Rob Christensen

Three GOP seats in Congress are up for grabs in an unusually unpredictable NC election

Just when we thought that competitive congressional elections in North Carolina were going the way of Blockbuster video stores and telephone booths, next month we will have several honest-to-goodness U.S. House races.

Three of the Tar Heel State’s 13 U.S. House seats are being vigorously contested. That is to say: Less than a month before Election Day, we cannot say with absolute certainty who will win.

Genuine U.S. House races in North Carolina have become a rarity, largely because of the legislature’s extreme gerrymandering.

During the last congressional election in 2016, not a single U.S. House race in North Carolina was competitive — by that I mean the margin of victory was less than 10 points.

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Nor was there a competitive race in 2014. To find a close race you have to go back to 2012, when Republicans — running for the first time in newly GOP-crafted districts – were ousting Democrats.

There are several reasons why we have more competitive elections this time. The federal courts have ruled that the legislature unconstitutionally gerrymandered the congressional districts, forcing them to draw slightly fairer districts. The courts have ruled that the newly revised districts are also unconstitutional, but said there was no time to draw new maps in time for the elections.

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There is a general presumption that there is a blue wave coming that will power Democrats into office during the midterms. There is a strong reaction among Democrats to President Donald Trump that is the political equivalent of the conservative Tea Party movement that arose after the election of President Barack Obama.

History also favors the Democrats. The president’s party historically has lost seats in the first midterm tests after his election.

But there are many things that we don’t know. Polling earlier this year showed a large edge for Democrats among people caring about the midterms. But the GOP has been closing that energy gap. Trump’s polling numbers have also improved.

We don’t know how the tumultuous confirmation fight for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh is going to play out – energizing women or creating a GOP backlash.

For those of you who like reading tea leaves, there has been a strong upsurge in requests by registered Democrats for mail-in absentee ballots – a category usually dominated by Republicans, according to Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College, writing on his blog, Old North State Politics.

The Republicans hold a 10-3 advantage in the U.S. House delegation in a closely divided state.

But this year three Republican seats seem up for grabs. They are:

McCready vs. Harris

The 9th district seat in the Charlotte area is held by Robert Pittenger, who was upset in the primary by the Rev. Mark Harris, the former president of the State Baptist Convention.

Dan McCready is the Democrats’ dream candidate, a Harvard business school graduate and a former Marine and Iraq veteran who is shown in one TV commercial being baptized in the Euphrates River.

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He has pledged not to vote for Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi as speaker if elected, and emphasizes he will work with both Democrats and Republicans.

But this seat has been a tough nut for the Democrats to crack. It has been in GOP hands since 1963. The district voted for Trump in 2016 by a 11.6 point margin. Appealing Democratic candidates have fallen short here before, such as D.G. Martin, a former Green Beret and now a UNC-TV host.

Harris is a more polarizing figure than Pittenger, having led state effort to pass Amendment One, the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages. He has also made controversial remarks about women’s core role being mothers – not exactly on message in the #MeToo era. But it also means that social conservatives will likely turn out in large numbers for him.

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Charlotte is trending more Democrat, but the suburbs have a strong Republican tilt.

Harris has also been on the ballot before, having run already for the U.S. House and Senate.

Two recent polls showed McCready leading and one found Harris leading.

The Cook Political Report calls the race a toss-up. Inside Elections with Nathan Gonzales says it tilts Republican. Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball has it leaning Democrat.

Budd vs. Manning

In the 13th district, first-term Republican Rep. Ted Budd, a gun shop owner and investment analyst from Advance, is being challenged by Kathy Manning, a former immigration lawyer.

The 13th district used to be centered in the Triangle and represented by Democrat Brad Miller. Then the legislature redrew the lines, and Republican George Holding was elected. Then it redrew the lines again, moving it to the center of the state in a district located mainly in the greater Triad area.

It still has a Republican tilt, with Trump carrying the district by 9 points.

Rep. Ted Budd, R-N.C., speaks to a reporter in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Feb. 28, 2016. U.S. President Donald Trump addressed a joint session of Congress in his first major speech since inauguration. Allison Shelley McClatchy

Budd has considerable appeal, defeating a huge field of prominent Republicans to capture the GOP nomination during the last election. He easily dispatched his last Democratic opponent by 12 points, but members of Congress are considered most vulnerable when seeking re-election to a second term.

Manning is running on the issue of preserving health insurance for people with pre-existing conditions. She is the first woman to head the Jewish Federations of North America.

Kathy Manning Photo 1.jpg
Kathy Manning

This is one of those races that will test the political power of the women’s movement.

One recent poll showed Budd up by five points.

Cook and Sabato rate this election a toss-up, while Gonzales says this race tilts Republican.

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Holding vs. Coleman

In the 2nd district, Republican Rep. George Holding, a former U.S. attorney and a member of a leading banking family, is being challenged by Democrat Linda Coleman, both of Raleigh.

Holding represented the 13th district two terms before being redistricted. He then defeated fellow Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers, who previously represented the 2nd district.

The race pits two political veterans.

Holding is a lawyer and former aide to U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. He formerly served as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

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Linda Coleman, left, and George Holding N&O file photos

Coleman is a former teacher, former Wake County commissioner, former state House member and former state personnel director under Gov. Bev Perdue. She twice was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor.

The district, which includes Franklin, Harnett and Nash and parts of Wake, Johnston, and Wilson counties, is Republican leaning. Holding won the seat by 13.4 points last time and Trump carried the district by 9.6 points.

Holding and the GOP are attacking Coleman as a tax-raising career politician, who is late in paying her own taxes.

Holding has been attacked for taking money from the pharmaceutical industry and for not supporting the Affordable Care Act.

Several polls show the race evenly split. Independent analysts have this seat leaning or tilting Republican.

The Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal-leaning group which is based in New York, examined North Carolina’s revised congressional and legislative districts and found that “the degree to which both maps entrench Republicans is remarkable.”

It concluded that for Democrats to flip one congressional seat would require the Democratic vote to rise to 52 percent – a height reached only once in the past six elections, during the victory by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama election in 2008.

It said an Obama-like Democratic wave could win the Democrats two new U.S. House seats, but to win a third would require “an electoral wave unlike anything North Carolina has seen in recent history.”

At this point, anything is possible because turnout in midterm elections is so unpredictable. It is possible the Democrats will pick up three seats, changing the North Carolina delegation’s makeup to 7-6 Republican. Or just as likely, the Republicans could maintain their 10-3 margin of strength.

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Christensen: 919-829-4532; @oldpolhack