Hurricane Florence disrupted political campaigns in Eastern North Carolina, and experts say the effects of the storm could boost legislative incumbents. The hardest-hit counties are home to seven of the state’s most competitive legislative districts — nearly all of which have Republican incumbents.
As the storm headed for North Carolina’s coast, candidates halted their campaign work. Fundraisers and candidate forums were canceled, and most candidates used their social media platforms to share emergency information. Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican, was among many who formally suspended their campaign. Even now he’s not actively fundraising for his re-election bid, he said.
“I just felt like it was a little bit tacky to raise money for a campaign when people were trying to raise money to get back in their homes and businesses,” he said.
Britt’s Senate district includes Robeson and Columbus counties, both of which experienced widespread flooding after Florence.
The N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation rates the district competitive — Britt defeated an incumbent Democrat two years ago and now faces a challenge from Robeson school board member John Campbell, who has been endorsed by former President Barack Obama.
Both Campbell and Britt didn’t campaign for weeks after the storm — and less than two months from Election Day, that lost time is important for challengers trying to convince voters to replace their legislator.
“The incumbent is already known, the challenger is less well known and has to use the campaign to make himself better known,” said Charles Prysby, a political scientist at UNC-Greensboro.
Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in Salisbury, said incumbents could also gain an advantage from their storm response. “I think certainly incumbents will use their presence on the ground to help shape the narrative that ‘I’m helping my community, I’m using my power of elected office to help my constituents,’” he said. “That can only create good will among voters.”
That’s precisely the message of a TV ad from Britt’s campaign, which shows him riding a boat through flooded neighborhoods.
“He could have just stayed at home, but instead he got in his truck, he grabbed a boat, and he went and helped whoever he could find,” a Lumberton resident says in the ad.
Other incumbent lawmakers have focused their ads on tax cuts and other policy initiatives, but Britt said that “in my community right now, taxes and those issues are not as important as hurricane recovery.”
Campbell did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story, but he used his Facebook page during the storm to share information about relief efforts. His social media message has since pivoted to education and healthcare issues, calling Medicaid expansion “the biggest issue this election.”
In Columbus County, another race rated competitive pits Democrat Barbara Yates-Lockamy, a school board member, against incumbent Republican Rep. Brenden Jones. Both campaigns were suspended during and after the storm, and Yates-Lockamy says low turnout will be a major issue for her campaign.
In neighborhoods where people were displaced, “we had to do some more canvassing to see where people were, see if they needed rides to the polls,” she said.
Initial early voting numbers in Robeson and Columbus are similar to previous election cycles, according to data compiled by the voting advocacy group Democracy NC. But of the 19 counties where the first weekend of early voting had lower turnout than the 2014 midterm, 10 are counties under a federal disaster declaration for Florence. The sharpest drops were in Hyde, Pamlico, Jones and Scotland counties.
The state elections board has taken additional steps to help displaced voters cast absentee ballots if they’ve temporarily relocated to a different county. According to Bitzer, groups most likely to be displaced and skip voting include “younger voters, lower-income voters and the elderly.”
In Columbus, Jones said he’s seeing good crowds at early voting so far, and he’s gotten positive feedback on his response to the storm.
“Folks have appreciated how much we’ve done on the ground with hurricane relief,” he said. “We’re going to keep pressing that issue until we get everything we can for our area.”
Jones said his campaign has also avoided criticizing his opponent in the wake of the storm. “There’s been too much negativity in what has happened” with Florence and the shooting death of a Columbus state trooper, he said.
In addition to Britt and Jones, incumbent Republicans hold four other legislative seats in hurricane-battered districts rated “competitive” by the FreeEnterprise Foundation: Sen. Michael Lee of New Hanover County, Sen. Louis Pate of Wayne, Rep. William Brisson of Bladen, and Sen. Wesley Meredith of Cumberland. Only one competitive race in the area features a Democratic incumbent: Rep. George Graham of Lenoir County, who was redistricted and now faces re-election in a new district that gives the GOP a slight advantage.
Could Graham and other Democrats benefit from the high visibility of their party’s governor in Eastern North Carolina? Gov. Roy Cooper canceled all campaign appearances with his party’s legislative candidates for over a month, but he’s made dozens of trips east to tour storm damage and thank volunteers. He resumed a “limited” schedule of campaign events this week, according to Morgan Jackson, a consultant for the governor’s campaign organization.
A recent poll found high approval for Cooper’s hurricane response efforts, but experts don’t think the goodwill for the governor will benefit Democrats on the ballot.
“I don’t think it would transfer over to other members of his party,” especially because Cooper isn’t on the ballot this year, Prysby said. Bitzer said he’s “hard-pressed to think of any research or anything that says legislators necessarily latch onto coattails effects.”
Graham faces a challenge from Republican Chris Humphrey, who says he’s seen more of Cooper in the district than he has of the incumbent legislator. Graham did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.
While Humphrey suspended his campaign until local schools reopened, he said he’s not worried about losing time to meet voters because he’s already well-known as a former county commissioner and La Grange councilman.
“We just had to refocus and get back to our message: Rural North Carolina is getting left behind and we don’t want to get further pushed back because of storms,” he said. “You hate to lose two or three weeks (of campaigning), but we stayed engaged in the community.”