News: CJ Exclusives

Kappler: Lame-duck session could offer GOP last chance to push agenda

Jonathan Kappler (left), executive director of the N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation, chats with his predecessor Joe Stewart at a Nov. 7 post-election briefing in Raleigh. (CJ photo by Dan Way)
Jonathan Kappler (left), executive director of the N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation, chats with his predecessor Joe Stewart at a Nov. 7 post-election briefing in Raleigh. (CJ photo by Dan Way)

Now that Democrats have erased the GOP’s veto-proof majorities for the 2019 legislative session, Republican lawmakers could try to rush initiatives through a lame duck legislative session scheduled for Nov. 27, a top political observer says.

Democrats gained ground by wiping out Republican legislative delegations in Wake and Mecklenburg counties.

Jonathan Kappler, executive director of the N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation who closely tracks state elections, offered those takeaways during a Wednesday, Nov. 7, post-election analysis.

Republicans muscled their agenda through the first two years of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration. They swatted down 20 of a record 25 Cooper vetoes.

“All of a sudden that has more relevance” when the new General Assembly is sworn in on Jan. 1, Kappler said of Cooper vetoes. Without veto-proof majorities, Republicans will need Democratic votes to override them.

That is an unlikely prospect. The parties have a rancorous relationship, and Democrats frequently express discontent about exclusion from formative levels of policy discussions where the die often is cast on pending legislation.

Kappler said the parties enjoyed goodwill during hurricane relief efforts, but the cooperation is now much more likely to wither than persist. And Republicans could further strain relations if they use their lame-duck supermajorities to jam last-minute bills through.

Lawmakers could take up contentious enabling legislation for the just-passed voter ID constitutional amendment to specify what forms of identification will be accepted to vote, Kappler said, “and whatever else they might want to dream up.”

Already whispers are resurfacing that Republicans might increase the number of seats on the state Supreme Court in hopes of offsetting Tuesday’s election loss, Kappler said. Republican incumbent Barbara Jackson lost to Democrat Anita Earls, increasing Democrats’ majority from 4-3 to 5-2.

Democrats also won three Court of Appeals races, narrowing their deficit from 10-5 to 8-7. Kappler said the Democrats’ appellate courts sweep was an oddity. Republicans generally fare well in Court of Appeals races.

Voters rejected two of six constitutional amendments, and Kappler said Republicans might have dropped the ball. Amendments usually are added to the ballot in the summer, and there are generally only one or two proposed. They typically are introduced backed by well-structured financing and voter education.

That didn’t happen this time, Kappler said.

As better funded, organized opposition emerged, final votes narrowed in comparison to earlier favorable poll results on the right to hunt and fish, a victim’s rights bill, an income tax cap, and voter ID.

Amendments to change the way judicial vacancies are filled and to create a new state elections board failed by large margins. Voters likely struggled to understand the wordy, process-oriented ballot language.

Kappler said he never heard a compelling reason to put them on the ballot.

Kappler said Tuesday’s vote in Wake and Mecklenburg counties — where 1 in 5 North Carolina voters reside — illustrates the state’s increasing divide between rural areas and urban/suburban ones.

Raleigh and Charlotte, and their adjacents suburbs, dominate Wake and Mecklenburg counties.

“These communities by and large are moving hard left,” and quickly, partly due to an influx of out-of-state residents, Kappler said. Similar but slower transitions are taking place in Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Asheville, and Wilmington.

Republicans disappeared from Wake County’s House delegation altogether after Tuesday’s losses, going from 8-3 to 11-0 Democratic. House District 40 in Wake County was even redrawn to make it more favorable for a Republican candidate, Kappler said. Yet in a rematch from 2016 Democratic incumbent Joe John beat Marilyn Avila by an even wider margin. Wake County’s Senate delegation switched from 3-2 Republican to 4-1 Democratic. Only Republican Sen. John Alexander remains.

Mecklenburg County’s House delegation almost turned solid blue: from an 8-4 Democratic majority to 11-1 Democratic. Lone GOP survivor Rep. Bill Brawley was clinging to a tenuous 52-vote lead before provisional and absentee mail-in ballots are counted. His margin of victory is eligible for a recount challenge. Democrats increased their 3-2 hold on Mecklenburg’s Senate delegation to 4-1, with Sen. Dan Bishop the sole Republican survivor.

Shifting red-blue allegiances were evident as several rural districts with ancestral Democratic roots have moved to Republican control, Kappler said.

Senate District 13 once was solidly Democratic, Kappler said. But incumbent Republican Danny Britt was re-elected with nearly 63 percent of the vote over Democrat John Campbell.  

Likewise, Kappler said, House District 6 transitioned into a Republican stronghold. Bobby Hanig won the open seat with 55 percent of the vote over Democrat Tess Judge.

“The Democrats threw what they could at this,” Kappler said, but still couldn’t pry the seat loose from Republicans. Judge’s third quarter campaign expense report showed she spent $383,366 compared to $68,403 by Hanig, who ended with a cash on hand deficit of more than $16,000.

Kappler also offered these election nuggets:

  • Outside spending in the 2nd, 9th, and 13th Congressional Districts totaled $15.5 million.
  • Provisional votes usually favor Democrats, and mail-in absentee votes traditionally favor Republicans. Given this year’s electoral dynamics, those trends might flip.
  • Early voting turnout still skews Democratic, but Republicans are now coming to the polls earlier. Data show 27 percent of early voters on Tuesday had waited until election day to cast ballots in 2014, and Republicans accounted for more of that new segment.
  • This year’s overall voter turnout was slightly more than 52 percent. The average midterm election turnout is 42 percent. In 2006, the last blue moon midterm election in which there wasn’t a presidential, gubernatorial, or U.S. Senate candidate on the ballot, turnout was 36.5 percent.