For the first time in years, North Carolina hasn’t been the center of the political landscape. Lacking a top-tier Senate contest and with a Republican win of some type expected by all sides, the Tar Heel State was content to slip quietly into the background behind battleground states like Arizona, Nevada, and its neighbor to the south, Georgia.
But lurking behind this quiet political environment was a mild Republican wave – the utter collapse of Democrats in the state’s rural east and a second straight clean sweep in the judiciary. This silent revolution could have ramifications for years to come, as Republicans prepare for a new legislative session that will see both a slew of new laws heading to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk, along with new congressional maps that will erase the lone Democratic bright spot of the midterms.
Ted Budd easily defeats Cheri Beasley
In perhaps North Carolina’s least interesting Senate election in recent memory, Republican Rep. Ted Budd won a comfortable victory over Democrat Cheri Beasley, the former Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. While a 3.6% margin of victory isn’t extremely impressive on paper, by North Carolina standards it’s a reasonably strong performance.
This was a shockingly low-profile contest, with little media attention nationally or statewide; a Budd victory was seen by many as a foregone conclusion. Because of this, it’s unclear whether the shifts can truly be attributed to long-term trends, or simply depolarization associated with a low-profile contest. Budd make striking gains in the state’s rural east, securing double-digit shifts in a handful of counties; he also performed well in staunchly Democratic Guilford County, which he used to represent in Congress. Beasley, for her part, ran ahead in the state’s rural west, parts of the Sandhills, and the Research Triangle.
Democrats win two rental districts
Democrats did have one bright spot in North Carolina: they managed to secure a 7-7 split in the new House delegation. As expected, Jeff Jackson easily won the new 14th district by a wide margin in a new double-digit Biden seat. In the redrawn 13th, Democrat Wiley Nickel secured an upset victory over gadfly carpetbagger Bo Hines despite the seat narrowly backing Budd. These two seats make up the Democratic gains in the state.
Surprisingly, in the ancestrally Democratic 1st district, Democrat Don Davis won by a closer-than-expected margin of 4.5% over Republican Sandy Smith. This result should greatly concern Democrats: this district voted for Biden by around seven percentage points in 2020 but only barely went to Beasley, and Davis was widely regarded as a far stronger candidate than Smith, who faced allegations of domestic violence. Davis will likely be an underdog in 2024 when this seat is redrawn.
The remaining districts all voted in line with expectations, with two exceptions: Democrat Kathy Manning only held the Biden+12.4 NC-06 by only 8.6%, and Republican Chuck Edwards ran slightly behind Trump in NC-11. Republicans should be glad that Madison Cawthorn was unseated in his primary; this seat could have been competitive with him on the ballot.
This congressional map will not be in use in 2024. Because it is an interim congressional map, it will be redrawn, and Governors cannot veto maps in North Carolina. With the Supreme Court now in Republican hands, the legislature will have free reign to draw the map of their choice, and it is widely expected that Republicans will aim for a map that splits 11-3. This can easily be done by creating vote sinks in Charlotte, Raleigh, and the Research Triangle areas; the remaining seats could average anywhere from Trump+11 to Trump+20.
Sweeping legislative gains for Republicans
In the highly-anticipated state legislative races, where redrawn lines gave Democrats theoretical chances at majorities, Republicans once again defied the odds and made substantial gains. In the State Senate, Republicans managed to regain their supermajority, holding all of their competitive seats while gaining two districts: SD04 (Trump+6), where Buck Newton dispatched Toby Fitch by a 15-point margin, and SD03 (Biden+4), an ancestrally Democratic seat that Bobby Hanig flipped by over 5%.
Democrats did, however, stave off potentially catastrophic loses elsewhere. In a surprisingly tight race, SD05 (Biden+13) was decided by just over four percentage points. In SD19 (Biden+10), Gov. Cooper’s handpicked recruit Val Applewhite staved off a challenge from Wesley Meredith. Additionally, Democrats managed to hold their two competitive Wake County seats: SD17 (Biden+45) and SD18 (Biden+3). SD17 is particularly important, as a loss would have likely ended the career of Sydney Batch, who Democrats see as a rising star. What could have been a bloodbath instead balances out to a 30-20 chamber – still a bad situation for Democrats, but not nearly as bad as it could have been.
Democrats fared better in the state House, but only slightly. Republicans gained two districts to achieve a decisive 71-49 majority, only a single seat short of a supermajority. Like in the Senate, Republicans overperformed in the state’s rural east, flipping competitive seats like HD05 (Biden+0.2), HD09 (Biden+3.7), HD24 (Biden+0.9), and HD25 (Biden+1.9). Perhaps the most shocking upset of the night came from HD32, a Biden+10, 43% black seat north of Raleigh; this wasn’t even on my radar to flip, frankly. Republicans now hold a stunning 4-2 advantage in the “black belt” region, yet another sign that the region is undergoing a political revolution.
Like in the Senate, the House could have been far, far worse for Democrats. The party held up remarkably well in urban Wake and Mecklenburg counties, holding ancestrally Republican seats like HD35 (Biden+4.9) and HD103 (Biden+8.3) by respectable margins. The party also flipped HD73 (Biden+4.5), a crucial new swing district in Cabarrus County. Although Democrats did stave off a supermajority, they did so by only a razor-thin margin. Republicans are fairly confident that they can either “peel off” moderate Democrats on some bills; barring that, they likely plan to schedule votes for when a handful of Democrats are absent.
Republicans sweep the courts
For the second cycle in a row, Republicans won every statewide judicial election, further cementing their dominance on the Court of Appeals while flipping the Supreme Court from a 4-3 Democratic majority to a 5-2 Republican one. Every Republican judicial candidate won by a larger margin than Budd.
With the state’s highest court now firmly in Republican hands, North Carolina Democrats have lost their biggest check on Republican power. In recent years, the court dealt with a number of highly-controversial cases using novel judicial theories that infuriated Republicans, including:
- Declaring that the state constitution bans gerrymandering and requires a mathematical formula be used to determine proportionality.
- Declaring that a constitutional amendment passed by voters might be unconstitutional because the legislature was gerrymandered.
- Declaring that the judiciary has the authority to appropriate money.
These rulings and precedents – all of which were of dubious legal merit – met with sharp condemnation by the then-Republican minority and are expected to be overturned by the new court. As a consequence, the legislature likely has free reign to redraw the Congressional map as they see fit, and might be able to get a “mulligan” on the court-mandated legislative redraw.