State Politics

Parties fight over legislative seats, but control will stay with GOP

John Alexander, the Republican candidate for Senate District 15, center, chats with Joey Stansbury of Raleigh, right, on Wednesday during an event hosted by the social group Conservatism on Tap at the Busy Bee Cafe in Raleigh.
John Alexander, the Republican candidate for Senate District 15, center, chats with Joey Stansbury of Raleigh, right, on Wednesday during an event hosted by the social group Conservatism on Tap at the Busy Bee Cafe in Raleigh. tlong@newsobserver.com

State Senate candidates John “Johnny Mac” Alexander and Tom Bradshaw met about four decades ago in the Raleigh Jaycees.

Today, they are prominent in the community – the downtown YMCA is named after the Alexander family and a stretch of highway through Raleigh is named after Bradshaw, the former Raleigh mayor and state transportation secretary.

Each considers the other a friend. But at least until Election Day, they are political adversaries, vying for a hotly contested Senate seat in a district that includes parts of Raleigh and Wake Forest.

In the state capital’s highly charged political atmosphere, their friendship is an afterthought to those trying to steer them to victory Nov. 4. Alexander, a Republican who runs a trucking business, is labeled a “Tea Party extremist” in one mailer from the state Democratic Party. Bradshaw, a Democrat and a business and financial consultant, is depicted as a wasteful spender in another from state Republicans.

Senate District 15 and several other competitive districts in Wake County are considered key territories in this year’s legislative elections. Republicans almost certainly will maintain control of both the state House and Senate, but Democrats would like to trim the GOP advantage, both to become bigger players in Raleigh and to gain a psychological edge for the 2016 elections.

No fewer than six Republican-controlled legislative seats – two in the Senate and at least four in the House – appear up for grabs in the Raleigh area, a result of open seats, competitive districts and a mix of newcomers and veteran politicians who want to get back in the game.

Several close legislative races also are shaping up in the Asheville area and along the coast, as well as a few rural areas sprinkled in between.

But Joe Stewart, executive director of the N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation, a nonpartisan research group that closely tracks legislative races, said he believes it’s more likely that Democrats and Republicans will swap a few districts across the state without much net change in the chambers’ head counts.

“I just don’t imagine at this point that the numbers after Nov. 4 are much different than they are now,” he said.

No change at the top

One reason Republicans will maintain control is the startling lack of seats being seriously contested. Only about 20 of the 120 House districts and a dozen of the 50 Senate districts across the state are at all competitive this year, political experts agree.

Before Election Day, 59 of 120 House seats and 19 of 50 Senate districts are decided because only one candidate appears on ballots in those races. In dozens of other districts, two candidates are running, but voter registration numbers and habits are so skewed in favor of one party or the other that the districts aren’t considered up for grabs.

As a result, Democrats won’t overcome large deficits in both chambers to win majorities. Instead, they hope to pick off enough seats to eliminate Republican supermajorities in one or both chambers. The Republicans’ 77-43 House majority and 33-17 hold on the Senate mean they have enough votes to reach the three-fifths threshold necessary to override vetoes by Gov. Pat McCrory.

Democrats need net gains of four seats in the 50-member Senate and six in the 120-member House to eliminate the veto-proof majorities. “If they come out of Nov. 4 having done that, that’s a huge victory for them in light of everything else going on,” said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College.

Democrats say the end of the supermajorities would strengthen more moderate Republican lawmakers, whose views align more closely with Democrats. It also would enhance Democrats’ ability to play more meaningful roles in the legislative process and give the governor more bargaining power with the legislature.

Looking ahead to 2016, it also would give Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper more power if he became the next governor. Cooper is expected to challenge McCrory in two years.

Taking voters’ temperature

This year’s General Assembly races may offer the best insight yet into how voters feel about the conservative turn the legislature has taken the past four years. Are the raucous “Moral Monday” protests in Raleigh a snapshot of how most voters feel about their state government under Republican control? Or are the protesters a vocal minority outmatched at the ballot box?

Democratic candidates across the state are criticizing Republicans for not spending enough on education and on protecting the environment. They have gone after the GOP’s push to legalize fracking, the process of extracting shale gas from deep underground to use for energy production, because of concerns over potential drinking water contamination by chemicals used in the process.

But winning enough seats might prove difficult for Democrats. They face legislative districts drawn by Republicans to favor GOP candidates, and Democratic turnout in midterm elections historically isn’t as strong as in presidential election years.

Republicans, of course, have the opposite goal – holding onto the supermajorities. They don’t want Democrats to feel emboldened by winning a few seats in either chamber. There’s also a strategic advantage when negotiating with the other chamber or the governor to have as many members as possible on your side.

