State of the Race for the North Carolina Legislature

September 6, 2022
Summary:
  • Republicans enter the last stretch of the campaign with their midterm advantage significantly eroded
  • The generic ballots for both Congress and the state legislature are tied
  • The odds of a Republican supermajority in the State Senate are essentially even; in the State House, it’s unlikely

 

This fall’s general midterm election is only 63 days away. With Labor Day now behind us, the basic contours of the race for control of North Carolina’s most powerful branch of government have come into focus. While 2023 party control of both chambers of North Carolina’s legislature is not really in doubt, the longevity of that control could be. This fall’s election, the first under the new legislative maps, will give us some of our first clues of how North Carolina’s balance of power will shake out in this decade.

Refresher: Where the NCGA stands today

Both chambers of North Carolina’s legislature have been under uninterrupted Republican control since a wave election in 2010 swept the GOP to power. After promptly ramming through the nation’s most aggressive partisan gerrymander, Republicans drew themselves into a neigh-invincible supermajority that was only broken in the “blue wave” election of 2018, giving Governor Cooper’s veto teeth for the first time.

After a prolonged and sordid redistricting process in 2021, Republicans submitted a set of legislative and Congressional maps that the North Carolina Supreme Court struck down as yet another unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. (Voters agreed with them on this point.) Republican leaders, facing a legal deadline, were forced to pare down one very aggressively gerrymandered map into a somewhat less-aggressively gerrymandered one that would survive court scrutiny. Those are the maps we analyzed back in February, and which are used in this fall’s election.

Republican leaders have already vowed to redraw Congressional districts again in a special session in December, after the election. They are explicitly prohibited from redrawing the legislative maps by the state constitution.

The Stakes

Republicans are only 3 seats shy of a three-fifths supermajority, required to override Governor Cooper’s veto pen, in the State House. In the State Senate, they are only 2 seats away. This fact alone is what constrains Republican leaders in the state legislature from realizing their most cherished agenda. Blocking a Republican supermajority has been Democrats’ avowed goal in this election cycle.

Republican operatives, from House Speaker Tim Moore, to the GOP House Caucus Director, to the party’s media organ the Carolina Journal, have loudly promised to deliver Republican supermajorities in both chambers this fall. This is a curiously bold claim, however. Here’s what the board looks like just two months out.

The Generic Ballot

We start with a basic fact about state politics: most people do not know who their representatives in the state legislature are and do not pay any attention to their campaigns. The Carolina Forward Poll shows that barely half of voters even know which party controls the legislature. Because of that, most political analysts study what’s called the “generic ballot.” This measure simply asks: who will you vote for this fall, the Republican or the Democrat? History shows that the generic ballot is one of the more reliable indicators of voter partisan sentiment.

The August edition of the Carolina Forward Poll showed the state legislative generic ballot to be basically tied:

  • Republicans: 42%
  • Democrats: 41%
  • Another party: 5%
  • Undecided: 13%

This is consistent with the national Congressional generic ballot, where Democrats have a slight lead over Republicans, according to both FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics polling averages. It is also consistent with the U.S. Senate race, where the polling is likewise tied (FiveThirtyEight).

Bear in mind that these results alone are truly remarkable. Entering an unpopular president’s first midterm election, conventional wisdom would expect Republicans to enjoy a massive advantage. Indeed, Republican pundits have bragged about that advantage for more than a year. Yet even factoring in the traditional midterm penalty, voter preferences are still essentially tied between Democrats and┬áRepublicans.

Moreover, there is an obvious recent swing in polling towards Democrats. The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, combined with falling gas prices, cooling inflation and the passage of highly popular Democratic legislation in Congress (like student debt relief and the Inflation Reduction Act), have demonstrably reinvigorated the party in the eyes of voters. Whether this trend in Democrats’ favor will continue for the next 63 days is impossible to say with confidence. Regardless, it is good news for Democrats, and precisely what Republicans do not want to see so close to Election Day.

