Now that filing has closed for the 2020 North Carolina state House elections, four main questions surround who will control the chamber in 2021.
- To what degree will a strong economy and an improved election environment allow Republicans to recapture some lost ground from the 2018 elections?
- How significantly will court-imposed legislative boundaries allow for additional Democrat pick-up opportunities?
- Will further erosion of Democrat popularity in rural North Carolina allow for new opportunities for Republicans?
- In what ways do the respective presidential candidates provide a boost or a drag on candidates in specific races?
The 2018 Elections for the North Carolina State House were successful for Democrats. They shrunk their minority status by nine seats. Republicans lost their super-majority, and ability to easily override Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes and pass proposed constitutional amendments. Republicans retained a 65-55 majority.
In 2018, North Carolina saw an approximate six-point swing towards Democrats compared to 2016. However, even a weak year for President Donald Trump is likely to be better for Republicans than the president’s first mid-term.
In examining the reconfigured maps, Michael Bitzer, professor of politics and history at Catawba College stated:
“In taking each category/classification, twenty-eight (28) of the House districts could be considered “likely Democratic” districts, since their predicted Democratic vote share is above 60 percent. Barring a tremendous tsunami-wave election or significant individual district factor, it’s unlikely that these seats would flip to Republicans.”
Bitzer added that “there are 13 lean districts with between 55 and 60 percent vote share for Democrats, adding that there are eight “competitive but Democratic favored districts.” According to Bitzer, there, “are potentially 49 House districts that, in normal political environments (replicate 2016’s presidential election), likely placing them in the Democratic column.”
He believes “the plurality of districts within the 120-seat chamber are considered “likely Republican” districts, at forty-four (44) with 17 leaning Republican districts and 10 competitive.
Recapture and Rematches
The closest and most expensive state House race of 2018 is headed for a rematch.
Democrat Rachel Hunt, the daughter of four-term Gov. Jim Hunt, spent $1.2 million to defeat Republican Rep. Bill Brawley by 68 votes in Mecklenburg’s 103rd District. The two will meet again in 2020.
Former Rep. John Bradford will try to reclaim his former seat from Democratic Rep. Christy Clark, in a flip that was one of the Democrat parties most impressive gains in 2018. This district was held by former NC House Speaker and current Republican U.S. Senator Thom Tillis. Clark, a Huntersville resident, squeaked by with 333 more votes.
Bradford will be up against an incumbent who had plenty of financial support from the Democratic party in 2018.
Democrats in the four most competitive state House races in Mecklenburg County, including Bradford’s, raised a total of $3 million. Their Republican opponents, all incumbents, raised only a third of that. In District 98 alone, Clark outspent Bradford by nearly 5-to-1 which included $653,000 she received from the state Democratic Party, according to Cornelius Today.
Like former Gov. Pat McCrory, Bradford’s early support of toll lanes is thought to have played a crucial role in his defeat.
While not a rematch, Amy Bynum will represent Republicans in the formally GOP held Mecklenburg 105th. Wesley Harris claimed the District 105 seat by beating incumbent Scott Stone in 2018. Bynum, a leader within the Mecklenburg County Republican Party, will have a tough challenge to capture this seat which appears to be trending away from the GOP.
Republicans will face obstacles in recapturing their 2018 losses. Most of the challenges pertain to the changes in legislative boundaries that make districts more favorable to Democrats, but the right electoral environment for the GOP could propel them to retaking some seats previously lost.
Which “Ray” will Watauga/Ashe Embrace?
Voters in Watauga and Ashe Counties will likely be sending a “Ray” to Raleigh to represent them in the state House. Ray Pickett, the owner of the Blowing Rock Inn, who previously served on the Blowing Rock Town Council is challenging Boone Democrat Rep. Ray Russell. The House district (93) covers Watuaga and Ashe counties. This seat will be tough to recapture for Republicans due to large numbers of Democrat-friendly Appalachian State students voting during the presidential year and the popularity of the Democratic incumbent who runs a popular local weather website. However, for the first time in recent memory, Republicans will field a candidate from the larger Watauga County, as opposed to the smaller Ashe. While there is no GOP primary, incumbent Rep. Russell must survive a primary challenge from fellow democrat Turner Doolittle.
Another election that could feature a rematch is in District 119, centered in Jackson County near Western Carolina University. Republican former Rep. Mike Clampitt, a Tea Party activist favorite with a weak fundraising record, will first face a primary from Jackson Commissioner Ron Mau. The winner will face incumbent Democratic Rep. Sam Joe Queen.
If Clampitt wins the Republican nomination, it will set up the fifth contest between him and Queen. Queen successfully defended his seat from Clampitt in 2012 and 2014 before losing to Clampitt by 277 votes in 2016. In the 2018 general election, Queen defeated Clampitt in a rematch to gain back his seat. Queen had also represented the state’s 47th Senate district until he was defeated by Republican Ralph Hise in 2010
Republicans face competitive primaries in Wake County Districts 35, 36, and 37. They lost all of those district races in 2018. While Republicans may hope to recapture these districts, incumbents Terence Everitt, (35) Julie von Haefen (36) and Sydney Batch (37) are in strong positions to retain, because these districts are trending away from Republicans and President Trump may not be helpful in these areas, while Gov. Cooper continues to be popular in urban areas.
Two surprising upsets in 2018 where in districts 7 and 12, where Republicans defeated incumbent Democrats in an otherwise good year for Democrats. The Democrats are not well positioned for regaining those seats in 2020.
