Typically, experts and analysts can distill an election’s outcome down to a small list of reasonable conclusions. But Superior Court Judge Mike Morgan’s 8-point win against incumbent Associate Justice Bob Edmunds for a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court has defied those expectations.
“I thought this would be closer. This was a very interesting result,” Joe Stewart, executive director of the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation, said during a post-election briefing Wednesday.
He said drilling down on the results is needed to determine how a Superior Court judge engineered what normally would be considered an upset over the high court’s sitting senior associate justice.
Though the Supreme Court is nonpartisan, Morgan, a Wake County a Democrat, received an endorsement from President Obama. Morgan’s win Tuesday night shifts the balance of power on the court to the left.
The result was a bit of an outlier. Republicans did well throughout the state and, obviously, nationally, with just a few noteworthy exceptions. Among that group in North Carolina are Democrats Roy Cooper and Josh Stein, the presumptive winners for governor and attorney general, respectively.
N.C. Court of Appeals races reverted to Tuesday’s norm. All five races — including one for a vacated seat — were won by Republicans.
Granted, Morgan was a solid candidate. He has been a Superior Court judge for more than 11 years, and he was a District Court judge in Wake County for 10 years. But the incumbent, Edmunds, who in 2008 defeated Suzanne Reynolds in a tight race, was respected by all sides as well.
So what gives? Could it be that Edmunds, a Republican who has served on the high court since 2001, was simply unlucky?
Gerry Cohen, a Raleigh attorney and a former special counsel to the North Carolina General Assembly, suggests just that.
Republicans appeared first on the state’s 2016 General Election ballot, which reflects the party of the governor. A change in the law added party affiliation to nonpartisan appeals court races as well. As the thought goes, people voting Republican down the ballot simply became accustomed to filling in the top line and, as a result, voted for Morgan.
Voting, said Cohen, “the same line.”
In this instance, Morgan got top billing over Edmunds.
Partisan races are listed alphabetically, but a District Court case in North Carolina roughly 20 years ago jumbled the alphabet for nonpartisan contests, including those for the Supreme Court.
It’s not fair to list candidates going A to Z every time, the decision said, so every two years the Board of Elections, in a random draw, starts the alphabet somewhere other than A. In this scenario, with the alphabet starting somewhere after E, Morgan got first billing.
Candidates know about the process, as does the Board of Elections and elections supervisors.
“The average person? Why would they know about it?” asks Cohen.
Of six black candidates on the ballot, Morgan was the lone winner, Cohen says. It’s possible Morgan’s visibility in the black community was higher than that of Edmunds, in part because Morgan competed in a June primary after the state’s high court ruled the so-called retention election unconstitutional. Edmunds won the primary, but Morgan finished a strong second in a four-candidate field.
Cohen also referenced the infamous 2012 “banjo ad” for Paul Newby, which he used to defeat Sam Ervin IV in another Supreme Court race.
“I think that completely surprised the Democrats, and I think this time there was a much bigger Democratic effort to push Mike Morgan,” Cohen said.
“I think the Democrats were more observant of the race. I think that high visibility in the black community was important,” he said, “and I think being first on the ballot.”
Cohen was a classmate of Edmunds at the University of North Carolina law school, and, as a lawyer in Wake County, he’s familiar with Morgan’s work on the bench.
“There were two very good candidates. It was great to have two good choices.”
He said Edmunds was “in the wrong place at the wrong time, and part of being in the wrong place was the wrong line on the ballot.”