Privately, many Republicans worry about a bad year in North Carolina. And Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, believes “Trump drag” down the ballot could be devastating. Besides Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, fallout from the controversial House Bill 2 is expected, he said.
One who likely does not share the worry: Senate leader Phil Berger. He is unopposed on Nov. 8. In January he is expected to start a seventh year as Senate leader. Within the General Assembly the Eden Republican and his troops have a reputation for being consistently calm and prepared.
His party holds 34 of the chamber’s 50 seats, a veto-proof supermajority that few experts predict Democrats to smash this cycle. They need to net five seats for that.
“When Republicans redistricted in 2011,” said Michael Bitzer, Catawba College political science professor, “they bought themselves a pretty good insurance policy.”
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More than just favorable district lines, Berger’s Senate has other safeguards, including a formidable campaign war chest. Berger and his allies’ journey to the majority in 2010 was so difficult, Taylor said, along the way they learned to stockpile resources for scarce times.
“We expect an avalanche of money from Berger in the next two to three weeks,” said Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat. “But we also expect to make some dents in their armor.”
Democrats see seven compelling races to watch — in Wake County, Wilmington, Fayetteville, Greensboro and the Outer Banks.
They say their voters now view HB2, the law limiting protections for LGBT people, as an economic issue starving the state of new jobs. They also hear concerns about traditional issues: the environment, alternative energy and education.
“We’re competitive in enough races that we should eliminate the supermajority this year,” Blue said. “And after redistricting next year, we will take back the majority in 2018.”
Republicans say voters care more about dinner table issues. In that sense, they believe North Carolina’s recovering economy is their ticket to ride. They also say holding 34 seats is a high-water mark.
“Literally, mathematically, you can almost go no higher,” said Dallas Woodhouse, state Republican Party executive director.
Races to watch
Recent years have seen District 1 in eastern North Carolina host a routinely competitive race. This year is no different.
Democrat Brownie Futrell, a retired Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper publisher, is challenging two-term Republican incumbent Bill Cook. As of June 30, Cook had raised $73,000 with $62,000 on hand, while Futrell had raised $103,000 with $76,000 on hand. State Republicans helped Cook in 2014 when he defeated former Sen. Stan White with 53.5 percent of the vote. They gave him $387,000. The district includes all or parts of Beaufort, Camden, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Hyde, Pasquotank and Perquimans counties.
Down the coast, Wilmington’s District 9 “leans Republican,” according to the N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation, but routinely hosts intriguing battles. This election cycle it features one of the youngest candidates, 28-year-old Democrat Andrew Barnhill. He is wrestling with Republican incumbent Michael Lee, a Wilmington attorney. Barnhill is an attorney and minister and has been actively campaigning since the last election.
The race began fast and by June 30 both candidates had raised more than $200,000 combined. Barnhill has opposed offshore natural gas drilling, vowed to expand Medicaid and tied Lee to controversial GOP decisions in Raleigh, including his vote for HB2, which recently led the NCAA and ACC to move college sports events out of North Carolina.
Republicans counterpunched by attacking Barnhill for a trip he allegedly took to an African casino resort while supposedly on a mission trip helping the poor. An N.C. GOP-created website, partyboybarnhill.com, was amplified with $120,000 worth of TV ads.
Money is also flowing to the Piedmont. In Greensboro, Guilford County and High Point’s District 27, Republicans have spent $330,000 on ads supporting two-term incumbent Sen. Trudy Wade in her battle against Democrat Michael Garrett. The owner of a marketing firm, Garrett has blasted Wade’s HB2 support, environmental record and efforts to restructure the Greensboro City Council, where she once served.
In swing districts around the expanding suburbs of Raleigh and Charlotte, seats are also in play. Pollsters say out-of-state newcomers with no local political allegiances could tip the scales in several races where HB2 has stifled positive sentiments about North Carolina’s improved economy.
Bitzer said HB2 has exposed how much Berger, who represents rural Rockingham County, has moved the Republican Party toward its more conservative rural constituents, who view HB2 as a public-safety issue.
“When you have one policy issue seen so differently depending on the social lens, it is amazing that we are the same state,” said Bitzer.
Tight Raleigh-area races include District 18, where two-term Republican Sen. Chad Barefoot is in a dogfight against Democrat Gil Johnson. Barefoot first won the 18th, which covers eastern Wake and Franklin counties, in 2012 by ousting incumbent Democratic Sen. Doug Berger. In 2014 he received about 53 percent of the vote against Sarah Crawford. The son-in-law of the N.C. Values Coalition leader Tami Fitzgerald, Barefoot is known around the General Assembly as an HB2 defender and champion of conservative legislation, particularly education policy.
