Decision 2018 graphic
By Travis Fain, WRAL statehouse reporter
Raleigh, N.C. — There may be more people running for the General Assembly this year than ever before.
Every seat has competition, and Democrats feel so good about their chance to break the Republican super-majority that they’ve widened their target list to include dozens of legislative seats.
There are also more women running. The League of Women Voters of North Carolina said this week that, the last time there was a General Assembly primary without a presidential election in 2014, 24 women ran for the legislature. This year, 119 women are on the ballot in state House and Senate races, the league said.
First-time candidates told WRAL News they got into these races for a variety of reasons and that, when they knock on doors, they don’t hear about President Donald Trump, whose election has clearly increased attention to politics. Instead, they said, they hear state and local concerns – school funding, clean water and social issues such as North Carolina’s now-defunct law restricting transgender bathroom access.
But Trump’s election clearly lit a spark. Steven Greene, a political science professor at North Carolina State University, said there’s been a large increase in political science majors at the school since Trump’s election.
Julie von Haefen
Julie von Haefen, president of the Wake County PTA Council and a candidate this year against state Rep.
, R-Wake, said it tuned people in to a range of issues.
“I think that really did kind of wake people up,” the Democratic hopeful said. “Then, I think people started paying attention to what was going on at a local and state level.”
Some 475 candidates have filed for North Carolina’s 170 House and Senate seats, all of which are up this year, starting with primaries Tuesday. That includes 36 Libertarians, according to North Carolina FreeEnterprise Foundation Executive Director Jonathan Kappler, who tracks state politics relentlessly.
Formal statistics are hard to come by, but Kappler said this is among the highest, if not the highest, total in state history. Still to come: The Green Party won regular ballot access this year and plans to hold a nominating convention to add even more candidates to the November ballot, while the Constitution Party has been collecting signatures to put its own candidates into some legislative races as well.
Gerry Cohen, a longtime legislative attorney who’s been in state politics since the 1970s, said he can’t recall both major parties nominating a candidate for every race, which is what’s happened this year with one exception – even that race has an unaffiliated candidate who’s backed by the state GOP.
“I couldn’t say there’s never been this many,” Cohen said, “but there certainly has not been in the last 40 years.”
Democrats sense a wave election and a chance to win seats that weren’t nearly competitive during the last cycle two years ago.
Republicans recruited hard to keep pace, and the state party stretched beyond a traditional candidate pool:
In Charlotte, the GOP has an LGBT activist who served on the state Democratic Party’s executive committee just a few years ago. In Guilford County, the Republican candidate founded “Gays for Trump.” In Wake County, a husband and wife duo will run – one in the House, one in the Senate – to take on a three-term Democrat in a left-leaning district and the state Senate’s Democratic leader.
Several Republican districts that don’t look competitive on paper not only have a Democratic challenge set for November but a primary to name that challenger. Contested races aren’t just a chance to win, they’re a chance to force the other side to spend time and money.
“It was a concerted strategy,” Democratic Party spokesman Robert Howard said.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger
Breaking the veto-proof majority
This won’t be visible for everyone in the primaries because many intra-party elections remain uncontested. But the primaries set up the November general elections, when control of the legislature will be decided.
Overturning a governor’s veto required a three-fifths vote in both the House and the Senate, meaning 72 votes in the House and 30 in the Senate.
Republicans hold the House 75-45 and the Senate 35-15, meaning Democrats would need to pick up four House seats or six Senate seats to break the super-majority.
Winning the House outright would be a much heavier lift, but target lists released by Democrats include more than enough races to do it. A leaked Republican strategy memo from March cautioned GOP House members not to take anything for granted, even in districts that went heavily for Trump in 2016.
, D-Wake, a leader in the House Democratic caucus, was confident of breaking the super-majority last week on Twitter.
“No amount of $ will preserve their supermajority,” Martin tweeted, in response to fundraising news about House Speaker
. “The only question is if it can save their majority.”
The House is seen as the better opportunity for Democratic gains than the Senate, but there is striking consensus when various analyses are compared district by district. If the number-crunchers and prognosticators are to be believed, a lot of current Republican seats are in play.
Breaking the super-majority in just one chamber changes the power dynamic in Raleigh. Gov. Roy Cooper would have new bargaining power against Republicans accustomed to overturning his vetoes without having to look to Democrats for votes.
How will it all work out? It’s a long way to November, said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College.
“Let me ask you a question: How did you do on your NCAA brackets?” Bitzer said. “If nobody can predict Loyola-Chicago … all bets are off.”
Local issues, #MeToo trump Trump
Trump may have sparked more interest in politics, but that’s not what first-time legislative candidates talk about when asked why they’re running.
And it’s not what they hear as they go door to door, a half-dozen told WRAL News.
“They’re talking about why aren’t we paying our teachers more,” said Kirk deViere, a former Fayetteville City Council member and a Democrat running for state Senate. “What about our early childhood education? … They’re talking about why didn’t we expand Medicaid.”
Von Haefen said she sees young mothers making a big difference this election cycle. A number of new political committees have cropped up in North Carolina over the last year and a half, mostly organized by women.
“Those are my people,” the PTA president said. “We’re not represented in the General Assembly.”
League of Women Voters Co-president Janet Hoy said Trump’s election and the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment have inspired women to get involved.
“Women have always been politically active but have sometimes been hesitant to actually run for office themselves,” Hoy said. “There’s been a major shift in just the last few months.”
Sydney Batch, a Democrat running for a House seat in southwestern Wake County, said people are upset with the General Assembly.
“I have not heard a lot of Trump, Trump, Trump,” she said. “There is enough frustration with the General Assembly right now.”
Ken Bagnal, half of the GOP’s husband-wife candidate team in Wake County, said Trump’s not what’s driving voters he talks to, either.
“I don’t think that will have an impact,” he said. “For me, it’s all about ideas.”
Sandy Andrews, his wife and the Republican candidate against Senate Minority Leader
, said she ran to give voters a choice. She said she didn’t see herself as a candidate until she was recruited.
“I think both parties have made a concerted effort,” she said. “I think that’s really healthy.”