By the time early voting wraps up Saturday, turnout totals in North Carolina will be close to the total vote count in 2016, a dynamic that’s bound to affect races up and down the ballot.
That includes an array of state House races that could determine who runs the chamber in 2021, a crucial redistricting year.
In any given election, most of the 120 House seats aren’t decided in close races. Normally by this time, the trajectory of many of those that are in play can usually be determined.
But the combination of a heated presidential race and a court-ordered redraw of 56 House districts and 21 Senate districts leaves about a dozen races that could go either way.
The House currently stands at 65 Republicans and 55 Democrats. In the past, a split that close might have led to deal-making between constituencies within each caucus. Not so in the current hyperpartisan atmosphere of the General Assembly, where the leadership on either side of the aisle can claim a lock on nearly every vote.
Nothing cemented that reality more than last year’s standoff over the state budget, which Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed, shortly after legislators passed it the end of June.
Cooper was able to make his veto stick, thanks to gains by Democrats in the 2018 elections when a pickup of 10 seats in the House and six in the Senate ended supermajorities in both.
The governor used his leverage to insist on Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. Although the idea has gained traction in the House since it was banned by the legislature in 2013, expansion remains a nonstarter in the Senate.
After the veto negotiations over a deal quickly broke down, both sides settled in for a long summer of finger-pointing.
House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, kept the chamber on edge through that period, repeatedly scheduling veto override votes and then canceling them.
Then, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2019, Moore pulled the trigger, assembling Republicans during what Democrats assumed to be a perfunctory session in which no votes would be taken and ramming through an override vote to the loud objection of a dozen Democrats present.
If you tuned into the legislature’s audio stream that morning you heard an outraged Rep. Deb Butler, D-New Hanover, loudly refusing to yield the floor and excoriating the speaker for the move.
A video of the moment and Butler yelling, “I will not yield!” went viral.
It was also prophetic.
Democrats, who said they had been assured there would be no votes, called it a travesty. Moore later claimed he had never officially declared no votes and under House rules was free to call for an override vote.
When the budget bill moved over to the Senate, where Republicans only needed one Democratic defector for an override, the partisan blowback to Moore’s move had made that impossible.
In a soured atmosphere, the legislature went on to pass a series of mini-budgets on items in general agreement, but going into this election, the state remains without a full-scale budget. Some parts of state government are still functioning under spending plans passed in the spring of 2018.
After a brief era of cooperation early in this year’s session, the two sides diverged again over a series of measures pushed by House and Senate leaders to circumvent Cooper’s coronavirus executive orders and allow certain types of businesses to reopen. Moving quickly into election season after the session this summer, partisan rancor quickly returned.
The path of the next General Assembly, which opens for business in January, depends on the outcome of the election.
Democrats are within striking distance of a majority but would need to win six seats and hold all 55 of their current seats to take it outright.
Chaz Nuttycombe, who founded CNalysis, a forecasting group that focuses on state legislative races, says the House, like the state Senate, is a toss-up.
Nuttycombe lists five Republican districts as tilting toward Democrats in the final stretch and one seat held by a Democrat as a likely Republican pickup. About seven others could go either way on Election Day.
Nuttycombe said one area that he’s watching are the two races in Cabarrus County, which has been safe Republican territory. He currently lists those districts as still tilting Republican but said the counties north of Charlotte are clearly changing.
“It’s trending toward Democrats, but I’m not sure it’s trending fast enough,” he said.
“It would be a big sign of the Republican suburban collapse if there’s a Democrat in one of those counties.”
J. Miles Coleman of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said that, like the state’s congressional races in play this year, a lot will depend on what happens in the state’s rapidly growing suburbs and what’s seen as a national shift among those voters, particularly women, toward Democrats.
“North Carolina always seems to be a close state in these elections,” said Coleman, who grew up in Charlotte.
“Just so many of these races are tied to the top of the ticket these days.”
Coleman said the state has grown more divided along partisan lines, making it less likely voters will split their ticket. North Carolina used to be a state that could send Republican Jesse Helms to the U.S. Senate while electing Democrat Jim Hunt to a record four terms as governor.
“Things are much more straight-party now, so if (Joe) Biden can carry the state, that obviously would bode very well for Democrats in the legislature,” Coleman said.
State of the Race: NC House
The 2019 redistricting, ordered after a successful legal challenge over partisan gerrymandering, shifted several districts around the state, making relatively safe Republican seats more competitive. Democrats have been counting on an energized electorate and a larger turnout among younger voters to put those districts over the top.
The youth vote was key to their victories in 2018 not just in urban districts, but in the state’s mountain region, where turnout in university towns in Jackson and Watauga counties put Democrats over the top.
Turnout in both places appears to be headed in the same direction, and with the state poised to be already at or near 2016 totals overall going into Election Day, Democrats have the kind of groundswell they were looking for. But it’s still unclear how that will play out in the dozen races still in play.
Here’s a snapshot of the key races from east to west.
• District 1 — Incumbent Republican Edwin Goodwin is benefiting from a heavy advertising blitz to shore up Republican chances in the region’s hotly contested state Senate seat in a race against Democrat Emily Bunch Nicholson, who will need strong Black turnout to have a chance.
• District 9 — Last year’s redistricting altered the Greenville-based district once held by now-Congressman Greg Murphy into a likely pickup for Democrat Brian Farkas against Republican incumbent Perrin Jones.
• District 20 — Redistricting and high growth has changed the Wilmington-area district held by Republican incumbent Ted Davis. Based on turnout and fundraising, CNanysis recently changed its rating and now has it tilting toward Democratic challenger Adam Ericson.
• District 22 — Former Sampson County Commissioner and Judge Albert Kirby is seeking an upset against longtime incumbent William Brisson, a former Democrat who switched parties in late 2017.
• District 45 — Democratic challenger Frances Vinell Jackson is benefiting from a high turnout and a competitive congressional race and could unseat incumbent John Szoka.
• District 63 — Democrats have been calling this district a must pickup to take the House, and early turnout is heavy in Ricky Hurtado’s bid to oust incumbent Republican Steven Ross.
• District 66 — The Republican-leaning district was held through five election cycles by Democrat Ken Goodman, who resigned in 2019. Republican Ben Moss is likely to take back the district in a race against Democrat Scott Brewer.
• District 51 — Republican John Sauls is defending his Republican-leaning district against Democrat Jason Cain, who is counting on high turnout to put him over the top.
• District 59 — The race between Republican incumbent Jon Hardister and Democrat Nicole Quick is another potential flip for Democrats that will depend on the size of turnout in suburban Guilford County.
• District 74 — Redistricting is giving Democrat Dan Besse, a Winston-Salem Democrat who lost in a more Republican district in 2018, a likely shot against Republican Jeff Zenger.
• District 82 — The political shift in suburban districts has changed this Cabarrus County district into a potential win for Democrat Aimy Steele against Republican Kristin Baker.
• District 83 — Republican incumbent Larry Pittman has won close races in the past, but the same suburban dynamics as neighboring District 82 gives Democrat Gail Young a chance to pick up the seat.
• District 113 — Strong fundraising by Democrat Sam Edney has made the race against Republican Jake Johnson competitive, but flipping the Henderson County district is a steep climb.
• District 119 — Incumbent Democrat Joe Sam Queen won this race against Republican Mike Clampitt in 2018 thanks in part to heavy turnout among young voters at Western Carolina University who are showing up again according to early voting totals from Jackson County. This could be close.