20 Legislative races to watch in NC

Published September 29, 2016

by Susan Myrick, Civitas Institute, September 28, 2016.

Even with so many legislative races already decided and so many others that appear to be sure things, Democrats believe they can make inroads into the Republican majorities in the North Carolina General Assembly this year. No one’s talking about Democrats regaining the majority in either chamber of the legislature, but they have their sights on ending GOP supermajorities.

A supermajority allows the legislature to override vetoes by the governor. Since gaining supermajorities in both chambers in 2012, just two years after gaining control of both for the first time in history, the Republican-led legislature has overridden four of five gubernatorial vetoes.

As it stands today, Republicans hold the majority in the state House, with 75 seats out of 120, and the state Senate, holding 34 seats out of 50.

2016 Legislative Races to Watch

Using the 2012 Civitas Partisan Index (CPI), we have winnowed down the key legislative elections to 20 races to watch in November. We use 2012 data because that is the last presidential election year.

The CPI compares votes cast for statewide races in each NC legislative district to votes cast statewide. The end result is a letter (D or R) followed by a number, indicating the extent to which each district leans one way or the other relative to the state as a whole.  For example, a district whose voters gave 5 more percentage points to the statewide Democratic candidates compared to the statewide vote average for those Democratic candidates receives an index score of D+5. You can see the end of this article for a more thorough explanation.

(A rating of “+0” indicates voters in that district vote for one party more than the state as a whole, but by less than 1 percent.)

Of the 20 races we have chosen to watch, it’s interesting to note that five of the 14 state House districts and three of the seven state Senate districts are in Wake County.

With one exception, the races to watch are in districts that have a CPI score of D+4 to R+4, meaning neither party has a strong “home field advantage” there. The exception is House District 51, which has a CPI score of R+5 but is held by a Democrat.

In an earlier look at the legislative landscape, we had chosen 22 races to watch. But in Buncombe County, Democratic Rep. Brian Turner’s GOP challenger dropped out of the race in July and left him to run unopposed in House District 116, which has a CPI score of R+5. Turner has served one term in the state House. In House District 45, (R+3), Rep. John Szoka’s (R-Cumberland) challenger, Democrat Roberta Waddle, dropped out of the race and leaves Szoka running unopposed.In the House, only 63 out of 120 districts will be contested in November 2016.

Forty-one state House contests were decided before the March primary and 16 contests were decided after the votes were counted in the primary.

Of the 63 House contests that will include more than one candidate in November, the CPI points to only 14 that fall in the category of races to watch. It’s worth noting that all but two of these races include incumbents and the power of incumbency is real and often times hard to overcome.

State House Races to Watch

District 2 (D+0) Incumbent Larry Yarborough (R-Person), won by 56.7 percent in 2014 after then-Rep. Winkle Wilkins (D) decided not to run in 2014. Wilkins won the district in 2012 with 56.7 percent of the vote. Yarborough will face Democrat Joe Parrish in the General Election.

District 6 (R+4) Given that incumbent Paul Tine (U-Dare) is not seeking election in 2016, District 6 is an open seat. Republican Beverly Boswell, who won her three-way primary with 39.3 percent of the vote, will face Warren Judge, who won the Democratic primary with 71.7 percent of the vote.

District 8 (R+1) Susan Martin (R-Wilson), the incumbent, was first elected to the House in 2012, when she garnered 57.2 percent of the vote. She gained strength in 2014 when she won re-election with 60.8 percent of the vote. Martin’s opponent in November is Democrat Charlie Pat Farris.

District 9 (R+4) While Greg Murphy (R-Pitt) is officially the incumbent, he was appointed to the seat in October 2015 after Rep. Brian Brown left office to work for U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis. Murphy will face Brian Farkas, who won the Democratic primary with 61.6 percent of the vote.

District 35 (R+4) Incumbent Chris Malone (R-Wake) has served two terms in the state House. In 2012 he won with 50.8 percent of the vote; in 2014 he widened the winning margin with 56.3 percent. Malone will face Democrat Terrence Everitt in the General Election.

District 36 (R+4) Nelson Dollar (R-Wake) has served six terms in the State House. In 2012 he won with 55 percent of the vote and in 2014 he won with 54.4 percent of the total vote. Dollar won his primary in March with 55.7 percent of the vote and will face Jennifer Ferrell, who won her primary with 75.2 percent of the vote, and Libertarian Brian Irving.

District 40 (R+3) Five-term incumbent Marilyn Avila (R-Wake) won the 2012 and 2014 elections by carrying 53.9 percent and 54.4 percent of the vote, respectively. She will face a former judge, Democrat Joe John, in the General Election.

District 41 (R+0) Democrat incumbent Gale Adcock (D-Wake) beat two-term Republican Rep. Tom Murry in 2014 by winning 51.3 percent of the votes.  One of the Democrats in an “R+” district, Adcock will face Republican Chris M. Shoffner in the General Election.

District 49 (R+1) Republican incumbent Gary Pendleton (R-Wake) was appointed in August 2014 to replace Dr. Jim Fulghum, who died while in office. Pendleton won with 51.6 percent of the vote in 2014. (Fulghum won 54 percent of the vote in District 49 in 2012.) Pendleton will face Democrat Cynthia Ball and Libertarian David Ulmer in November.

District 51 (R+5) First-term incumbent Democrat Brad Salmon (D-Harnett) beat two-term incumbent Mike Stone in 2014 by 1,573 votes (53.9 percent of the vote). Stone first won the district in 2010 with 53.5 percent of the vote and again in 2012 with 52 percent. Salmon will face Republican candidate John Sauls in the General Election.

