The North Carolina General Assembly meets in the State Legislative Building in Raleigh, seen here in Feb. 2018. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press

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Democrats are within striking distance of flipping one or both General Assembly chambers during this year’s election, but a lot will depend on the coattail effect from up the ballot, according to analysts crunching the numbers in another pivotal North Carolina election year.

Chaz Nuttycombe of CNalysis and J. Miles Coleman of the University of Virginia Center for Politics both predict that the outcome of the presidential, U.S. Senate and governor’s races will have a down-ballot effect on the handful of state House and Senate contests that could decide the balance of power in the legislature.

Republicans now hold a 65-55 majority in the House and 29-21 majority in the Senate.

Nuttycombe, a Richmond, Va.-based forecaster who tracks more than 5,000 state legislative races nationwide, said he’s reviewing the last round of campaign finance reports released this week before making final predictions on several close General Assembly races.

The deadline for candidates to file their third-quarter campaign finance reports was Tuesday.

Nuttycombe currently lists three GOP districts in the Senate and four in the House tilting toward Democrats and one seat in the House tilting Republican. The call for those or other close races could shift as a result of the last leg of fundraising, Nuttycombe said in an interview Wednesday.

“At the end of the day, Republicans are still slight favorites in our forecast,” he said Wednesday. “But we can say with certainty that Democrats will be having a net gain in both chambers.”

Nuttycombe said he could shift that prediction on control of the House and Senate depending on late polling changes and a final look at fundraising.

With Gov. Roy Cooper likely to win big, Nuttycombe said, there’s already a tailwind for legislative candidates. If polling trends in the presidential and U.S. Senate race show a move toward Democrats, he could shift the legislature prediction in their favor.

“You got to look at coattails,” he said.

Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the Center for Politics campaigns newsletter, said 2020 could prove to be the most consequential year in legislative politics since 2010, when Republicans took over both House and Senate and were in charge of redistricting.

“That basically set the tone for the rest of the decade,” he said.

Crystal Ball doesn’t make predictions on state legislative races, but Coleman, who grew up in Charlotte, said he keeps a close eye on what’s happening in the state.

He said the 2018 election, in which Democrats swept Wake and Mecklenburg counties, was an eye-opener and an indication of how fast things are changing, particularly in the suburbs around major cities.

“Some of these trends have been happening in the South for a long time, but (Donald) Trump really sped that along,” he said.

“I remember in 2018, I was looking at the results and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, there are no Republicans left in Wake County.”

He noted that it wasn’t too long ago that Republicans had veto-proof majorities.

“Just that the legislature could be in play, for me as a person who has watched state politics over the last 10 years, that’s a big thing,” he said.  

A court-ordered redraw of several House and Senate districts is driving some of the potential changes this year, but Coleman said demographic shifts and hotly contested congressional races could make the difference for districts on the edge of going either way.

The possibility of a 2021 legislature in which Democrats control one or both chambers wouldn’t be possible without the strides made in 2018 election, when Democrats took 10 seats in the House and six in the Senate, ending six years of GOP supermajorities.

That was followed, in 2019, by a complex journey of partisan gerrymandering court challenges, including a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that kicked the final say in those decisions back to state courts and the surprise release of documents by the daughter of the late GOP redistricting maestro Thomas Hofeller.

The Hofeller documents helped convince a special three-judge panel reviewing the case of the partisan intent of GOP mapmaking.

The success of the legal challenge drove a final round of redistricting in 2019, which all but guaranteed two pickups for Democrats in the Senate and put several more districts in both chambers in play.

The margins in both House and Senate are critical to the path going forward for both parties since next year the legislature is again charged with redrawing its districts based on the 2020 census.

State of the Race: NC Senate

Republicans are hoping to maintain their majority by winning back two seats they lost in close 2018 races in Cumberland and New Hanover counties and protecting incumbents in a handful of closely contested races.

Former Sens. Michael Lee of New Hanover County and Wesley Meredith of Cumberland County lost the two closest races of 2018 to former Wilmington Mayor Harper Peterson and former Fayetteville City Council member Kirk deViere.

Citing heavy turnout and strong fundraising, Nuttycombe has both rematches tilting toward the incumbent Democrats.

Meanwhile, redistricting has Democrats favored to win at least two additional districts and possibly more.

Democrats DeAndrea Salvador in southwest Charlotte’s District 39 and Sarah Crawford in District 18, which is made up of a northern section of Wake County that includes a chunk of Raleigh, Wake Forest and the southern half of Franklin County, appear to be headed for wins.

Early voting and mail-in ballots for both districts show turnout among registered Democrats and unaffiliated voters running well ahead of Republicans.

The state of the next tier of contested Senate races is less certain.

In the matchup for District 1, a sprawling coastal district that runs from the Great Dismal Swamp to Ocracoke, first-term Republican incumbent Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, is facing Democrat Tess Judge, a well-known Dare County community leader.

Judge lost a race for Steinburg’s old seat in the state House, but Nuttycombe said Judge’s performance in 2018, in which she won Dare County, showed she could turn out votes in a GOP-leaning district.

“She’s a very strong candidate,” Nuttycombe said.

He recently moved the rating of District 1 in favor of Judge but cautioned it is still a very close race. 

Nuttycombe also lists two other GOP-held districts as currently tilting toward the incumbents but still close.

District 24, which includes western Guilford County along with northern Alamance County, is a contentious race between Democrat J.D. Wooten and Republican Amy Galey.

Wooten, an attorney and former Air Force officer, lost the race for the district in 2018 against popular incumbent Rick Gunn, who opted not to run again.

Galey is also an attorney and chair of the Alamance County Board of Commissioners. Rapid growth in the district, particularly in northern Alamance, has turned races for once relatively safe GOP House and Senate seats there into slugfests. The blizzard of mailers from both candidates is proof that this year is no different.  

District 31, which wraps around Winston-Salem in Forsyth County along with all of Davie County, is proving to be another close race along the fast-growing Interstate 40 corridor.

Three-term incumbent Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth, saw her district change considerably during last year’s redistricting. She faces Terri LeGrand, a Wake Forest University financial officer who ran unsuccessfully for a House seat in 2018.

CNalysis also lists two other Senate races as leaning in favor of the GOP incumbents but still in play.

District 11, which includes all of Nash County and northern Johnston County, is an open seat race between Nash County Republican Rep. Lisa Barnes, who defeated an incumbent Democrat in 2018, and former state Sen. Allen Wellons of Smithfield.

Running in District 7, which includes Wayne and Lenoir counties, are incumbent Jim Perry, a Lenoir County businessman who was appointed to the seat in January 2019, and Democrat Donna Lake, a retired Air Force colonel.  

Also playing into the balance of power in the chamber will be the winner in the race for lieutenant governor, who is the presiding officer of the Senate and can cast a tie-breaking vote.

Although that rarely happens, the election could leave the Senate evenly split at 25-25, which would give either Democrat Yvonne Holley or Republican Mark Robinson say over which party controls the chamber.

Kirk Ross

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