Democrats start with strong chance to make further gains, GOP likely to retain Majority

Published January 9, 2020

In 2018 Republicans maintained their majority in the North Carolina State Senate by  winning 29 seats to Democrats‘ 21. Democrats, however, broke the Republican supermajority in the chamber by keeping the GOP below 30 seats.

Heading into the last election, Republicans had a 34-15 majority. The seat previously held by Republican David Curtis was vacant. Democrats needed to win six seats to break Republicans’ three-fifths supermajority, the margin necessary to override gubernatorial vetoes.

Democrats desire to build on significant legislative gains made during the last legislative elections, and believe that court ordered redrawn maps would offer renewed hope of Democratic majorities in at least one chamber.

Democrats begin with a strong hand in the upper chamber. Due to court-ordered redistricting, they are widely expected to pick up the remaining Republican seats in Wake and Mecklenburg counties, currently held by Senators Johnny (Mac) Alexander and Rob Bryan. Both seats are significantly more favorable to Democrats, and neither Republican is running this cycle.

It would seem that Republicans would like to hold the line where they are and possibly make up some lost ground by riding on President Trump’s endorsements and popularity among their base.

In the state Senate, Republicans fielded candidates in 49 of 50 races, while opting to support a Republican-leaning unaffiliated candidate in Charlotte’s 41st Senate District, assuming that candidate qualifies for the ballot.

Democrats fielded candidates in all 50 state Senate seats for the second straight cycle.

Many of the most competitive races are partisan primaries in safe Democrat and Republican seats that will replace departing lawmakers.

The District 1 N.C. Senate incumbent, Republican Bob Steinburg of Edenton, will not face a primary opponent as he did two years ago. However, Steinburg is being challenged in the general election by Kitty Hawk Democrat Tess Judge.

Judge, the wife of longtime Dare Commissioner Warren Judge ― who died during his 2016 N.C. House race against Beverly Boswell—ran unsuccessfully in 2018 against Republican, and Powells Point resident, Bobby Hanig for that same District 6 House seat.

Judge is considered a top recruit for Democrats, due to her previous run and name recognition.

Republican N.C. District 2 Senator Norman Sanderson has also filed to run for another term in the North Carolina Legislature. Sanderson, who has served four terms in the N.C. Senate, represents Carteret, Craven, and Pamlico counties. Democrat Libbie Griffin of New Bern has filed for the seat as well.

North Carolina politicos might do well to keep an eye on Senate District 3, being vacated by Erica Smith who is trying to move up from state Senate to the U.S. Senate. Neither the Republicans nor Democrats will face a partisan primary in this race that covers  Beaufort,  Bertie,  Martin,  Northampton,  Vance,  and Warren counties.

Republican Vance County Commissioner Tommy Hester, a Henderson native, will represent the Republicans.

Democrats will be represented by Bertie County Commissioner Ernestine (Byrd) Bazemore.

While still considered a Democratic-leaning seat, several factors put this race on the radar:

This seat has moved five points towards the Republicans over the last two elections. Also, Hester is one of the few Republicans ever elected in Democratic-leaning Vance County.

Bazemore is not only from the smallest county in the district, her hometown of Aulander is one of the fastest-shrinking towns in North Carolina, dropping from 895 people in the 2010 U.S. Census to 789 in 2018, according to population estimates.

Senate 3 is trending toward the GOP, but is that enough for a change?

Republicans received a timely gift in Senate 5 (Pitt and Greene) in the seat held by Democrat Don Davis. A last-minute change of heart secured the Republicans’ top desired Senate recruit, former State House member Karen Kozel, a well-known home school advocate. Senator Davis is popular in Pitt and Greene counties, but resides in one of the few Democratic-held districts that offers a pick-up opportunity for Republicans. In the past Davis has soundly defeated Republican challengers, but a potentially strong Trump year makes this district in play, and landing a top candidate, even at the last minute, is a coup for Senate Republican campaign recruiters.

