Opinion: Daily Journal

A NC House Election Checklist

RALEIGH – There will be a great deal going on Tuesday as election returns for president, U.S. Senate, governor, Council of State, and other races predominate the coverage. It is a mistake to ignore the North Carolina House and Senate contests, however, as the state legislature – for better or worse, often the latter – makes critical decisions about our taxes, our roads, our schools, and our freedoms.

In the House, Republicans enjoy a 62-58 majority but do not control the chamber. House Speaker Jim Black is essentially the senior partner with Republican Co-Speaker Richard Morgan as the junior. Black will likely remain in control in the House unless Republicans win a supermajority of the 120 seats on Tuesday. That outcome is possible but not likely. A safer prediction would be a slight Democratic edge or a slight Republican edge, the latter made somewhat less likely than the former because the GOP failed to run candidates in a number of swing seats or potentially competitive districts.

I’ve grouped the 19 House contests I’m watching into several regional categories. I don’t mean to suggest that all 19 of these seats are competitive at this writing — only that I can imagine them changing hands if there is a last-minute surge to one party or the another. If parity reigns, only a core group of about 8-10 seats would be coin-flips. Just to set the stage: by my count, of the remaining House 99 seats, Democrats have a claim on 50 and the Republicans 51. Here are the leading indicators to watch on election night:

The Eastern Beachheads

It isn’t so much Eastern North Carolina in general but Coastal Carolina in particular that is so highly competitive in state politics. You can see that in statewide races — where Brunswick, New Hanover, and Dare counties have been bellwethers – but also in the legislature. The New Bern, Jacksonville, and New Hanover-Brunswick areas each boast competitive House and Senate races.

District 3: Democrat Alice Underhill vs. Republican Michael Speciale
Republican Mike Gorman won this seat in 2002, but voted for tax hikes and lost the GOP primary to Speciale. Underhill, daughter of the late Agriculture Commissioner Jim Graham, previously held the seat. Republican dissension might play somewhat of a role in the general election, but this Craven County-center seat is moderately Republican based on the 2000 census data and trending more so each year.

District 6: Democrat Arthur Williams (i) vs. Republican Al Klemm
This swing district stretches from portions of Greenville and Pitt County to the coast, taking in all of Beaufort. Williams is taking credit for the new cardiovascular center to be built at ECU and talking up a state lottery to fund education. Klemm, a hard-working Republican activist for many years in the region, blasts Williams for voting for tax increases and wasteful spending and questions the use of state road money. The district is less Democratic than it was in the previously gerrymander, with GOP registration above 30 percent.

District 10: Democrat Lew Llewellyn vs. Republican Steve LaRoque (i)
The 10th District was a swing seat in 2002 but has now been redrawn as a moderately Democratic seat, with 63 percent Democratic registration and 27 percent minority voters. Plus the GOP incumbent, LaRoque, voted with the Morgan bloc and may suffer among party activists accordingly. However, he still has a fighting chance. A big issue is the Global TransPark, about which LaRoque has been, among area politicians, comparatively skeptical. Llewellyn acted as counsel to the GTP. On most other issues, Llewellyn has lunged to the center to obscure differences with LaRoque.

District 14: Democrat Kever Clark vs. Republican George Cleveland
It’s another case of a Morgan-bloc Republican dethroned. The 14th District in and around Onslow County features Cleveland, a longtime activist who defeated incumbent Keith Williams in a GOP primary, against Kever Clark, a former Democratic state senator and board member of the state’s largest teacher union. Politicos in the area have paid more attention to the knockdown, drag-out fight for Senate District 6, so this race hasn’t registered much. That’s good for Cleveland, a mainstream conservative, in this GOP-trending swing seat.

District 17: Democrat David Redwine vs. Republican Bonner Stiller (i)
Talk about a fascinating rematch. Brunswick County’s Redwine was a rising star in the House Democratic caucus, including the key leader of the appropriations committee, before being stunned in 2002 by Stiller after redistricting changed the district from moderately Democratic to moderately Republican. Now the map has changed again, to a swing seat with a slight Democratic tilt. Moreover, Stiller was part of the Morgan bloc and will not have the grassroots support from GOP conservatives he had two years ago. Every year, Brunswick County imports a disproportionately Republican bundle of new residents – but Stiller may lack the resources and heft to take advantage.

