Voters in northern Wake County may see some of the most intense competition for their votes this year.
They live in some of the neighborhoods where voters split their choices fairly evenly between Democrats and Republicans, according to an analysis by the conservative Civitas Institute.
Their decisions — who they choose and whether they decide to vote at all — could prove pivotal in a year in which Democrats are making a major push to increase their numbers in the state legislature and Republicans are doing everything they can to limit Democrats' gains.
A lot of the talk about legislative battlegrounds has centered on suburbs in the state’s most populous counties of Wake and Mecklenburg. But it turns out that state House and Senate districts at all ends of the state have residents that split their votes fairly evenly between Democrats and Republicans.
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Civitas determined the political leanings of the voters in each district and on Thursday released an index. In all, Civitas found nine House districts and five Senate districts have been the most competitive.
House District 116 in the mountains near the Tennessee border, which includes Cherokee, Jackson and part of Haywood counties, will likely have a close contest, as will two districts that encircle Asheville.
The Democrat-Republican vote split also was close in House districts in the Eastern North Carolina counties of Sampson, Bladen and Lenoir, and in the state’s northeastern counties that make up House District 1.
In the Senate, party competitors have been closely matched in New Hanover County, in the district along the western edge of Mecklenburg County, and in the district in the state’s northeast corner that includes 11 counties.
Two rematches in House districts in northern Wake County — between Democratic Rep. Joe John and Republican Marilyn Avila, whom John defeated two years ago when she held the seat, and between Republican Rep. Chris Malone and Democrat Terence Everitt — will take place in the county's most competitive House districts.
Some of the districts that Democrats have made big targets, including the seats held by Republican Rep. Nelson Dollar and Sen. Tamara Barringer of Cary, have leaned more Republican.
Legislative races are prominent in an election year without a big statewide U.S. Senate or presidential race on the ballot. Democrats are focused on winning enough seats in the legislature to break the Republican supermajorities that have limited Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's influence over lawmaking and policies. Republicans are intent on holding off Democrats.
"We think that Civitas Partisan Index is indicative of how things will develop as we go into the fall," Civitas Executive Director Donald Bryson said.
Civitas used votes from the 2016 Council of State contests — races for governor, lieutenant governor, and other executive offices — to make the calculations.
"The CPI is not a predictor of future legislative contest outcomes, but it does give a glimpse of the voting tendencies within a district," he said in an email. "It is a way to identify districts that swing, lean, or firmly trend towards one political party or the other."
The Civitas calculation of the most competitive districts is narrower than one Jonathan Kappler at the NC Free Enterprise Institute worked out.
For example, Kappler calls the House district in which Dollar is facing Democratic challenger Julie von Haefen a competitive district. Libertarian Robyn Haley Pegram is also running.
Kappler said he thinks about issues such as population shifts and how district lines have changed as he determines if districts favor one party or the other.
Recent redistricting has resulted in incumbents running in new territories. The new district boundaries may have contributed to primary losses for some incumbents this week.
Kappler said his analysis and Civitas's may not be all that much different. As the election draws closer, everyone will be focused on the same races, he said.
State Democrats have a much longer list of targets that even includes Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican. Democrats are talking about a "blue wave" that will make their candidates competitive in districts that tend to elect Republicans.
Democrats need four seats in the state House or six seats in the state Senate to end the supermajorities.
Republicans expect to lose some seats, state GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said, but Republicans have targets, too.
An unaffiliated candidate running in Wilson County against Democratic Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield has a chance, Woodhouse said. An incumbent Republican who lived in that district decided not to run when political boundaries changed.
Scotland and Robeson counties, which used to be Democratic strongholds, are becoming more Republican, Woodhouse said. And the seat held by Democratic Rep. Billy Richardson in Fayetteville is on the GOP potential pickup list, where Republican Linda Devore is running.
An index put together by an outside group can give a good general view of districts and how people there may vote, Woodhouse said, but the political map starts out much bigger, and for the GOP, includes districts that on paper are solidly Republican.
"The field starts really wide and starts to narrow as you go forward," he said. "We'll have active, full-out campaigns, major campaigns, in 90 House seats or more."
Civitas found nine House districts and five Senate districts were the most competitive in 2016.
▪ House districts 1, 12, 22, 35, 40, 66, 115, 116, 119
▪ Senate districts 1, 7, 9, 18, 41