Johnson, a former Franklin County Board of Education chairman and a retired air traffic controller, has hammered Barefoot’s HB2 support. In the last reporting period, Johnson had about $40,000 on hand. Barefoot had $91,000 and could get help from Republicans if he needs it.
Maps could change
In the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains, Democrat Jane Hipps of Waynesville is challenging Republican two-term incumbent Sen. Jim Davis for the District 50 seat. In 2014, Davis defeated Hipps with 54 percent of the vote. This time around Hipps’ fundraising total is running about three times what it was in 2014 while Davis is on about the same pace.
Hipps is a pediatric nurse and educator who was married to the late former district attorney and state Sen. Charlie Hipps. Davis is an orthodontist.
Fracking has been a major issue in their races. This year Hipps and Davis are sparring over sales taxes the legislature added to car repairs and other services as well as the flow of resources to the mountain district.
Nearly 30 House and Senate districts were declared illegal in August by federal judges because of racial gerrymandering. The three-judge panel ordered North Carolina to draw new state legislative district maps in 2017.
Democrats feel confident new maps will help them flip the chamber in 2018, which requires gains this year.
When talk of possible Senate Democratic gains arises, Republicans turn their thoughts to Berger’s team. “You know,” Woodhouse said between meetings at state GOP headquarters, “we have some seriously competitive races that are really very close. But the Senate caucus political people show an amazing ability to win races, especially the close ones.”
Senate District 18
Education: Master of arts in Christian ethics, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest; bachelor of science, Appalachian State University
Professional experience: Vice president of institutional advancement at Louisburg College
Political resume: In his second N.C. Senate term
Family: Married with three children
Education: UNC-Chapel Hilll; air traffic control training, Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City
Professional experience: 26-year career as air-traffic controller; textile industry
Political resume: Franklin County Board of Education member since 2005
Family: Married with three children and six grandchildren
Education: Bachelor of science and law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill
Professional experience: Clinical assistant professor of legal studies in the Kenan-Flagler Business School, UNC-Chapel Hill; attorney in private practice for more than 20 years
Political experience: Two-plus terms in the state Senate
Family: Husband, three children
Education: Bachelor of science from UNC-Chapel Hill in business administration with a concentration in accounting
Professional experience: Former certified public accountant and small business owner
Political experience: Member of the Wake County school board
Family: Husband, two adult daughters
Education: Bachelor of science in biology from Kansas State University
Professional experience: Research technician for Duke University
Political experience: Has been a candidate for state Senate, state House and Wake County commission seats
Education: University of Maryland graduate
Professional experience: Retired from Potomac Electric Power Co.
Political experience: In his second term in the N.C. Senate after one term in the N.C. House
Family: Married to Holly; two grown children and two granddaughters
Education: Duke University graduate
Professional experience: Retired publisher of the Washington Daily News
Political resume: Former Washington City Board of Education member
Family: Married to Susan; two children and one grandson
Education: Bachelor of arts from Furman University; Duke University, religion and law
Professional experience: Nonprofit, political and legal sectors; minister, Ridge Road Baptist Church
Political resume: Staff to U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre; New Hanover County Zoning Board of Adjustment
Education: Bachelor of arts from UNC-Chapel Hill; law degree, Wake Forest University School of Law
Professional experience: Attorney
Political resume: In his second Senate term; former chairman, N.C. State Ports Authority board; former N.C. Board of Transportation member
Family: Married with four children
Education: Bachelor of arts, UNC Greensboro
Professional experience: Member, board of directors, Sierra Holdings LLC. Managing partner, Marketing Associates. Financial adviser, Morgan Stanley.
Political resume: 2010 candidate for N.C. House
Education: Bachelor of arts, Greensboro College; doctor of veterinary medicine, Tuskegee Institute, 1980
Professional experience: Principal and owner of Jamestown Veterinary Hospital
Political resume: Two-term N.C. senator; former Guilford County commissioner and Greensboro City Council member
Education: Bachelor of arts, Southern Adventist University; doctor of dental surgery, Loma Linda University School of Dentistry; master of science, orthodontics, Loma Linda
Professional experience: Orthodontist
Political resume: Three terms in N.C. Senate; Macon County commissioner
Family: Wife Judy; two children; two grandchildren.
Education: Bachelor of arts, Mary Baldwin College; master of arts, Western Carolina University; master’s in nursing, Vanderbilt University
Professional experience: 38 years in public education; former pediatric nurse practitioner
Political resume: Never held elected office
Family: Widowed; three adult children, five grandchildren