There’s been a lot of talk about whether backlash to President Donald Trump will raise a blue wave that would give Democrats more power in the Republican-controlled General Assembly. But in a few places in North Carolina, it’s Democrats who are on defense.
That’s partly because of new maps. After federal judges ruled in 2017 that 28 of North Carolina’s state House and Senate districts were unlawfully drawn to reduce the influence of black voters, Republicans in the legislature redrew the districts.
The new maps mean some incumbents who thought their seat was safe are now in some of the most competitive elections in the state. Democrats in rural counties are particularly vulnerable.
Take Democratic Rep. Bobbie Richardson’s NC House District 7. Under the old maps, Richardson’s district was considered to be one of the most racially gerrymandered districts in the state, packed with black voters who tend to vote Democrat.
It’s “probably 60 or 70 percent Democrat. There was all likelihood, unless a Democrat challenged me, that I would not lose. It was one of the most gerrymandered districts,” Richardson said in an interview in Louisburg.
Under the new maps, Republicans are targeting the district and attacking Richardson’s positions on issues such as health care. The North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation rates the redrawn district as “lean Republican.”
“Her district was substantially redrawn,” Jonathan Kappler, the executive director of the Free Enterprise Foundation, said in a phone interview. “It’s much more Republican-leaning. She faces a well-funded and credible challenger in Lisa Stone Barnes. Of course, there are other factors.”
Kappler says there has been an ideological shift across the state, paving the way for more Republicans in the General Assembly — notably in 2010, when Republicans won majorities in both House and Senate.
Many of those gains have come in rural counties that voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
“In the more rural areas, they have been increasingly more Republican friendly,” Kappler said. “The political shift that is happening there is a realignment towards the Republicans. That was accelerated in some ways by the Trump presidency.”
The exception is rural counties with large minority populations, where Democrats have maintained their hold.
Kappler says Trump’s success doesn’t mean Republicans are guaranteed a win.
“In those rural-based districts, will rural voters, who were Trump voters, turn out when he’s not on the ballot?” Kappler said. That means voter turnout still plays a large role in who will win the most competitive races.
Democrats need to add at least four seats in the House or six seats in the Senate to end Republicans’ supermajorities. The GOP controls the Senate 35-15 and the House 75-45.
Learning new districts
Several Democratic incumbents are in competitive races to defend their seats, and not just in rural districts.
Rep. Joe John, a former judge, is running for re-election in northern Wake County against Marilyn Avila, the former representative he unseated in 2016.
“The redistricting has affected the nature of the campaign to the the extent that about half of the district is new,” John said. “I basically have to approach that part of the district the same way I approached the entire district in 2016 as a new candidate.”
Neither Avila nor John has had to campaign before in the newer parts of the district.
Rep. Ken Goodman, a moderate Democrat from Rockingham, is running against Republican Joey Davis in a district that shifted to the west. It now includes Montgomery, Richmond and part of Stanly counties. Goodman’s district is considered competitive.
This isn’t Goodman’s first time dealing with a redrawn map. Maps are redrawn every 10 years after each Census, and Goodman had to adjust to a new map in 2011 as well, he said.
“Geographically, it’s a much easier district to work. It’s much more competitive politically, but I’m willing to make that trade-off,” Goodman said.
“I am running on my record and what I stand for,” Goodman said. “It’s more localized in my case. I am a very moderate person who works across party lines. I hope some Trump voters vote for me and i think they will.”
For Davis, the redrawn district is the reason he’s running.
“In my case, [the redistricting] created a campaign,” Davis said.
Davis says the people he has met are excited someone is running against Goodman. The last time Goodman faced a challenger was in 2010.
While Davis agrees Goodman is a moderate Democrat, he still says a Republican representative will benefit the district.
“All of the decisions are being made in the Republican chamber, and we need a voice there. A Republican representative in a Democratic district is going to have a lot more power in a Republican controlled House,” Davis said.
Richardson’s new district now includes all of Franklin County and five southern precincts in Nash County. It previously included the northern halves of Franklin and Nash counties, so the southern portions are new campaign territory.
