RALEIGH – Having gone out on a limb earlier this week and listed 19 districts I thought deserved watching in the race for North Carolina House – on the same day that a news story ran suggesting Republicans had essentially given up on the state legislature this year – I’ve decided to keep crawling along the limb. Perhaps it will droop so low that I can hop safely to the ground.
Though a splat seems more likely.
Let’s take a look at the races for North Carolina Senate. Out of the 50 seats in that chamber, I think it is fair to say that 37 are already pretty much decided. Of these, Democrats are virtually certain to win 20 seats; Republicans, 17. Now, as to the remaining 13 races to watch – and I don’t mean to suggest they all have the potential to be equally competitive – I’d group them into a few broad geographical categories.
The Eastern Six-Pack
As was the case in the House, the Senate race begins with several interesting races in Eastern North Carolin and along the coast. Some are inherently competitive. Others are just worth keeping an eye on.
District 2: Democrat Scott Thomas (i) vs. Republican Chuck Tyson vs. Libertarian Robert Evey
This is a rematch from a 2002 race that was expensive and relatively close. Thomas always runs as a moderate Democrat in this GOP-trending swing district centered in New Bern and including many beach communities, though his votes for tax increases and other bills in the General Assembly don’t quite match the image. Tyson, formerly of the Craven County commission, is challenging Thomas on both fiscal issues – noting Thomas’ vote for tax increases despite taking a no-tax pledge – and moral issues such as same-sex marriage. A potential spoiler in a close race here could be Libertarian Robert Evey, who promises to vote against wasteful spending and for large tax cuts. So does Tyson.
District 5: Democrat John Kerr (i) vs. Republican Tony Moore (i)
This new district forced two Democratic incumbents, Kerr and Moore, into the same race. Moore promptly became a Republican and faces an uphill fight against Kerr, given the latter’s greater name recognition and the districts’ moderately Democratic character (GOP registration is 29 percent). This one gets interesting, however, if Moore’s Pitt County constituents turn out more strongly than Kerr’s Wayne County folks and a Bush/Burr wave develops in the east in the last few days of the campaign.
District 6: Democrat Cecil Hargett (i) vs. Republican Harry Brown
Like its next-door neighbor District 2, District 6 is highly competitive on the numbers and features an interesting match-up. The incumbent, Hargett, is freshman and self-styled conservative Democrat who still usually votes with his caucus. Brown ran for the NC House in 2002 as a Democrat, and is now a leading Onslow Republican. Got that? Brown blasted Hargett in advertising on taxes and failing to work strongly enough against same-sex marriage. Hargett responded by attacking Brown’s record as an automobile dealer. The race is bitter, expensive, and unpredictable.
District 7: Democrat Doug Berger vs. Republican Harold Frazier
This seat, which encompasses four counties north and east of Raleigh, should be safely Democratic. About two-thirds of the voters are registered Democrat and the minority population, which usually votes that way, approaches 40 percent. The problem is that Doug Berger is a problematic candidate who belonged to the Democratic Socialists of America in his youth and helped create a “progressive” hard-left group as an adult. Frazier is stressing taxes and same-sex marriage in his campaign against Berger. It would be an upset, but not a shocking one, if Frazier pulls this one out. Much depends on the turnout among traditional Democratic constituencies in the district for statewide races.
District 9: Democrat Julia Boseman vs. Republican Woody White (i)
Boseman, a New Hanover county commissioner, is putting up a strong and well-financed fight against White to win the Wilmington-area seat held for years by Patrick Ballantine. It is moderately Republican but White hasn’t been in office long enough to enjoy much of an incumbency advantage. He initially got the endorsement of the Wilmington Star, which is surprising given the page’s Democratic proclivities, but it later withdrew its support after Republican ads brought up the support Boseman, who is openly gay, has received from gay-rights groups outside the district. The race has actually focused on many substantive issues, including taxes, education, social services, and transportation. The voting patterns in the district continue to favor White.
District 11: Democrat A.B. Swindell (i) vs. Republican Dennis Nielsen
Swindell was an aide to former U.S. Rep. Tim Valentine and a lobbyist before seeking election in this down-east district in 2002. He is a strong candidate and has far outspent Nielsen, who is at a disadvantage on the numbers (it’s 59 percent Democratic and 36 percent minority). As with the 5th District, however, it is best not to set this race entirely aside. If Bush and Burr perform extraordinarily well in eastern North Carolina on Election Day – up into the high 50s – that will probably mean that African-American voters did not turn out as expected. That would hurt Swindell here.
District 16: Democrat Janet Cowell vs. Republican Mark Bradrick vs. Libertarian Jason Mara
Cowell is a member of the Raleigh city council and former think tanker and business consultant who is reliably left-of-center on most issues but also thoughtful and engaging. Her nomination led many Democrats to believe that she will play a important role in the future as a leading liberal in the legislature, but first she needs to nail down a victory in this Wake County district that is moderately Democratic (44 percent D, 32 percent R) and not entirely predictable. Bradrick is a Desert Storm veteran and insurance appraiser whose campaign stresses the need for lower taxes to boost job creation. Libertarian candidate Jason Mara, a TRG account executive, ran against the previous District 16 senator, Eric Reeves. His campaign themes for tax cuts and school choice and against Amendment One seem likely to win more votes from Bradrick than from Cowell, though he agrees with Cowell that a constitutional amendment to block same-sex marriage is unneeded. Cowell loses here only if turnout in Democratic areas of Raleigh falls short of expectations. Will John Edwards’ neighbors forget to vote?
