News: CJ Exclusives

North Carolina Candidates Gear Up in Swing Districts

Turnover could alter balance of power in House and Senate

The North Carolina General Assembly could look much different in 2011. At least, that’s what Republicans hope.

For the first time in over a century, the minority party has a shot at wresting control of the legislature from Democrats, and it’s banking on a string of competitive races to do it.

Retirements, resignations, and shifting political dynamics make 10 seats in the Senate and 20 in the House vulnerable to GOP challenges this year. Political experts say a sluggish economy, anger over health care reform in Congress, and corruption could propel Republican candidates into office.

The GOP has fielded a record-breaking number of contenders — 223 compared to Democrats’ 170 — and secured at least one challenger in every Senate district and all but 10 House districts.

“It shows you where the passion is,” said Raleigh-based political consultant John Davis.

Republicans need a net gain of nine seats in the House and six in the Senate to snag control. Polls show that voters favor Republicans over Democrats in state and federal races by a slim margin, with one-fifth undecided.

“It could be a crazy year where if you’re a Republican and on the ballot, you win,” said GOP strategist Ballard Everett.

But Democrats say their party’s dominance of state politics won’t change this year.

“The Democrats have been in control since the middle 19th century because voters have trusted them more than they have Republicans in handling state finances, building schools, building roads, and managing our economy,” said Democratic strategist Brad Crone.

Heating up Down East

Pundits are tracking two Senate seats in the southeast that could switch parties after a sex scandal and retirement opened the field.

Two Republicans have filed to replace 17-term Sen. R.C. Soles, a Tabor City Democrat who announced he wouldn’t seek re-election. Soles pled guilty in February to a misdemeanor charge for shooting one of his former legal clients in the leg, and was accused of molestation by men who allege Soles took sexual advantage of them when they were teenagers.

The winner of the Republican primary will face David Redwine, a former Democratic powerbroker in the House, in the general election.

In New Hanover County, Democratic Sen. Julia Boseman’s retirement means that Republicans will have a chance to reclaim the seat once held by the party’s 2004 gubernatorial candidate, Patrick Ballantine. Former UNC Wilmington chancellor James Leutze has filed on the Democrats’ side.

The Republican primary between two lawyers, Thom Goolsby and Michael Lee, turned ugly in March. In addition to exchanging fire on tort reform, both candidates claim the other donated money to Democrats in nonpartisan races. Lee also released a Web video poking fun at Goolsby’s claim that he’s not a politician.

“It’s been much more interesting to watch the Republicans than the Democrats in the primaries,” said House Democratic Whip Deborah Ross of Wake County. “Most of them believe they’ll be coronated in November, and they’ve been beating each other up to get the chance.”

Piedmont ruckus

Two Democratic lawmakers in central North Carolina — Sens. Bill Purcell of Scotland County and Tony Foriest of Alamance County — could be picked off if political trends continue against the ruling party going into November.

Purcell’s Republican opponent, Jason Phibbs, already has fired a volley. At a town hall meeting in March, he accused Purcell of promoting homosexuality by voting for contraception-based sex education and an anti-bullying bill that gave special protections to gay students.

Purcell countered that the anti-bullying bill doesn’t endorse homosexuality and that abstinence education wasn’t working.

Moving to the Triad, Foriest’s district could be ripe for the plucking given its history of sending conservatives to the legislature. The African- American lawmaker barely won his seat in 2006, and had to outspend his opponent 2-to-1 to win re-election in 2008. Rick Gunn, who lost to Foriest in 2008 by about 3,500 votes, is angling for a rematch this year.

In the Triangle, a bevy of Republicans have filed for a chance to take on what they perceive as weak Democratic incumbents. Four GOP candidates have filed to challenge three-term Rep. Grier Martin, whose district encompasses north-central Wake County

In another Triangle-area race, one of three Republicans will challenge Rep. Chris Heagarty, former head of the N.C. Center for Voter Education. Heagarty was appointed in October to complete Ty Harrell’s term.

Harrell resigned from the General Assembly in September shortly after the state Board of Elections opened an investigation into his campaign finance activities, including payments for luggage and children’s clothes that Harrell wrote off as campaign expenditures.

Two other seats in the Triangle area — District 49 and District 51 — could flip this year. Democratic Rep. Lucy Allen, chairwoman of the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee, is leaving the House for an appointment to the N.C. Utilities Commission. Her replacement will face Republican Glen Bradley in the fall.

In District 51, Republican Michael Stone will take on Rep. Jimmy Love, a seven-term Democrat from Lee County. In the eastern Piedmont, Rep. William Brisson of District 22 has filed for a third term but faces primary opposition from fellow Democrat Robert Jacob Brooks. Rep. Randy Stewart, a Democrat from District 25, will face Republican Jeff Collins in November.

Further west, Republicans Harry Warren and Lauren Raper have filed to challenge Rep. Lorene Coates, a Democrat representing District 77.

Leadership shakeup

Regardless of whether Republicans score victories in November, the General Assembly’s leadership will undergo significant changes. Longtime Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, a Democrat, resigned Dec. 31, and Sen. David Hoyle, the Democratic co-chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, isn’t seeking re-election.

Rand’s seat is safe for Democrats, but experts predict that Hoyle’s district will switch hands. Four Republicans have filed in the primary.

“The fact that you’ve got that many Republicans filing is an indicator of the expectations for the outcome,” said N.C. State University political science professor Andrew Taylor. “The Republicans don’t win the Senate without winning Hoyle’s seat.”

Republicans also hope to put a dent in Democrats’ power structure in the legislature by defeating House Majority Leader Hugh Holliman, a Democrat from Davidson County.

Holliman narrowly won re-election in 2008, but he had to spend $340,000, compared to the $15,000 raised by his Republican opponent Rayne Brown. Two Republicans, Fred McClure and Brown, have filed this year.

“Holliman barely hung on in a terrible year for Republicans [in 2008],” Davis said. “That shows how vulnerable he is, especially in a good year for Republicans.”

Western showdown

Spring is alive in the Carolina mountains, but it hasn’t brightened the prospects of three potentially vulnerable Democratic incumbents — Steve Goss of Watauga County, Joe Sam Queen of Haywood County, and John Snow of Cherokee County.

Goss, an ordained Baptist minister, will have to fight to keep the seat he barely held in 2006 and 2008. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by 11 percentage points in the district.

Three Republicans are vying to take the seat Queen narrowly won in the last two elections. Even though Queen outspent his opponent 4-to-1 in 2006, he won with only 51 percent of the vote that year and 54 percent in 2008. The district’s demographics favor the GOP heavily.

In the southwestern corner of the state, Republicans Jimmy Goodman and Jim Davis are undaunted by Snow’s six-year reign. Even though the district has more voters registered Democrat (39 percent) than Republican (36 percent), Snow has had to spend three or four times as much as his opponents in the last three elections to win.

David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal. Associate editors Sara Burrows and Anthony Greco assisted in reporting this story.