Richardson says the new district is more compact and easier for her to represent, even though the race is more competitive.
Although Richardson is a Franklin County native, she’s meeting voters there. On a recent Friday, Richardson was at a tent at the Senior Fun Day at Joyner Park in Louisburg, getting free blood pressure tests.
“I’m out here because I’m a senior, first of all. Secondly, I’m out here to meet and greet the people,” said Richardson. “To see what services does Franklin County have so that our office can be on top of things. So when a constituent calls, we have a solid list of options if it’s in the medical area.”
Richardson said she’s been working already to help meet the new district’s needs, specifically in Nash County. She heard from residents of Spring Hope at a recent meeting.
“When I listened to many of the people who came to the meeting, who are senior citizens, they told me that ‘you know, we are too old to be driving to Selma or to Smithfield or to Rocky Mount or Louisburg to renew our license. Can’t you help us get a DMV office?’” Richardson said. “I’m happy to say there will be a DMV office in Spring Hope.”
She doesn’t agree with the district’s “lean Republican” label from the Free Enterprise Foundation. “I don’t see that. I live here and I’m a native here. I think it was based off of how well the presidential election went the year before,” Richardson said. “(Nearby) District 24 is more Democrat leaning so I guess it was kind of a balance to make sure they kept ‘x’ number of districts, but they didn’t know that I didn’t intend to lose this.”
Barnes, a first-time candidate, has been on the campaign trail as well.
“Since I had the primary in May, I’ve been working in Franklin County since March and now people are recognizing me, so it’s not like I’m a stranger from another county anymore,” Barnes said.
Barnes says her background — she grew up on a family farm and is married to a sweet potato farmer — helps her connect with many of the voters.
As for why Barnes decided to run, she says the opportunity presented itself at the right time.
“I probably would not be running if the district stayed the same way, if it hadn’t been changed,” Barnes said in a phone interview.
Health care fight
Outside groups are playing a role.
The Carolina Leadership Coalition, an organization supporting Republican candidates, has been mailing out ads saying Richardson is trying to raise taxes for North Carolinians by establishing “government-run health care — at a cost of $41 billion.”
The “government-run health care” statement stems from House Bill 916, a health care bill introduced in 2017 with the support of Richardson and many other Democrats. The bill, which died in committee, would’ve created a North Carolina health care plan for all residents.
“[Richardson] cosponsored a radical single-payer health care bill that not only would fail to address access, but would drastically raise taxes on her constituents to the sum of $41 billion,” said Woodhouse of the NCGOP. “It’s her and other rural Democrats’ support of (a) radical agenda that is giving them trouble now and will continue to give them trouble.”
However, on June 21, 2018, Richardson removed her name from the bill as a sponsor. Asked about the move, Taylor Grady-Daly, her campaign manager, said Richardson did not want to play a “political game.”
“Republicans treat people’s health care like a political game, laying traps to score cheap political points and pushing new laws to undermine protections for preexisting conditions,” Grady-Daly said. “Bobbie saw right through these games and refused to play along.”
Richardson has argued in favor of expanding Medicaid, saying it would improve health care in rural areas, The News & Observer has reported.
The candidates in the 7th district are more similar than you might expect.
Richardson has had to campaign quite a bit in southern Nash County, which is where Barnes grew up on her family farm. Barnes is having to spend more energy campaigning in Franklin County, where Richardson also grew up on a family farm.
Richardson is a retired educator and former consultant for the state Department of Public Instruction, according to her campaign website. Barnes has worked as a paralegal and in the Rocky Mount planning department, among other jobs, according to Barnes’ campaign website.
They were both elected to local offices before eying a seat in the legislature. Richardson was on the Franklin County Board of Education, and Barnes is currently wrapping up her second term as a Nash County commissioner. Richardson, a member of the NC Legislative Black Caucus, has served three terms in the House.
They both even agree on the importance of some issues, including the expansion of broadband in public schools and improving rural health care, they said in interviews.
Barnes raised more than $144,000 through June and had spent the vast majority of it, $132,000, in a Republican primary. Richardson had raised more than $54,000 through June and spent $24,000.