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For candidates, races across WNC, will tomorrow be the big day?
The ballots won’t be counted until Tuesday and not certified until days later, but for many of the races for the North Carolina General Assembly, the outcome of the primary — and even the general election next November — may be all but certain.
This year, there is no opposition for 12 of the 50 seats in the state Senate or for 43 of the 120 seats in the state House. Pundits and prognosticators on both sides of the partisan divide say about half of the races in each chamber are a lock.
In Western North Carolina, only two races — one held by a Democrat and one by a Republican — are uncontested in both the primary and general elections. But that doesn’t mean the outcome elsewhere in WNC is hotly contested. In some races, competition is limited to a primary fight, and, in others, the shape of the districts have all but determined the winning party.
Chris Cooper, an associate professor and director of the Public Policy Institute at Western Carolina University, said the power of incumbency has meant turnover in the General Assembly is hard to come by.
“Ninety percent of the time, even when they have a challenger, the odds are wildly in favor of the incumbent,” he said, adding that the recent redistricting has changed the odds further. “Right now, there are very few opportunities for non-incumbents.”
Races and non-races in WNC
Not surpisingly, the two most non-competitive races in WNC feature two veteran legislators.
Asheville Democrat Rep. Susan Fisher, who is in her fifth term, is running unopposed through the fall, as is Republican Rep. Roger West, a seven-term incumbent whose district includes all or part of Cherokee, Clay, Graham and Macon counties.
Joining Fisher and West with uncontested primary races is a much larger field, including incumbent Sens. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson; Dan Soucek, R-Watauga; Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, who was named to replace the late Martin Nesbitt; and Jim Davis, R-Macon. Democratic challengers include James Sponenberg, a Lenoir banker who is running against Soucek in Senate District 45 and Rick Wood, a retired high school teacher and basketball coach from Hendersonville who is challenging Apodaca in Senate District 48.
House incumbents without a primary are Reps. Jonathan Jordan, R-Ashe; Nathan Ramsey, R-Buncombe; Mike Hager, R-Rutherford; Chris Whitmire, R-Transylvania; Tim Moffitt, R-Buncombe; Michele Presnell, R-Yancey; Josh Dobson, R-McDowell; and Joe Sam Queen, D-Haywood.
Challengers heading straight to the General Election are Democrats JR Edwards, of Marion, who is challenging Dobson in House District 85; Sue Counts, of Boone, who is challenging Jordan in House District 93; Shelby Mood, of Hendersonville, who will face the GOP winner in House District 117; Lisa Harris Bralley, of Forest City, who is challenging Hager in House District 112; Norm Bossert, of Pisgah Forest, who is challenging Whitmire in House District 113; John Ager, of Fairview, who is challenging Ramsey in House District 115; Brian Turner, of Asheville, who is challenging Moffitt in House District 116; and Dean Hicks, of Burnsville, who is challenging Presnell in House District 118.
While the number of uncontested primary and general elections stands in contrast to the past two cycles. Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause of North Carolina, said the reduction in contested races is a common trend after the shakeout that follows redistricting.
“What we are seeing this year is a bit of a normal trend for years ending in ‘4’,” Phillips said in a recent interview. “That’s when you start to get a drop off in contested races.”
Historically, that trend continues into races in years ending in 6 and 8, he said. After that, competition picks up and usually peaks in the first cycle following redistricting.
What is notable about this year, Phillips said, is that the drop off is happening in such a big way during a time when the approval rating of the General Assembly is at a low and there’s a notable amount of open dissent against much of its agenda.
“You have more people paying attention and more people upset than in a normal year, and yet you still have far fewer (candidates) running than in 2012,” Phillips said.
Cooper said the Moral Monday movement got people talking and ultimately may raise turnout, but it was outside the Democratic establishment, which is the traditional source for potential candidates.
“People talk about the impact of Moral Monday,” he said. “but it did not translate to candidate recruitment.”
Phillips said he thought there would be some impact on recruitment from the protests, but, once candidates started looking at their chances, reality set in.
“We’re in a remarkable time with many, many more people engaged, and you would expect to see more interest in running,” Phillips said. “We did not see that, and I think gerrymandering is the reason why.”
Bright lines, dim hopes
Beyond the sheer number of uncontested races, the major factor that reduces turnover in Raleigh is how few of the contested races really are competitive. One of the lasting impacts of the 2010 tide that swept a new GOP majority into the legislature was a redistricting process that greatly reshaped the state’s political geography.
The change with the most impact in the western region of the state was the dividing of heavily Democratic voting blocks in Asheville. In most places, though, the redistricting strategy was a little different, increasing the concentration of Democratic voters to create fewer, but more concentrated Democratic-leaning districts. The result in 2012 was lopsided victories in those districts and a dilution of the Democratic vote in the redrawn Republican-leaning districts.
Phillips said the last cycle offered clear evidence that the new lines have taken a lot of the guess work out of predicting who would win a given race.
“Ultimately, you had an overwhelming number of people elected who did not have a bona fide contest,” he said. “In 2012, about 85 percent of the North Carolina House and Senate won by a margin of 10 percent or more.”
The downside to less competitive General Assembly races continues long after Election Day, Phillips said.
Not only do voters miss out on hearing issues discussed and debated, but once in office legislators can feel less pressure to deliver for their district.
“It’s a serious problem,” Phillips said. “Legislators who got in on a free pass can feel less accountable.”
He said the key to changing the system starts with reforming redistricting by making it an independent, non-partisan process. Other states have also infused more competition into the electoral systems through changing from partisan primaries to a runoff system in which the top two finishers — regardless of party affiliation — face each other in the general election.
Phillips said something has to give because of the long-term effect of the lack of competition. Not only are the districts deflating the hopes of potential challengers, he said, but the lack of a likelihood of change will turn off voters as well.
“When you have that many folks winning comfortably,” he said, “you’re not going to have as much of a voter turnout.”
For more from Election 2014 reporting from Carolina Public Press, find our special report section here. Also:
Find a guide to the primary here, including information on eligible voters and voter IDs.
Find county-by-county guides for the 18 westernmost counties of the state here: