In North Carolina, all three positions of the trifecta – the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the Governor’s office – will be up for re-election this year. The incumbent Democratic Governor, Roy Cooper, is a heavy favorite for re-election. For this week’s installment of “Let the States Decide,” I’ll be going over the North Carolina Senate.
As I have done for the past few weeks, I’ll be giving a rundown of the state legislature and its competitive races. Since there are so many races to cover, I’ll be splitting this article into two parts. This one will cover the Senate, while Part Two will cover the House.
Redistricting in North Carolina has been a source of decades of litigation. The majority of landmark court rulings that have set standards on redistricting, like Shaw v. Reno, or more recently, Cooper v. Harris, have been decided in North Carolina. This is due to a long history of bizarre and obscene racial gerrymandering by both Democrats and Republicans in the state. Four congressional plans have been struck down in the state since 1990, with the current plan being the last one. In this case, however, the state Supreme Court intervened due to partisan gerrymandering.
The state legislative districts have undergone a similar history. This year, both the state legislative districts, as well as the congressional districts, experienced similar legal challenges. In September 2019, a state Superior Court panel struck down the state legislative plan. Following this, the state legislature drafted two new plans, both with bipartisan support. The new plan redrew some of the districts to maximize Democratic strength in urban areas, in order to cut into the Republican advantage in the state. Now, going into November’s election, Democrats have a shot at flipping one or both chambers in the General Assembly for the first time in a decade.
Before 2018, Republicans held supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature. This, along with the Republicans severely reducing the power of the Governor at the end of 2016, essentially left Governor Roy Cooper powerless. Republicans could override any of his vetoes. In 2018, Democrats broke both supermajorities, giving Cooper’s veto power back. However, Republicans still hold majorities at 29-21 in the Senate, and 65-55 in the House of Representatives.
Democrats will need four seats to take the Senate if they win the race for the Lieutenant Governorship. If they do not win the Lieutenant Governor’s race, they will need five seats. This is because, like in the US Senate, the Lieutenant Governor can cast tie-breaking votes in the North Carolina Senate. Therefore, even though it’s not technically a state legislative race, I’ll be analyzing it just the same.
Democratic Senate Targets
Contentious race for Lieutenant Governor
Unlike any state I’ve gone over in the last few weeks, the outcome of this state legislative chamber will be affected by the outcome of a statewide race. The Lieutenant Governor of North Carolina serves as the second-in-line behind the Governor and sits on several councils and state boards. But most importantly, in the context of this article, he or she serves as President of the North Carolina Senate. This gives him or her the ability to cast a vote in case of a tie.
Incumbent Dan Forest, a Republican, is term-limited, and is running a longshot bid against Governor Roy Cooper. Running to replace the incumbent are Democratic State Representative Yvonne Lewis Holley, and Republican businessman Mark Robinson. Both would be North Carolina’s first African-American Lieutenant Governor. Unlike the race for Governor, this race appears highly competitive. Every independent poll has shown the race tied, or with Robinson in the lead. However, Robinson has come under fire recently for racist, transphobic, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic Facebook posts, which he continues to stand behind. Although this story may disappear in the news cycle, it has serious potential to push the race in Holley’s direction.
Elections Daily Editor-in-chief Eric Cunningham rates the race as a Tossup. This race will likely be pivotal in the Democrats’ hope of flipping the North Carolina Senate. Eric gave an overview of this race, as well as other statewide races, in this article.
Two open Republican-held seats seem likely to flip to the Democrats. The 39th district, formerly represented by now-Congressman Dan Bishop, was redrawn to be a Clinton+20.0 and Cooper+21.1 district. With a complete Republican lockout in Mecklenburg County, the seat is a guaranteed flip. Additionally, the 18th district was redrawn as a Democratic district, despite a failed attempt by the incumbent to tweak it. Incumbent John Alexander is retiring, and Republicans are sleeping on this race, so this Cooper+3.0 district looks like a very likely flip.
As a result of a Democratic advantage in these two seats, Democrats Sarah Crawford and DeAndrea Salvador are looking like they will take these Republican-held seats.
Highly Competitive Seats
With those two seats secured, Democrats need just three more seats to flip the chamber, and only two if Holley wins. The most likely flip is the 1st district on the east coast. The district is largely rural, but African Americans make up about 30% of the population, enough to make it competitive. Democrat Tess Judge is challenging Republican incumbent, Bob Steinburg, in this McCrory+10.1 district. Judge ran for State House in 2016 and 2018, where she performed well both times. She ran up the numbers particularly in her home county, the political enigma that is Dare County. With a coalition of African Americans and the white voters she won before, she has a great shot at winning.
Going east to Winston-Salem, the newly-redrawn 31st district is competitive. Containing Davie and eastern Forsyth Counties, the district was drawn to be more Democratic than its predecessor, even containing some African-American majority parts of Winston-Salem. Incumbent Republican Joyce Krawiek is running against Democratic challenger Terri LeGrand. While Krawiek has done well historically, LeGrand has a 5:1 fundraising advantage. With that advantage, Democrats may see an opening in this seat, and in the chamber as a result.
The 24th district in Alamance and eastern Guilford holds the Democrats’ next-best pickup opportunity. Alamance County is exurban but rapidly growing and straddles the Piedmont Triad and the Research Triangle. Democratic veteran JD Wooten ran against incumbent Rick Gunn in 2018 but fell short. Now Wooten is running again, but this time it’s for an open seat. Wooten and Republican nominee, Amy Galey, are running tough, attack–driven campaigns. Wooten may be able to fight it out and win the open seat, but given the partisan lean it could pose a challenge.
Democrats are also targeting two other seats, both in the northeastern part of the state. The 7th and 11th districts are both Republican-leaning by single-digits, and both have large minority populations. The 11th district is an open seat, so it’s considered the more likely of the two to flip. Both Democrats, Donna Lake and Allen Wellons, have raised large sums of money. In Lake’s case, it’s not nearly enough to compete with incumbent Jim Perry’s multi-million dollar fortune. Both seats are second-tier targets, but still worth watching.
Republican Senate Targets
Highly competitive seats
The battleground this year is not limited to Republican-held seats. Their best opportunity is the 9th district, based in Wilmington. Harper Peterson, the former mayor of Wilmington, defeated incumbent Republican Senator Mike Lee (not that Senator Mike Lee) by just 231 votes. Now Lee is back for a rematch and is looking to use some of his old strength to beat Peterson. Although the district is two points bluer with redistricting, Lee has been steadily outraising Peterson, which may prove dangerous. It’s still Peterson’s race to lose, but this race is a must-win for the former Mayor.
The second target for Republicans is the 17th district. Like the 9th, it’s a district that flipped in 2018 by less than a point margin. And also similar to the 9th, the former incumbent is running. In 2018, Democrat Kirk deViere beat incumbent Wesley Meredith in what was considered an upset. Unlike the 9th, the district is consistently Democratic-leaning due to voters in suburban Fayetteville. Although Meredith’s fundraising is weaker than it was in 2018, the district is very diverse. Minority voters will likely have an impact in this race.
Two more suburban districts are within reach for Republicans. The 17th district in Wake County and the 27th district in Guilford County are both Romney-Clinton districts. Both districts flipped to the Democrats in 2018. While these districts have a “swingy” nature, both became even more Democratic-leaning with redistricting. Furthermore, both Republican nominees are lagging behind massively in fundraising. Republicans would need to rely on a very good environment to flip these seats back.
Until next time
In part two of this article, I’ll be covering the House of Representatives race. I will discuss paths to victory, and possible consequences for each district. Until then, keep an eye on the races I have discussed in this article.
To be continued…