Welcome to part two of my North Carolina instalment in my series “Let the States Decide”. In part one I covered the current composition and Senate races. Now I’ll be covering the House races in North Carolina. If you haven’t read part one, be sure to give it a read.
As a reminder, Republicans hold a 65-55 majority in the chamber, meaning Democrats need six seats to take a majority. There are a lot of competitive districts in play, so I’ll jump straight into them.
Democratic House Targets
Top pickup opportunities
Several seats are in close range for Democrats, putting them in a strong position to flip the chamber. The first of these is the 63rd district in Burlington. Governor Roy Cooper won the district, and incumbent Stephen Ross narrowly won in 2018, in a district redder than the newly redrawn one. Now he’s running against Democrat Ricky Hurtado. Hurtado is a son of Salvadoran immigrants and a community leader. Hurtado appears to have a slight advantage, and Ross will need to make up for his poor fundraising in order to win.
The next best opportunity is the 9th district in the eastern part of the state. Containing southeastern areas of Greenville and Pitt County, it has enough Democratic support to make it competitive. Hillary Clinton and Roy Cooper both won the district by less than a point, which is a significant change from the old district, which was Republican-leaning. The last person to win this seat was Greg Murphy, who vacated the seat last year when he won a seat in Congress. The Republican nominee this year is appointed incumbent Perrin Jones. Since there is no elected incumbent, this is effectively an open seat, which may prove beneficial to Democrats. The Democratic nominee is Brian Farkas, an architect, who is tied in fundraising with Jones. A positive environment may help Farkas, who is in a good position to flip this seat.
In Lewisville and eastern Winston-Salem, Democrats are contesting the open 74th district. This suburban district has become more Democratic in recent years, and Republican incumbent Debra Conrad resigned earlier this year. Democratic nominee Dan Besse has centered his campaign around co-operation and bipartisanship. On the Republican side, Lewisville small business owner Jeff Zenger is running as a “principled conservative”. Besse has fundraising on his side, and has a lot of room to grow with suburban voters.
After redrawing districts around Fayetteville, Democrats may hope to win every seat in Cumberland County. The 45th district, which, before redrawing, contained the reddest parts of the county, now takes in some Democratic areas. The Republican incumbent, John Szoka, is running again, but his district is now 15 points bluer. Given this, it may not be the right environment for Szoka to run in a district like this. Furthermore, Frances Jackson, the Democratic challenger, claimed to have raised half a million dollars. This would more than make up for her financial disadvantage from previously. She may use this environment, as well as the district’s increased diversity, to her advantage.
Moving down to the coast, the Wilmington-based 20th district is a top target for Democrats. Roy Cooper lost this district narrowly, but incumbent Republican Holly Grange retired to run an unsuccessful run for Governor. Instead, the Republican incumbent from the 19th district, Ted Davis, is running in the newly-redrawn 20th against Democrat Adam Ericson. Both candidates have listed issues such as healthcare and education as their priorities. Ericson has campaigned against “corporate polluters” and the fossil fuel lobby. Ericson’s environmental message may play well in this coastal district, where offshore drilling is a big issue. He will have to rely on suburban voters to flip this historically Republican seat.
Highly competitive seats
The 59th district in eastern Guilford County is showing promising signs for state Democrats. Combining African Americans with some of the redder Greensboro suburbs, the district is light red. The incumbent is Republican Jon Hardister, who is the Majority Whip. The Democrat challenging him is Nicole Quick, who is running with a focus on education and job creation. Although Hardister has defended his position on education, Quick has attacked him on Republican budget cuts. It remains to be seen whether Quick’s message will resonate in this suburban and exurban district, but if she wins she will be unseating a relatively established figure in the state capital.
Cabarrus County in the Charlotte suburbs is historically very Republican, but Democrats are hoping to flip two seats here. The more competitive of these is the 82nd district, centered around Kannapolis and northern Concord. Republican Linda Johnson was the representative of the district, until she died of a stroke in March. Fellow Republican Kristin Baker was appointed to fill the seat, and she is running for a full term. Running against her in this semi-open seat is Aimy Steele, an elementary school principal from Concord. As her job title may suggest, Steele is running on a platform of improving education. Partisan lean and fundraising are against Steele, but Democrats may see an opening here this year.
The other Cabarrus County based district is the 83rd, represented by Republican Larry Pittman. Pittman won narrowly against Democrat Gail Young in 2018, and now Young is coming back for a rematch. While this Concord-based district may seem red at every level, the main problem for Republicans is candidate quality. Pittman has compared Abraham Lincoln to Hitler, called for ignoring the Supreme Court ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, denied climate change, and called for the shooting of protestors. These controversial statements put Pittman in a dangerous position in a district which should, in theory, be safe for Republicans. This, combined with Young outraising him, may push her over the edge, but it’s still Pittman’s race to lose.
The final race on the Democratic target list is the 1st district. Although it is one of the most rural districts in the state, it has a sizeable African American population. It’s an Obama-Trump district that Roy Cooper lost by 7.6 points. The seat is represented by Republican Ed Goodwin. Goodwin is a first-term State Representative, and he won in 2018 by a respectable margin. Democrat Emily Nicholson is running against Goodwin, and she’s raising an impressive amount of money in the process. The possibility of appealing to enough swing voters in this diverse district to close Goodwin’s lead is still something of a longshot.