In 2018, Don Davis defeated Pitt County District Attorney Kimberly Robb 55 to 44 percent in a race that Republicans declined serious investment in due to the headwinds of a strong Democrat year.

Onslow County School Board member Bob Williams will meet Jacksonville Mayor Pro Tem Michael Lazzara in the Republican primary for the deep red Senate District 6, a seat representing Onslow and Jones counties, in a race to replace retiring Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown.

Democratic Senator Harper Peterson and former Republican Senator Michael Lee will face off in a rematch from 2018. In a tight race, Paterson defeated Lee by 231 votes in 2018. New Hanover performs as one of the key swing counties in North Carolina.

President Donald Trump won New Hanover by 4,365 votes in 2016, but Republican Governor Pat McCrory lost the county to current Gov. Roy Cooper by 5,265.

The retiring of Republican Rick Horner sets up an interesting series of contests in SD 11 in Nash and Johnston counties. State Rep. Lisa Barnes (R) of Nash County is attempting to move to the upper chamber, but first must survive a primary from Johnston County Commissioner Patrick Harris of Smithfield. The winner will face a top-level recruit from the Democrats in former three term state Senator Alan Wellons of Johnston County.

Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue will once again be opposed by the “man with three first names,” Republican Alan David Michael, in one of the state’s most Democratic districts.

Senator Johnny “Mac” Alexander is retiring from Senate 18, which spans Wake and Franklin counties. The district has been redrawn and is now expected to be a Democrat pick-up. Democrat activist Angela Bridgeman of Wendell will face Sarah Crawford in a primary. Crawford previously ran in a very close race in this district in 2014 but was defeated by Sen. Chad Barefoot. Defense attorney Scott McKaig has filed for the Republicans along with former Franklin County GOP Chair Larry Norman.

Cumberland County’s Senate 19 will feature a rematch of an extremely close contest between Democrat Kirk DeViere and Republican Wesley Meredith. The 2018 contest was decided by just 433 votes.

In the potentially competitive Senate 31, covering all of Davie and Eastern Forsyth counties, Republican incumbent Joyce Krawiec of Kernersville is being challenged by Democrat Terri Elizabeth LeGrand of Winston-Salem. LeGrand previously lost to Rep. Debra Conrad.

In Senate 41, first term Democrat incumbent Natasha Marcus will avoid a Republican incumbent but face a Republican-leaning unaffiliated candidate in Brian Sisson, former Huntersville Mayor Pro-Tem and co-owner of two shooting ranges in Mecklenburg Co.  Sisson has been a federal firearms licensee for nine years.

Former State Rep. Mark Hollo will face Republican Dean Proctor, a businessman from Hickory in the Republican primary for Senate 42. The winner will face Democrat Tina Miles in the Catawba and Alexander district.

State Sen. Andy Wells, who currently represents the district, has filed to run for lieutenant governor.

Julie Mayfield, Asheville City Council member and a leader of Western North Carolina’s largest environmental nonprofit, will try to succeed Terry Van Duyn in the North Carolina Senate.

Mayfield is the second Democrat to enter the race for the 49th Senate District, which includes portions of Asheville and much of Buncombe County, along with former candidate for District Attorney Travis Smith.  Ben Scales, an Asheville criminal defense attorney, is the 3rd Democrat. The Democrat winner in this extremely blue district will face Republican Bob Penland.

The N.C. Senate District 50 seat, which will be vacated by retiring longtime Franklin Republican Jim Davis, is being sought by two Republicans — incumbent District 120 Rep. Kevin Corbin of Franklin, and Highlands physician Sarah Conway. Democrat Victoria Fox from Canton has also filed.

Observers expect Democrats to easily pick up the Wake and Mecklenburg seats. Republicans have a good chance at reclaiming the Cumberland and New Hanover seats.

Ten months out, the likely outcomes of the 2020 elections range from a Democrat net gain of two seats to a Republican net gain of two seats, with a strong possibility of a tie contest leaving the senate division just where it is today.