The Seat Math – House

In the State House, there are 54 safe Republican seats, 41 safe Democratic ones, and 25 “competitive” seats (defined as separated by 10 points or fewer in historical partisan performance) up for election this year. Thus, Republicans need to win 18 of those competitive seats to clinch a supermajority (72 seats). By contrast, Democrats must win only 8 to secure 49 seats to block a Republican supermajority.

Check out this interactive, precinct-level map of House election districts to explore for yourself.

Based purely on district historical performance, Democrats’ path to blocking a supermajority is easier than Republicans’ to win one. To win a supermajority, Republicans must hold/flip all of these very competitive races:

  • House District 63 (Rep. Ricky Hurtado)
  • House District 24 (Rep. Linda Cooper-Suggs)
  • House District 9 (Rep. Brian Farkas)
  • House District 5 (Rep. Howard Hunter)
  • House District 103 (No incumbent)
  • House District 35 (Rep. Terence Everitt)
  • House District 73 (No incumbent)
  • House District 20 (Rep. Ted Davis)
  • House District 98 (Rep. John Bradford)
  • House District 74 (Rep. Jeff Zenger)

(Current Democratic-held districts in bold, Republican districts are plain.)

There could still be a path to a Republican supermajority even if the party does not win all of these seats, but it would require them to also win several districts that lean even more heavily towards Democrats, which is even more unlikely. If they do not win all of these seats, the likelihood of a Republican House supermajority shrinks considerably.

The Seat Math – Senate

In the State Senate, there are 24 safe Republican seats, 17 safe Democratic ones, and 9 competitive seats. Thus, Republicans must win 6 of those competitive seats to clench a supermajority (30 seats). By contrast, Democrats must win only 4 to secure 21 seats, which would hold off a Republican supermajority.

Check out this interactive, precinct-level map of Senate election districts to explore for yourself.

Here too, based purely on district historical performance, Democrats have a somewhat easier path to blocking a supermajority than Republicans do to win one. But the margins are far narrower, giving both sides a couple of viable paths to their goal. The seats most in play are these:

  • Senate District 3 (No incumbent)
  • Senate District 11 (Sen. Lisa Barnes)
  • Senate District 18 (No incumbent)
  • Senate District 17 (Sen. Sydney Batch)
  • Senate District 21 (Sen. Tom McInnis)
  • Senate District 7 (Sen. Michael Lee)

(Current Democratic-held districts in bold, Republican ones in plain.)

Because there are 2 open seats without incumbents, technically, neither side would need to flip any seat currently held by an opposite-party incumbent to accomplish their goal. If Republicans were able to defend all of their incumbents and win both open seats, they would clench 30 seats.

But that won’t be easy. SD-3 leans Democratic, and is only an open seat because the Democratic nominee, Valerie Jordan, defeated the Democratic incumbent, Ernestine Bazemore, in a primary. To be sure, the seat is in play; but it leans a little more towards Democrats than does SD-18, which is essentially a 50/50 district. And at the same time, Democrats have offered strong challengers in all those close Republican-held districts: Mark Speed in SD-11, Frank McNeil in SD-21 and Marcia Morgan in SD-7.

Predictions

It’s impossible to make election predictions with any confidence in such a close environment. But here’s what we know for now.

We are much more likely to see a Republican supermajority in the Senate than the House, but that does not mean it is particularly likely per se. If the generic ballot remains tied (or certainly if it tips even further towards Democrats), then the question of a Republican Senate supermajority is essentially 50/50.

Looking beyond November, these results will tell us volumes about Republican electoral strength in the most favorable possible cycle for their party. If Republicans are not able to clench supermajorities in both chambers in this election, it’s hard to see how they’d improve upon this year’s performance without resorting to yet more partisan gerrymandering to rig the maps. How Republicans perform in this cycle could, thus, be a high-water mark for their performance under these legislative maps in this decade.

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