of political engagement.
“I think you take that as nobody really wants to run,” he said. “The reality is public service is something that people don’t want to do.”
What a difference two years, an aggravated minority party and aggressive candidate recruiting makes.
Wayne Goodwin, head of the North Carolina Democratic Party, said, “This phenomenal turnout declares loud and clear that Democrats are angry and fed up and they want to fight in every district.”
Gary Pearce, a former aide to Gov. Jim Hunt and Democratic strategist, said, “It’s a combination of a lot of Democrats are angry, motivated and optimistic and the caucuses, party officials and other groups really did a good job and got good candidates.”
Republican leaders see it differently. Their policies may have fired up Democrats, but they’ve also inspired Republicans. Senate leader Phil Berger, said, “I’ve never seen so much energy in our party or so much support to keep a Republican Senate majority. Every voter will have a clear choice this November, and our candidates are excited to get to work campaigning on conservative ideas in all 50 districts.”
The party in power would rather not have to fight in every district to preserve its supermajorites in both the House and Senate.
State GOP Chairman Robin Hayes said the outpouring of candidates shows that people have faith in the fairness of district maps no matter how many courts say they are unfairly drawn.
“The recruitment success of both parties forever shatters the myth that Republican-drawn districts somehow discourage people from running for office. Our democracy is alive and well,” he said.
Republicans can put a positive spin on it, but it’s obvious that the party in power would rather not have to fight in every district to preserve its supermajorities in both the House and Senate.
Goodwin said the Republican drive to counter a potential Democratic wave candidate-by-candidate shows concern, not confidence.
“Republicans are getting candidates in place because they are playing defense,” he said. “It’s not because there is a huge sweep of support for their policies or their candidates.”
Republican House Speaker Tim Moore said the party loyalists are stepping up to keep a veto-proof majority against a Democratic governor.
“The Republican-led General Assembly is the only check on Governor Cooper and his liberal tax-and-spend liberal policies,” he said.
Republicans will be battling everywhere in a midterm election that generally goes against the party that holds the White House; the president’s low approval could magnify the advantage. A recent High Point University Poll of North Carolina residents found 38 percent approve of President Trump’s performance while 51 percent disapprove.
J. Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College, said the Democratic push aims to cut into the advantage Republicans gained through redistricting. He said, “Democrats are certainly hoping for a large enough wave to crest over the built-in partisan wall that so many of the districts have through the redistricting process.”
On the Democratic side, what’s driving the candidate surge is a wave of women and minority candidates, two demographic groups where opposition to President Trump and state Republican policies runs high. Of the 170 Democratic legislative candidates, 77 are female and 71 are people of color. There are also six LGBT candidates running in the House.
Goodwin called the group of Democratic legislative candidates “the most diverse field ever.”
While energy is on the Democratic side, it’s unlikely Democrats can win control of the General Assembly. Their goal, Goodwin said, is to break the Republicans’ veto-proof majorities and then take back the House and Senate in 2020.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@ newsobserver.com