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This map, produced by the Raleigh-based consulting firm Capstrat, depicts the recent election’s westward shift of political power in the North Carolina Legislature. Image courtesy of Capstrat. Click to view the full-size image.

The big headline out of the 2012 election was the different outcome at the top of the ticket, as North Carolina became the only swing state out of Barack Obama’s 2008 victories to move back to the GOP.

But there was one major consistency with four years ago and with the 2010 mid-term elections: a clear movement west in the power structure of the state.

Chris Cooper, director of the Public Policy Institute at Western Carolina University, said the region is quickly returning to a status it hasn’t seen since the days of Liston Ramsey, the powerful former Democratic House speaker from Madison County who served 19 terms in the North Carolina Legislature.

“The west could become as powerful as it was in those days,” Cooper said. “Only it’s a different party.”

In races up and down the ballot, WNC’s tilt to the GOP and the westward shift in the center of gravity of political power was evident.

Shifting political power

The new governor, Republican Pat McCrory, is an easy example, since he represents the shattering of the “Charlotte curse,” a so-called phenomenon that had prevented Queen City politicians from winning statewide.

In the state Legislature, with overall turnout near 2008 levels, Republicans not only maintained their majorities but also built on them, picking up at least one seat in the Senate (a recount is pending in another potential pickup) and nine in the House.

Map of NC’s political power in 2010. Image courtesy of Capstrat. Click to view full-size image.

By the Friday after the election, the Raleigh-based consulting firm Capstrat put the new changes into graphic form, adding a map of the 2012 results to ones they constructed of the previous two cycles. View all the maps here (PDF).

The maps clearly convey the geographic shift west in experience and seniority in the Legislature, an important dynamic for the upcoming session in which the majority of members will be serving their first or second term.

Map of NC’s political power in 2008. Image courtesy of Capstrat. Click to view full-size image.

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There were early clues on election night of the scope of the GOP swing, Cooper said, like the defeat of veteran Democrat Rep. Ray Rapp of Mars Hill and the huge margin of victory in races many thought would be closer, including Jim Davis’s win over John Snow in state Senate District 50 and Mark Meadows’s victory over Hayden Rogers in North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District.

The big indication, Cooper said, was in the presidential vote, which showed that WNC voters had moved back to the GOP at a rate twice that of the rest of the state.

“I think we’re seeing a bifurcation of the state along regional lines,” Cooper said. “Take away Western NC, and the state would have gone for Obama.”

Cooper said that means that as long as Republicans are doing well, the west will do well in terms of legislative clout.

Higher growth rates in the Piedmont and coast and a rising Hispanic population may tip the balance regional and partisan down the road, but for now, Cooper said, “power is moving west.”

Charting a WNC legislative agenda

Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson), who ran unopposed in House District 117, said he sees a lot of promise in the 2013-2014 biennium, which starts Jan. 9. Committee meetings to ready legislation ahead of the session have already started.

On Friday, he attended the first meeting of the new House GOP Caucus, an event he described as “invigorating” and was notable for all the newly elected members.

“There were a lot new faces,” McGrady said.

Early on, he expects the leadership to focus on economics and crafting a budget, including a long-term fix to the funding gap in the state’s unemployment compensation system. He also expects movement in restructuring the state’s tax code, although admits it will likely take a good deal of time to work out.

“That’s one subject that’s easier to talk about than do something about,” McGrady said. “But we ran largely saying we’ll address this issue in the next two years and I think we will.”

Closer to home, McGrady said he expects to see a bill introduced to create a new metropolitan sewer and water authority in Buncombe and Henderson counties.

He said the Legislature stepped back from the idea after it was recommended by a legislative study committee to give the local governments time to “work it out themselves.”

McGrady said it appears that’s not happening.

“I fully anticipate legislation consistent with last year’s report,” he said.

McGrady said he also expects to see legislation tightening water rules statewide.

“I think everybody recognizes that as our population continues to grow, we need to do a better job protecting the water we’ve got and finding better ways to save and store it,” he said.

For state Sen. Martin Nesbitt (D-Buncombe), the consolidation of GOP power in the legislature means he and his fellow Democrats face continued marginalization.

“People need to realize that (the GOP) has absolute total control,” he said. “They have the governor’s mansion, they have the Legislature and they have the Supreme Court. They can pass constitutional amendments without any of our votes.”

He does not expect to see a lot of bipartisanship, he said.

“We’ll have to make our points where we can,” he said. “We’ll work hard in the committees.

“There won’t be a reach across the aisle. They don’t want to and they don’t need to.”

And, he said, he’s curious about how McCrory’s election will change things in Raleigh.

“It’ll be interesting to watch the governor and the Legislature try to figure out who’s in charge,” he said.

Nesbitt said he expects Democrats to fight to defend the university system from being restructured and against a K-12 education policy that will push for more public funds to go to private schools.

He said he expects to see battle over immigration legislation and further stripping of environmental rules.

He also railed at the proposed water and sewer authority, an effort that is similar to the creation of the Asheville Airport Authority last year, saying both moves take control out of the hands of elected officials.

“Buncombe needs to have control of its future,” he said. “I just see them as taking away our assets.”

Nesbitt said those recent efforts are a sign of the power and partisanship of current legislative leaders.

“When we were in control,” he said of the state’s Democrats, “if local delegations weren’t in agreement, we generally left them alone.”

More spending in WNC?

Western North Carolina’s additional clout, McGrady said, is likely to pay off in setting some spending priorities. He said he expects that even though infrastructure projects like highway improvements have a long lead time, WNC legislators should have more influence in how funds are spent.

“I’m hearing some of my western colleagues hope to get I-26 and I-40 issues back on the table,” he said.

Ralph Hamlett, associate professor of political communication at Brevard College, said he expects the influence of WNC legislators to impact how other parts of the budget are handled as well.

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“Things like school funding will be very important,” he said. “During the election, there was a lot of talk about how Charlotte-Mecklenberg (Schools) benefits from the lottery.

“Our representatives will look for a fair share of those dollars.”

Hamlett said that early on, the GOP leadership would have to resolve an identity crisis.

“North Carolina is truly red in terms of the state Legislature,” he said. “But the soul searching within the Republican Party nationally is going to carry over to the state.”

The party will have to decide, he said, between the tea party and those preaching moderation.

Hamlett said he’ll look at how the Legislature approaches the Affordable Care Act and whether they’ll take up the previous session’s social-issues agenda as indication of from how far to the right the party will govern.

“Will they,” he said, “try to establish themselves as extra conservative on a range of issues concerning things like a woman’s right an abortion and contraception?”

Another thing to look for is how much regional cooperation there is across party lines.

Western Democrats have often proved as conservative as their GOP counterparts, Hamlett noted.

“The question is how well will the Republican majority work with the members of the minority,” he said.

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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