Politics & Government

Democrats’ money strategy helped a gun-control advocate flip a deep-red NC district

Democrats break Republican supermajority in NC House

In returns available at 11:40 p.m., N.C. Democrats break the Republican supermajority in the state House, although it was less clear if they would duplicate the victory in the Senate.
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In returns available at 11:40 p.m., N.C. Democrats break the Republican supermajority in the state House, although it was less clear if they would duplicate the victory in the Senate.

It should have been a district where a Republican would win easily.

It’s the northern tip of Mecklenburg County where, in 2016, Republican Rep. John Bradford easily defeated an unaffiliated candidate — Democrats didn’t even challenge him — and Donald Trump won with 51 percent of the votes to Hillary Clinton’s 43 percent in the area that would become Bradford’s 2018 district.

Instead Democrat Christy Clark, a first-time candidate and advocate for laws to protect people from gun violence, won Tuesday. Her victory helped Democrats end the Republican supermajority in the House. Republicans can no longer marginalize Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper on most issues because they won’t have enough votes to easily overturn his vetoes.

Voters in the state’s largest counties of Mecklenburg and Wake replaced Republicans with Democrats up and down the ballot in a wave that also swept out three incumbent Republican county commissioners in Mecklenburg and a longtime Republican sheriff in Wake.

Asked what made the difference in this year’s races, GOP consultant Larry Shaheen said, “That’s easy – money.”

In the state House races, Democrats in the closely contested races had significant financial advantages.

Clark, a paralegal from Huntersville, outspent Bradford, founder and CEO of a real estate and property management company from Cornelius, by nearly 5-to-1. She got $653,000 from the state Democratic Party.

She beat Bradford by 333 votes in unofficial returns.

It was a pattern in House races in the Wake and Mecklenburg suburbs where Republicans lost. Republicans were running in districts built to give them a partisan edge. They faced a wall of money and resources from the state Democratic Party that was part of an effort called Break the Majority. Cooper used his own donors and databases to help the effort raise about $7 million.

“They got away with it because the governor was able to put half a million dollars into Christy Clark’s campaign and the Republican Party didn’t have the resources to compete,” Shaheen said.

Bradford could not be reached.

In an interview, Clark said the ads were important because they helped introduce her to voters. Television was part of a larger campaign that involved weeks of door-knocking and other voter contacts, she said.

One ad tied Bradford to a local controversy, I-77 toll lanes.

“Break the Majority ran an incredible field game. I got support from Moms Demand Action,” Clark said. She is a former volunteer leader of the state chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

“We got out the vote and contacted thousands and thousands of voters in this district,” Clark said.

Clark began volunteering after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children and six staff members were shot and killed.

“My youngest child was in first grade at the time,” she said. “I could envision that being my child very easily.”

Clark has spent time in Raleigh talking to legislators about gun violence.

The issue didn’t come up in the campaign, Clark said, though she saw a mailer that referred to her as a radical protester.

“I don’t think they landed in the way they thought they were going to,” she said. “People have met me and know the difference.”

In Mecklenburg County, Democrats in the four most competitive state House races raised a total of $3 million. Their Republican opponents, all incumbents, raised just $1.1 million. Three of the four Democrats won. The fourth, Rachel Hunt, led Rep. Bill Brawley by 64 votes Friday, with final ballots still to be counted next week.

In Wake County, all three incumbent Republicans lost House races. They raised $992,000 to their Democratic challengers’ $2.6 million. The Republican candidates got far less financial help from their state party than the Democrats did from theirs.

Dallas Woodhouse, state Republican Party executive director, said the GOP knew they would face money challenges. Democrats had an advantage in Cooper’s fundraising abilities, he said, and “a tremendous amount of money coming from left outside groups. That’s not unique to North Carolina. It certainly hurt us.”

In the 2020 election, the fundraising differences won’t be as stark, Woodhouse said, and he expects Republicans will win back some seats.

“I’m a believer in money in politics,” he said. “In this case, it worked out for them.”

Democrats say by fielding candidates in every legislative district for the first time, they put Republican incumbents on defense and forced them to spend money around the state while Democrats were able to target races.

“We had a clear-eyed vision from day one where the targets were,” said Morgan Jackson, a Democratic consultant who worked on the Break the Majority campaign.

In addition to Clark, the party gave a lot of support to other Democrats either in contributions or in-kind spending. It spent nearly $900,000 on Hunt, $295,000 on Wesley Harris and $104,000 on Brandon Lofton in the Charlotte suburbs.

Hunt, who raised more than $1.2 million, spent $840,000 on TV ads, according to WRAL’s Political Ad Tracker. That was more than all but three congressional candidates. Clark spent $450,000 on TV.

In Wake County, Sydney Batch raised more than $1 million, with more than $595,000 of her total coming from the Democratic Party. Her opponent, Republican incumbent John Adcock, raised about $237,000, with about $80,000 coming from the state GOP.

Seven-term incumbent Nelson Dollar of Cary, the chief budget writer in the House, raised more than $500,000, with $57,400 coming from his state party. Democrat Julie von Haefen raised about $800,000, with nearly $538,000 coming from state Democrats.

Incumbent Republican Chris Malone raised about $250,000, while Democrat Terence Everitt raised nearly $800,000, including Democratic Party support that reached nearly $490,000.

“It was a huge difference,” Jackson said of the money. “Look, money matters. Money allows you to get your message out to voters. … We had to overcome a built-in advantage in gerrymandering Republicans have. And the only way to do that was through money.”

Bonner: 919-829-4821; @Lynn_Bonner