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Barring any race that’s too close to call or headed for a recount, Tuesday’s election should set the final makeup of the 2015 N.C. General Assembly.

While many of the races — by some estimates more than 60 percent — are uncontested or were all but settled in party primaries in May, there remains a handful of races statewide that are too close to call.

Among them are at least three state House districts in the western region held by Republicans that were close heading into the early voting period and now, on the other side, even more of a question mark.

Overall, the WNC region is still likely to lean to the GOP. Polls have shown consistent strength in the 828 area code for Speaker Thom Tillis in his bid to unseat incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. But early tallies are showing a jump in turnout among registered Democrats and unaffiliated voters, and if that trend holds through Election Day, it could spell trouble for both Tillis and incumbent GOP legislators.

Four to watch in WNC

“This year is a lot more competitive than I thought it would be,” Western Carolina University professor Chris Cooper said in a recent interview with Carolina Public Press. Cooper, chair of WCU’s Department of Political Science and Public Affairs, said a negative view of the legislature, which has been greatly amplified as part of Hagan’s strategy against Tillis, appears to be taking a toll in some legislative races.

One thing to always keep in mind in tracking races in WNC, he said, is that being an incumbent legislator is not always a positive.

“The farther west you go, the more cynical people are about Raleigh,” Cooper said. This year, he said, that longheld attitude seems to be playing out in a fervent anti-incumbent mood at the polls. “The dissatisfaction with the General Assembly is real,” he said.

Cooper and others analyzing legislative races say that dissatisfaction, combined with efforts of skilled challengers, could flip House districts now occupied by GOP incumbents Michele Presnell and Tim Moffitt and Senate District 50, held by Jim Davis, over to the Democrats.

“It’s very hard to tell because there is not much polling,” he said. “But all three are interesting contests.”

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In House District 118, which includes all of Madison and Yancey counties and part of Haywood County, Presnell holds a seat she won in 2012 by defeating former House member and Mars Hill mayor Ray Rapp by less than 961 votes out 36,537 cast.

Her opponent, Dean Hicks, has managed to raise $311,000 in campaign funds and in-kind donations, more than twice as much as Presnell. A late September snap poll by the conservative Civitas Institute showed Hicks leading by 12 percentage points. The rest of the poll results indicated just how deep the dissatisfaction with state government runs in the district. Asked how they view the job being done by Gov. Pat McCrory, 57 percent of respondents said they disapproved.

Cooper said that in all three races incumbents suffered when the recent legislative session dragged on. Moffitt and Davis, he said, compounded that by not getting out in their districts early in the campaign, allowing their challengers to set the stage for the election.

Cooper said Davis’ opponent, retired educator Jane Hipps, turned out to be a strong campaigner and was able to capitalize on concerns about education spending. Davis, a two-term incumbent, didn’t help himself when he responded to tough questions from teachers at one forum by saying “will you people never be happy?”

Hipps has also outraised Davis 2-1, pulling in more than $313,000 in campaign support so far.

Moffitt, Cooper said, is seeing a combination of dissatisfaction with the legislature and continued fallout from his battles with the city Of Asheville. He drew a particularly tough opponent in Brian Turner, who has managed to raise more that $600,000 in campaign funds and other assistance, which, combined with Moffitt’s more than $500,000 raised, put the race over the $1 million mark.

“Turner has proved to be a smart, capable opponent,” Cooper said, while Moffitt’s fights with Asheville might have turned off the independents he needs to carry the district.

Another race under close watch is the re-election bid of first term incumbent Nathan Ramsey, a Republican who is running against his next door neighbor and fellow farmer John Ager. Although Ramsey, a former chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, won by more than 3,500 votes in 2012, he too is faced with a backlash over fights with the city.

Competing polls showed both Ager and Ramsey winning handily. The most recent poll by Civitas showed Ager ahead in the district, which leans Democratic.

Ramsey has raised more money and in-kind donations than Ager, but the two are close with the incumbent taking in $467,000 and the challenger $425,000.

Cooper said while the thin amount of polling makes it hard to call, the competitiveness of that race underlines that in WNC the combination of dissatisfaction statewide and being on the unpopular side of a local issue can spell trouble for incumbents.

Turnout building

For Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer, the 2014 turnout quickly dispelled any notions of another sleepy non-presidential year. In tracking first absentee ballots and then the early voting, Bitzer detailed a pace that has far exceeded the 2010 vote.

In an interview with Carolina Public Press, Bitzer said it’s clear that Democrats are turning out more voters in their strongholds in urban regions and college campuses like UNC-Asheville and Appalachian State University.

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With mail-in ballots still filtering in, the early vote total topped 1.19 million on Saturday, the last day of a early voting period that was shortened by seven days under 2013 elections legislation.

Bitzer’s analysis, which he publishes on his blog Old North State Politics, shows early vote and mail-in absentee turnout significantly above that of 2010, the last non-presidential cycle. Democrats and unaffiliated voters make up the most of those voting in 2014 who did not vote in 2010.

“For registered Democrats, they saw an additional 106,000 voters cast early in person ballots, registered unaffiliated voters saw 192,000 more voters, and registered Republicans saw 16,000 more voters than in the last mid-term election,” Bitzer wrote in a post on his blog Monday morning.

Still, Bitzer said, it won’t be enough to change the basic balance of power in the legislature thanks to more GOP friendly districts approved by the legislature in 2011.

“What redistricting did for the GOP was create a pretty steep firewall,” he said. A small Democratic wave could reduce the majority, he said, but it would be far from enough for either the state House or Senate to change hands.

One thing to watch over time, he said, is whether the GOP’s supermajority survives this and the 2016 cycle. That could have a significant impact in future veto fights should the governor’s office change hands in what is shaping up to be a hard-fought contest 2016.

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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