District 92 (D+1) A Republican in a “D+” district, Rep. Charles Jeter (R-Mecklenburg) won his primary by 35 votes. However, Jeter resigned on July 25 and was replaced by Justin Moore. But Danae Caulfield has replaced Jeter on the ballot and will face Democrat Chaz Beasley in the General Election. While HD 92 is a D+1 district, Jeter won with 51.4 percent of the vote in 2012 and with 52.5 percent of the vote in 2014.

District 115 (R+1) First-term incumbent John Ager (D-Buncombe) is one of the Democrats in an “R+” district. Ager upset a Republican incumbent in 2014 (Nathan Ramsey) by winning 50.8 percent of the vote. Ramsey had won an open seat (vacated by a Democrat) in 2012 with 54.3 percent of the vote. Ager will face the winner of the Republican primary, Frank Moretz, in November.

District 119 (D+1) Incumbent Joe Sam Queen (D-Haywood) has served two terms in the House. (He also served two terms in the state Senate). Queen won the 2012 race with 51.7 percent of the vote and the 2014 race with 52.5 percent of the vote. In November he will face Mike Clampitt, whom he defeated in 2012 by a margin of 51.7 to 48.3 percent, and again in 2014 by 52.6 to 47.4 percent.

There are 13 out of 50 state Senate districts where only one person filed to run in 2016, which means there were already 13 winners in the state Senate before the Primary. Add two Senate districts where the Republican primary decided the winner because no Democrats or Libertarians filed to run, and that leaves 35 General Election contests for state Senate. Of those, seven meet our criteria as a race to watch. All seven district races include incumbents – and all seven are Republicans.

State Senate Races to Watch

District 1 (R+3) Incumbent Bill Cook (R-Beaufort) has served two terms in the Senate and one in the House. Cook’s first election to the Senate was in 2012, when he won by only 21 votes – garnering 50.01 percent of the vote. In 2014 Cook won with 53.4 percent of the vote. He will face Democrat Brownie Futrell in the General Election.

District 9 (R+4)  Michael Lee (R-New Hanover), the Republican incumbent from Senate District 9, was first appointed to fill Thom Goolsby’s unexpired term in August 2014. He ran for the office in November 2014 and won 55.4 percent of the vote. (Goolsby won the district with 54.2 percent in 2012.) Lee will face Democrat Andrew Barnhill in the General Election.

District 15 (R+2) Incumbent John Alexander (R-Wake) has served one term in the state Senate. He won the seat left open by retiring Sen. Neal Hunt in 2014 by getting 50.4 percent of the vote. Hunt won his last election in 2012 with 55.8 percent of the vote. Alexander will face Democrat Laurel Deegan-Fricke and Libertarian Brad Hessel in November.

District 17 (R+3) Tamara Barringer (R-Wake) is the incumbent in the state Senate District 17 race. Barringer was first elected to the Senate in 2012 with 53.7 percent of the vote. In 2014 she won with 58.4 percent of the vote. Barringer had no challenger in the March 15 Primary, but she will face Democrat Susan Evans and Libertarian Susan Hogarth in November.

District 18 (R+1) Incumbent Chad Barefoot (R-Wake) was first elected to the House in 2012 with 55.9 percent of the vote and won re-election in 2014 with 52.9 percent of the vote. Neither Barefoot nor his Democrat challenger in the General Election, Gil Johnson, had primary challenges.

District 19 (D+3) A Republican in a “D+” district, incumbent Wesley Meredith (R-Cumberland) is in his third term in the state House. In 2012 he won with 53.9 percent of the vote and won re-election in 2014 with 54.5 percent. Meredith will face Democrat Toni Morris in the General Election.

District 25 (R+3) First-term incumbent Tom McInnis (R-Cumberland) beat one-term Democrat Gene McLaurin in 2014 with 50.4 percent of the vote. McLaurin won in 2012 with 53 percent of the total vote. McInnis will face Democrat Dannie Montgomery in November.

What you should know about the CPI

Click here to see the maps and learn more about the history of the CPI.

The CPI is a useful tool to take into account when looking at North Carolina’s legislative political landscape. It is used to study voting tendencies within a district and to identify districts that swing, lean, or firmly trend towards one political party or the other.  Keep in mind that incumbency, turnout, candidates’ experience and qualities, fundraising, and current political issues also play powerful roles in determining outcomes in elections.

The CPI is based on voter data from presidential election year results for governor and other Council of State offices, i.e. lieutenant governor, commissioner of agriculture, commissioner of insurance, commissioner of labor, attorney general, secretary of state, superintendent of public instruction, state treasurer and state auditor. Although presidential and U.S. Senate election results may also be available, we believe that state-level races give a more accurate picture of how voters will vote in a state legislative race than do national races.

North Carolina’s Changing Demographic

In 2012 the newly drawn legislative districts were applied to the 2012 vote for Governor and all Council of State races except the attorney general’s race, which was uncontested. Though we couldn’t compare individual districts in this CPI with the last one, because of redistricting, we were able to compare average voting patterns from 2008.

While it is true that historically in Council of State races North Carolinians tend to vote for Democratic candidates, in the 2012 CPI we saw a possible shift in that voting pattern. In the 2008 election, the average Council of State vote (looking at only votes for Democratic or Republican candidates) was 53.4 percent Democratic and 46.6 percent Republican statewide; in the 2012 model, the average vote statewide was nearly even: 50.6 percent Democratic to 49.4 percent Republican.