The Republican Wake-Up

Two Republican incumbents are facing spirited challenges in Wake County, but that’s about it as far truly competitive House races in the Triangle are concerned.

District 34: Democrat Grier Martin vs. Republican Don Munford (i)
Munford was elected in 2002 to this swing seat that tilts slightly towards the GOP. Martin is a great resume and is working hard, but does not seem to have attracted significant resources to run a major campaign against Munford, who many considered an impressive freshman. Turnout differentials could matter. Bush and Easley seem likely to win in this Raleigh center-north district, with Burr and Bowles competitive, so the wind direction is hard to gauge.

District 39: Democrat Linda Coleman vs. Republican Sam Ellis (i)
This Wake County district is moderately Democratic in political behavior but Coleman, an African-American and former chairwoman of the county commission, has still been working overtime to defeat longtime incumbent Ellis. In her favor is that he been drawn into a new district that excludes many of his former constituents and is 32 percent Republican (which would be GOP-leaning in a rural area but not as impressive within Wake) and 30 percent minority.

The Sandhills Dust-Up

The counties that make up North Carolina‘s Sandhills region form a sort of topographical and political frontier between the eastern plain and the Piedmont.

District 44: Democrat Margaret Dickson (i) vs. Republican Ralph Reagan
Dickson was elected in 2002 after a career in radio broadcasting and longtime political activism. She is defending her votes for state tax increases by arguing that the revenue was needed for public education. Reagan, a realtor, blames waste in state government and complains that tax hikes are costing the state jobs. The Cumberland County district is nearly but not quite a toss-up – with 30 percent of the electorate Republican and one-third minorities.

District 45: Democrat Rick Glazier (i) vs. Republican Robert Lawrence
Glazier is a left-leaning lawyer who was first elected in 2002 after serving on the local school board. He promises to be an up-and-comer in the Democratic caucus and has far outspent his Republican opponent, Robert Lawrence, who is a radiographer at the local hospital and a former U.S. Army serviceman and reservist. Glazer and Lawrence divide predictably on fiscal and social issues. It is a clear ideological choice, but many voters in this swing district may not know that.

District 51: Democrat Leslie Cox vs. Republican John Sauls (i)
This is a rematch from 2002, when Cox was the incumbent and Sauls the underestimated underdog. This year, lingering tensions from fights over House leadership and the state budget may hurt Sauls a little bit with Republican activists. Cox is actually running to Sauls’ right by criticizing his vote for a budget containing tax increases in 2003 – though Cox voted for tax-increase budgets in 2001 and 2002. This district is competitive on the numbers and the outcome uncertain.

District 53: Democrat Louise Taylor vs. Republican David Lewis (i)
Lewis, a freshman, is a mainstream conservative Republican seemingly unaffected by the House wars of the past two years. His opponent, Taylor, is a former college professor who headed the English department at Meredith College in Raleigh before retiring to Harnett County, where she maintain close ties at Campbell (her husband teaches there). Local issues are important in this competitive seat, which tilts slightly Republican.

The Triad Three

Long a political battleground in North Carolina, the Piedmont Triad region feels somewhat less so in recent election cycles, partly because of redistricting that has made Ds and Rs safer in their respective nests. Still, some interest remains.

District 57: Democrat Pricey Harrison vs. Republican Joanne Bowie (i)
Bowie is a longtime incumbent but was supposed to face big trouble this year with a Guilford County seat redrawn to be moderately Democrat and favorable to Harrison, an heir to the Jefferson-Pilot fortune and well-known in state capital circles as an environmental activist. But Harrison’s campaign seems to have misfired a couple of times, and Bowie is blasting her for not really hailing from the district. Bowie still faces trouble here, but its magnitude is less than expected.

District 63: Democrat Alice Bordsen (i) vs. Republican Jerry Rudd
This Alamance County seat generated a surprisingly close outcome in 2002, when Bordsen was elected by a tiny margin in a seat I had counted as moderately Democratic. It appears that her race is also surprisingly close this year against Rudd, a conservative activist and farmer who is stressing opposition to tax hikes and forced annexation. The district is 56 percent Democrat, 29 percent Republican, and 29 percent minority.

District 65: Democrat Nelson Cole (i) vs. Republican Wayne Sexton (i)
These two longtime incumbents from Rockingham County were drawn into the same district for the 2004 cycle, with Cole getting the better part of the deal as Democratic areas stayed in House 65 and Republican areas got shifted elsewhere. Still, it is only moderately Democratic and Sexton is an able campaigner. The GOP percentage is shy of 30 percent of the electorate.