Republican House targets
Highly competitive seats
Two seats can be put on the Republican list of top targets, the more likely of which is the 66th district. Conservative Democrat Ken Goodman represented this Republican-leaning district until Governor Roy Cooper appointed him to the state Industrial Commission. Goodman’s replacement, Democrat Scott Brewer, is running for a full term to the seat this year, but is very vulnerable. Republicans won this district across the board in 2016, with the only Democrat winning it being Secretary of State Elaine Marshall. Republican nominee Ben Moss seems favored to pick up the seat, and Brewer’s only hope is to retain Goodman’s historical support.
The other highly competitive seat that Republicans have a hope of flipping is the 43rd district. Another conservative Democrat, Elmer Floyd, represents the district, but he was defeated in a primary earlier this year by Kimberly Hardy. This was a risky move by Democrats, considering the district is a lot whiter and more Republican with redistricting. Where the old district was very safe for Democrats, Governor Pat McCrory won the new one by 2.9 points. Hardy is by no means a weak candidate though, and Republican nominee Diane Wheatley can’t compete with her financially.
In the western reaches of the state is the 119th district, a small patch of competitive areas in a sea of dark red. It’s competitive due to a combination of college voters and ancestral Democrats. The last four general elections were all between the same two candidates, Democrat Joe Sam Queen and Republican Mike Clampitt. Queen won all but the 2016 race and is running as an incumbent this year, again against Clampitt. History, fundraising and internal polling suggest that Queen is in the lead, but the seat has shown mixed trends. Roy Cooper’s overperformance in western North Carolina may help Queen downballot.
Huntersville is one of the more Republican areas of Mecklenburg County, and the 98th district reflects that. Despite this Republican lean, Democrat Christy Clark still managed to flip it in 2018. The previous incumbent, John Bradford, is running again, but Clark has incumbency and financial advantages. Clark still has the edge, but it is easy to envision a comeback for Bradford.
In the Raleigh suburbs, Democrats flipped the 37th district in 2018, and Republicans may hope to flip it back. To Republicans’ advantage, the seat is much more favorable to them than the rest of Wake County, having been made about two points redder with redistricting. Additionally, they hope that Erin Pare will prove to be a strong recruit. However, Democrat Sydney Batch now has incumbency on her side, as well as a large war chest.
The 24th district, synonymous with Wilson County, is a potential Republican target. Wilson County has a large minority population and was won by Roy Cooper by 8.7 points. However, in 2018 a conservative-leaning African-American independent almost unseated incumbent Jean Farmer-Butterfield. Additionally, Farmer-Butterfield was appointed to the state Employment Security Board of Review earlier this year, leaving appointed incumbent Linda Cooper-Suggs to run in her place. This time around Republicans don’t have as strong of a candidate though, so Cooper-Suggs looks to be in a good position.
The 93th district is in many ways similar to the previously mentioned 119th district. Containing Ashe and Watauga Counties, it is in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s only competitive because of Democratic support in Boone, which is the home of Appalachian State University. However, the district isn’t looking quite as competitive as the 119th. For one, Ray Russell defeated a relatively uncontroversial candidate in 2018, and he seems like a strong incumbent.
Too Long, Didn’t Read
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. North Carolina easily has more noteworthy competitive state legislative races than any other state in the country. You don’t have to memorize the state of play in every district, so here’s a few things you do have to note.
First, although I’ve used the presidential margin to gauge partisan lean in the past, in this case it’s better to use the more predictive gubernatorial margin. It had a reliable track record in 2018, where many seats Roy Cooper overperformed in flipped to Democrats.
Second, we’ve seen fundraising numbers from Q2, but the Q3 deadline is just round the corner, so expect a big drop of fundraising numbers in the next few days. If they’re anything like what we’ve seen from Frances Jackson, we’re likely to see a huge fundraising haul from Democrats. This would put them in an excellent position to flip one or both chambers of the legislature.
Path to victory in the General Assembly
Sources on the ground in North Carolina believe that Democrats are explicitly favored to flip four State Senate seats: the 1st, 18th, 31st and 39th districts. If they do flip these seats, that would put the chamber at a 25-25 tie. This would mean that the Lieutenant Governor would be the tie-breaker for who gets the majority. Since the race is effectively a tossup, it seems like it would be the most likely tipping point race.
As for the House, it’s a lot more complicated. With so many competitive seats, there is a multitude of ways that Democrats can achieve control. They are favored, in my view, to flip the 9th, 45th, 63rd and 74th districts while losing the 66th. The 20th and 59th would bring them to a tie. Beyond that I’d imagine they’d get to the majority by flipping either the 1st or 82nd, or by keeping the 66th.
Overall, I’d say the Senate is a tossup, while the House tilts toward Republicans. It could be that Democrats flip either one without the other, fail to flip one, or flip both. Anything is possible.
The North Carolina General Assembly: What’s at Stake
It could be argued that North Carolina has the most important state legislative elections this year, for a few reasons. First, it’s a big state, with over ten million people being affected. Second, the result could be anywhere from a Republican trifecta (very unlikely) to a Democratic trifecta (a modest chance). Third, redistricting is on its way. Despite the courts establishing a precedent for fairer maps, the legislature has the constitutional authority to approve maps. The governor has no veto authority with redistricting, so the maps will depend entirely on who controls the legislature. The composition of the North Carolina congressional delegation, as well as future control of the legislature, will depend heavily on this.
Thank you for sticking around until the end of this instalment. A lot of races are worth looking at in this state, so make sure you look into them as the polls close.
It’s going to be a busy week and a half. I have three articles lined up before Election Day, the next one covering the New Hampshire Senate. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave a comment, email me, or send me a direct message on Twitter.
Thanks to Ballotpedia and CNalysis for providing useful information on these races. Very special thanks to Ethan Chen for making the maps, and being a key source of information in writing this article.