Republicans hope voters will give them a mandate to continue the legislative changes they’ve made since taking over four years ago. They tout the lowering of corporate and individual income tax rates, which they say will lead to economic growth and job creation. They also point to this year’s raises for teachers, a declining state unemployment rate and repayment of roughly $2 billion in unemployment insurance debt to the federal government.

A Wake County shootout

With so many competitive races, Wake County is a focal point for political spending on mailers and TV and radio ads. Participating in the spending: the state parties, as well as super PACs, which can receive unlimited donations from individuals, corporations and other political groups.

In the District 15 Senate race, anti-Alexander mailers paid for by the state Democratic Party feature an image of a glass of brown water, dirt floating on the top. It accuses Alexander and his GOP “allies” in the General Assembly of “allowing our water to be poisoned” by legalizing hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking. Other mailers criticize Republicans’ record on education and the coal ash controversy.

Alexander, who has never held elected office, said Democrats are trying to tie him to votes he didn’t take because he has supported Republicans in the past.

“I’ve not messed with anybody’s water,” he said. “I’ve not put chemicals in the ground. I haven’t taken any money out of education. The only thing I may have had to do with coal ash is that I have used electricity.”

The state Republicans, meanwhile, sent out mailers saying Bradshaw “can’t be trusted with our tax dollars.” The ad shows a picture of a steak dinner next to Bradshaw’s photograph and cites a $1,900 dinner Bradshaw attended with the N.C. State Ports Authority board a couple of years ago.

At the time, he was working as interim logistics coordinator for the state Department of Transportation, overseeing operations at the state ports and the Global TransPark in Kinston. Bradshaw said he ultimately paid for his meal.

Wake County is a focus this year in part because an influx of new residents in a dynamic region is shifting the voter makeup, leading to more competitive districts.

“The profile of the constituency changes very quickly for representatives from this area,” said Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University.

Also, a growing number of voters not affiliated with any political party might make the difference in some races. That is especially true in House District 41, which includes parts of Cary, Morrisville and Apex. There, Republican Rep. Tom Murry is being challenged by Democrat Gale Adcock in a race considered a tossup a couple weeks before the election. Forty percent of the voters in the district are unaffiliated.

Wake County voters also see extensive media coverage of the GOP-led legislature. Republican-led changes to election laws, corporate tax cuts and resistance to expanding Medicaid coverage to more people spawned the “Moral Monday” protests and arrests the past couple of years.

“Wake County tends to be a little bit more prone to this sort of urban backlash against the General Assembly because of state government here and the state universities,” Taylor said.

Nathan Babcock, political director at the N.C. Chamber, also said spending in the Raleigh market by outside groups, political parties and the candidates themselves adds to the competitiveness of local races and increases turnout.

“You don’t really get that anywhere else in the state, where all those factors line up,” Babcock said.

Fights around the state

Democrats also hope to pick up seats from Republicans in the western part of the state, and outside groups are active there as well.

In the Asheville area, three Republican incumbents in the House – Reps. Tim Moffitt of Asheville, Nathan Ramsey of Fairview and Michele Presnell of Burnsville – face stiff challenges from Democrats.

In House District 116, Democrat Brian Turner is opposing Moffitt, perhaps the most powerful state legislator who’s in a close race. Moffitt chairs legislative committees and was once mentioned as a possible candidate for House speaker next year.

Turner said he has traveled to other parts of the state to raise money for the race. When asked why, he said Moffitt is “not just a foot-soldier in the (House Speaker) Thom Tillis army” but “one of the field generals.”

“He’s been actively involved in writing and sponsoring and crafting a lot of legislation,” Turner said. “That’s one of the things that makes this race important statewide.”

Moffitt couldn’t be reached.

Elsewhere in the state, Republicans believe they can knock off at least a couple of Democratic incumbents. Among those is a southeastern North Carolina House seat held by Democrat Ken Waddell, as well as the seat in Granville and Person counties long held by Democrat Winkie Wilkins, who is retiring.

As is typical among parties in power, GOP candidates are expected to have more cash down the stretch to spend on ads. Top Republican fundraisers in the House and Senate in safe seats are funneling money to their GOP colleagues in tighter contests.

Asked about cash available for the final weeks before Election Day, Ray Martin, the Senate Republican Caucus director, said he wasn’t worried about getting outspent. “Even with an influx of outside money, I think we’ll be able to match and outgun anything that’s thrown at us,” he said.

Casey Mann, executive director of the N.C. Democratic Party, said if Democrats are going to come back into power in North Carolina, it will be through a methodical process over several election cycles.

“This year is very important to set that groundwork that yes, it’s tough, but it’s not impossible,” Mann said.

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