New Republican General Election Pick-up Opportunities
Republicans have as close to a sure-fire pick-up in House 66 as possible. Democrat Ken Goodman vacated the seat earlier this year. His family long dominated Democrat politics in the area. He was likely the one Democrat that could continue to hold this seat.
Democrat incumbent appointee Scott Brewer of Rockingham has filed for election to the office. Two challengers have also filed for the office — Republican Ben Moss of Rockingham and Republican Joey Davis of Seagrove.
According to Montgomery Herald: “In his announcement Davis said, ‘The representative for District 66 should be a voice for the people, not a rubber stamp for the governor. Since being appointed to office last spring, Scott Brewer has been the governor’s representative, not the people’s.'”
“Brewer voted with the governor to deny lifesaving care for newborns, born alive after a failed abortion attempt. Brewer sided with the governor to allow arrested illegal immigrants to walk free despite a detainer request from federal authorities. Brewer stood with the governor in failing to remove self-reported noncitizens from voter rolls. And he voted with the governor to deny teacher pay raises because Republicans refused to write a blank check for Medicaid expansion.”
Davis is a past chairman of the Montgomery County Republican party. This is his second attempt at political office. Davis was the 2018 Republican nominee for House District 66. He narrowly lost to incumbent Ken Goodman.
In the N.C. House District 21 race, incumbent Rep. Raymond Smith Jr. (D-Wayne) will face off against Eugene Pearsall in the Democratic primary. Republican Brent Heath, unopposed in his primary, is poised to meet the winner. Smith, in his freshman term in the N.C. House, is seeking his second term representing Sampson and Wayne counties. Heath is a popular GOP activist, serving as the 7th Congressional District Chair. He has long ties to the district graduating from Wallace-Rose Hill High and attending Mt. Olive College. He is a deputy commissioner at the Department of Insurance.
In N.C. House District 25, incumbent Democratic Rep. James Gailliard may again face challenger John Check, a Republican who lost to Gailliard in the last election. Both men are pastors from Rocky Mount. However, Check has a Republican primary with Steve Matthews of Spring Hope.
House District 25 encompasses most of Nash County.
Republicans believe that Fayetteville’s 43rd District is in play. Kimberly Hardy of northern Cumberland County is challenging Rep. Elmer Floyd, a six-term incumbent in the Democratic primary in March. Republicans Clarence Wilson Goins Jr., and Diane Wheatley are meeting for the right to challenge the winning Democrat in this swing seat.
Garland Pierce, a Democrat, and incumbent from Scotland County in State House District 48 will face Johnny H. Boyles from Hoke County. The GOP has hopes that President Trumps puts this district in play, despite being in a longtime advantage for Democrats in that area.
In House District 47, Dr. Olivia Oxendine of Lumberton, filed as a Republican candidate for the seat currently occupied by Democrat Charles Graham. Graham filed for re-election on Dec. 9. He is seeking his sixth term as the District 47 representative. Dr. Oxendine serves on the State Board of Education and teaches school leadership courses at the University of North Carolina Pembroke.
Charles Graham (D) NC-47 finds himself in a newly drawn district with 60 percent Democratic registration, 12.4 percent Republican and 27.7 percent registered as other. The registration numbers are not an overly comforting factor for Democrats. The county voted for former president Barack Obama twice, then flipped for President Trump in 2016.
President Trump won these precincts in the newly drawn NC 47 with 58.13 percent of the vote as compared to Clinton who garnered 38.9 percent. McCrory earned 60 percent in the same precincts compared to 38.9 percent for Gov. Cooper. But it wasn’t a 2016 anomaly.
The newly drawn area leans conservative, having voted Republican in previous elections at the state and federal level. It should also be noted that the Oxendine name is a popular well-known name in Lumbee circles, which could help the challenger.
Republican leaning unaffiliated candidate Ken Fotenot came within 449 votes of defeating Democrat Jean Farmer Butterfield in Wilson County. It remains to be seen if the seat will be as competitive for Republicans in 2020 but some optimism is warranted given the last presidential election.
Democrats came within 882 votes of defeating Rep. Ted Davis in New Hanover County. Davis is retiring and both major parties face primaries. Once piece of good news for the GOP, unlike in 2018, Republicans will not have a Libertarian candidate to contend with on the ballot in this race in 2020.
N.C. State House District 63: Incumbent Republican Stephen Ross won in 2018 by a razor thin margin of less than 300 votes in this Alamance County district. His Democratic challenger for the seat he has held since 2012 is Ricky Hurtado, an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill and co-founder and co-director of LatinxEd, an organization to help first-generation college students and immigrant families.
Republican Dr. Perrin Jones was appointed to represent House District 9 earlier this year to replace Greg Murphey after Murphey won a special election to Congress. This is a competitive district and either of the Democratic candidates, activist Brian Farkas or East Carolina professor Jacob Hochard, should be competitive in the general election.
The bottom line
More than 10 months away the likely election outcomes appear to fall in the following range: A slight Democratic pickup ranging 1-3 seats, leaving Republicans with a floor of 62 seats and Democrats a ceiling of 58 seats. That would leave Democrats slightly short of a majority. Another possibility is a break-even election that keeps both parties at the numbers they currently hold now. We lean towards thinking Republicans might pick up a couple of seats but will remain far below the 72 seats needed for a veto override threshold.
However, 10 months away from the election, both parties have some opportunities in front of them and have some places to play defense. And 10 months is several lifetimes in politics.