The Salisbury Stakes

I used to group Rowan County with its I-85 corridor cousin, Davidson County, in examining competitive legislative races. But Democrat Hugh Holliman of Davidson, who is in a swing seat, is unopposed. So, that leaves:

District 77: Democrat Lorene Coates (i) vs. Republican Mac Butner
This Rowan County district was one of the most competitive during the 1990s, and remains so on the numbers (it is one of the few pure “toss-ups” in my reading of the numbers). But Butner, a strong conservative, came into the race late, upon the withdrawal of the GOP nominee, and faces in Coates an incumbent who has won several tough races in the past and who tacks rightward during campaign season on issues such as annexation.

Foggy Mountain Showdown

The mountains and foothills are not uniformly Republican, just as the east is not uniformly Democrat. The reality is more complex and more interesting.

District 90: Democrat Jim Harrell, Jr. (i) vs. Republican Jack Conaway
Harrell pulled off one of the surprises of the night in the 2002 elections by winning a northwestern NC seat (including Surry and Alleghany counties) that was, by the numbers, a moderately Republican seat. It still is, but it will no longer be surprising if he wins reelection. His father, county commissioner Jim Harrell, is the 5th District Democratic nominee for Congress. The elder Harrell will almost certainly lose to Republican Virginia Foxx. But his campaign will boost their shared name recognition. Some Republicans argue, however, that it cuts both ways – that some split-ticket voters may confuse the two and vote against both. The challenger is Jack Conaway, who served in the Air Force and is stressing the weakness of the local economy.

District 111: Democrat Katherine Hamrick vs. Republican Tim Moore (i)
Another classic toss-up seat, Cleveland County’s 111th District features incumbent Moore, an up-and-coming Republican attorney who previously served on the UNC Board of Governors, against Hamrick, of the famous Gaffney-based retailing family. Social issues are important here. Moore is a leader of the effort to amend the state constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. He is also accusing Hamrick of running as a pro-life candidate but receiving the support of the abortion-rights PAC Lillian’s List. For her part, Hamrick is running as a “conservative” and talks a lot about improving the business climate, including state help to address infrastructure and rising health costs.

District 112: Democrat Robert England (i) vs. Republican Mike Hager
Another competitive seat, the 112th in Rutherford and part of Cleveland counties, features a Democrat incumbent elected in 2002, England, who previously served for years on the local school board. His conservative challenger, Hager, is a developer who is running aggressively against England’s vote for state tax increases and calling for spending restraint. England is denying that his 2003 vote for the budget constituted a vote for higher taxes, which is odd. The district is 32 percent Republican. The outcome may be influenced by larger trends for state senate and statewide races.

District 119: Democrat Phil Haire (i) vs. Republican Marge Carpenter
Many observers count this moderately Democratic seat in the western NC mountains as a safe re-election prospect for incumbent Haire. But I hesitate. Carpenter is a former state representative herself and the daughter-in-law of longtime Sen. Bob Carpenter (who is admittedly facing a surprisingly tough challenge this year, more later). She is getting some outside help. I think it is conceivable that a strong turnout for Bush and other Republicans this year may boost Carpenter enough that she wins by a hair.

Just a little joke. Very little.

I must admit that the House races this year have been difficult to get a handle on, and may well be of little interest to the broader voting public. The drama is lessened by fewer-than-usual challenged incumbents and the perceived low stakes – Republicans probably won’t control the chamber unless they get to at least 65 seats. That requires winning, by my count, 14 of the 19 races listed above. A smaller GOP majority of the seats is easier to envision, but I am told that it would probably result in a Jim Black speakership given that a dozen or so Republicans will refuse to vote for Morgan as leader under any circumstances and a rump of Morgan Republicans will vote for no one else.

Save this column and use it as your check-off list on Election Night.

Speaking of, don’t forget to turn your television’s sound down and turn up the election returns and coverage that my colleagues and I at “N.C. Spin” will be bringing to radio audiences statewide beginning Tuesday at 7p. There are more than 30 stations in the network thus far; go here for more information and an affiliate list.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.

Update: As corrected above, Marge Carpenter, the GOP nominee in the 119th District, is Sen. Robert Carpenter’s daughter-in-law. I accidently left out the “in-law” part in the initial piece.