A Piedmont Pair
District 22: Democrat Oscar Harris vs. Republican Harris Blake (i)
I almost put the incumbent mark beside Oscar Harris, too, because he almost is one in part of this district: the Harnett County precincts he once represented in the state senate and populated by people who remember his tenure as mayor of Dunn. The district also includes staunchly Republican Moore County, which is Blake’s home base and why the seat as a whole is moderately Republican. Health problems led some to doubt whether Blake would be able to come out swinging against a tough challenge from Harris, but it seems that each is giving as good as he’s getting. Blake emphasizes his support for lessening the regulatory burden on small business and for a cap on malpractice awards, which he blames for increasing health costs and chasing doctors out of certain specialties. Harris says he wants to help small businesses create health-insurance pools and direct more state funds to community colleges, among other priorities. Harris’ chances depend on a strong turnout in Harnett County to offset Blake’s structural advantage.
District 24: Democrat Tony Foriest vs. Republican Hugh Webster (i)
A swing seat encompassing Alamance and Caswell counties, the 24th District feels like it should more competitive than it is. Instead, most political observers of all persuasions believe that conservative stalwart and accountant Hugh Webster will defeat long Xerox employee Tony Foriest. While candidates in other swing seats are waging six-figure campaigns, Webster and Foriest are spending only about $22,000 each. Webster emphasizes his support for lower taxes and restructuring state government. Foriest, a former head of the Alamance Democratic Party, promises to increase state funding for education and health care programs.
Locked Horns in the West
District 43: Democrat David Hoyle (i) vs. Republican Russell Fleming
This seat is Republican. It is very Republican. Yet it has long had a Democratic state senator, Hoyle, who serves in the top ranks of the Democratic leadership of the chamber and has voted for tax increases and other policies Republicans typically dislike. After serious efforts to defeat him in 2000 and 2002, many GOP activists have written the contest off this year. I list it here simply because Fleming, who is outclassed and underfinanced, might sneak in if there is a strong Republican wave, particularly with some new voters moving into the area who haven’t voted for Hoyle before. Would I bet on it? Are you kidding?
District 46: Democrat Walter Dalton (i) vs. Republican Jim Testa
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the Cleveland-Rutherford area is one of North Carolina’s political bellwethers. It boasts two competitive House seats, this spirited Senate contest, and usually votes for the winning candidate for statewide offices, too. Dalton, an attorney and four-term incumbent, blames North Carolina’s job losses on international trade and argues that the state’s fiscal management and economic-development prospects are among the best in the nation. Testa disagrees. He operates a truck-stop business in Cleveland and Mecklenburg counties and used to run auto dealerships and a NASCAR team. He says that state taxes are too high, state programs are duplicative and wasteful, and his business experience would be more useful than Dalton’s legal background in helping to address economic issues.
District 47: Democrat Joe Sam Queen (i) vs. Republican Keith Presnell
The election of Queen, a Waynesville architect, in 2002 in this moderately Republican seat in the mountains was one of the surprises of the night, though not so much in retrospect when it came out that he had vastly outspent an outclassed Republican opponent. This year his foe will be tougher in Presnell, a business entrepreneur and former chairman of the Yancey County commission. He is criticizing Queen for voting for higher taxes in 2003, failing to reduce government waste, and inadequately representing western North Carolina. For his part, Queen touts his votes for education funding and proposal to expand home ownership. The GOP almost certainly must win this seat to have a chance to pull even with the Democrats. Both sides know that – big money is flowing in from outside the district.
District 50: Democrat John Snow, Jr. vs. Republican Robert Carpenter (i) vs. Libertarian Ben Lamm
This moderately Republican seat in the far western corner of the state has been Sen. Bob Carpenter’s political domain for 16 years, but all indications are that Democrats are serious about changing the nameplate. Their well-financed candidate is retired judge John Snow, who is calling for more economic incentives to create jobs in this distressed region. Carpenter favors cutting corporate taxes and creating an industrial authority. Lamm, a pharmacist, favors a spending cap, tax deductions for health expenses, and cutting the sales tax. If the race is close, his votes may come mostly from Carpenter’s column and tip the balance.
As you can see, the Democrats start out with an advantage in the struggle for the senate. They need to win only six of the 13 districts listed above to retain an outright majority (just five would tie the chamber and still give the Democrats control if Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue is reelected). But if Republicans defend their incumbents in 9, 22, 24, and 50; pick off Queen in 47; and win the swing seats held by Thomas, Hargett, and Dalton, they get to 25 seats. A strong statewide showing for Bush and Burr could help them do this.
To get to 26, though, they’d need a lucky break.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.