Opinion: Daily Journal

Homestretch in the House Races

RALEIGH – Labor Day is past. That marks the point at which the job of political pundit starts to get laborious.

In North Carolina, campaign watchers have somewhat less of a task this year than do those in states with major statewide races for U.S. Senate and governor. No offense intended to Chief Justice Sarah Parker and her Republican – excuse me, her unaffiliated – opponent Rusty Duke, but judicial races don’t capture the public’s attention in the same way. Perhaps someone should argue for changing the judicial-selection system, either to real statewide elections or gubernatorial appointment …

In any event, while our state may have fewer major races on the ballot than most, we have scads – that’s a technical term – of district and local match-ups that could determine what governments do for us, or to us, over the next two years. Today I’ll summarize the most-competitive races for North Carolina House, following up later with outlines of key races for state senate, the judiciary, Congress, and county commissions. As before, I’ve grouped the 15 House races currently on my post-primary radar into regional categories.

The Eastern Beachheads

District 3: Democrat Alice Underhill (i) vs. Republican Michael Speciale
This is a rematch from 2004, when Underhill beat Speciale after the latter beat the then-Republican incumbent, Michael Gorman. Gorman tried a comeback in the 2006 GOP primary, but proved to be nothing speciale. By the numbers, I call this a moderately Republican seat. Of course, few New Bern-area voters care what I call anything.

District 6: Democrat Arthur Williams (i) vs. Republican Hood Richardson
This is a swing seat tilting slightly Democratic and centered on Beaufort County, where Richardson is a county commissioner. He was chosen to replace primary winner Joel Raupe, who stepped aside for health reasons. Williams was first elected in 2002.

District 9: Democrat Marian McLawhorn (i) vs. Republican Tony Moore
I did not include this race in my competitive category in 2004, but am persuaded that two factors may place it in play now. First, every year this Greenville-area district is importing lots of new residents, many of them Republicans (albeit moderate ones). Second, Moore used to be a Democratic state senator and is working hard, emphasizing McLawhorn’s relationship to embattled Speaker Jim Black.

District 10: Democrat Van Braxton vs. either Republican Steve LaRoque (i) or Republican Willie Ray Starling
Conservative Starling appeared to win a squeaker over LaRoque, a Richard Morgan ally, in the May GOP primary, but enough questions arose about ballot procedure to prompt the state board of elections to order a do-over. This was already a moderately Democratic seat by my reckoning, so the continued Republican rivalry is improving the prospects still more for Braxton, a member of the Kinston City Council.

District 14: Democrat Kever Clark vs. Republican George Cleveland (i)
Another rematch from 2004, this race pits a former state senator (Clark, briefly, by appointment) against a freshman incumbent (Cleveland), a longtime Republican activist in Onslow County. The numbers say swing, but my gut tells me that on Election Day there won’t be any Cleveland frowns.

District 17: Democrat Allen Dameron vs. Republican Bonner Stiller (i)
If longtime Democratic Rep. David Redwine of Brunswick County lost his seat in 2002 and then a rematch in 2004 against Stiller, is there any reason to believe that the less-known, less-funded Dameron, a Realtor and board member of the NC Turnpike Authority, can pull it off in 2006? In a word, yes.

The Sandhills Dust-Ups

District 45: Democrat Rick Glazier (i) vs. Republican Alex Warner
Glazier and Warner have faced off in this House seat before, in 2004, but then it was the Democratic primary. The veteran Warner and the relative-newcomer Glazier got drawn into the same district, and the fresh face won narrowly. Glazier, liberal by North Carolina standards, is one of the smartest representatives, but Warner retains a following among Democrats he represented for many years.

District 51: Democrat Jimmy Love vs. Republican Tim McNeil
With the Republican incumbent John Sauls having retired, this competitive Lee-Harnett district is truly up for grabs. Love served in the House back in the 1960s and 1970s and ran unsuccessfully for state senate in 2004. Now he has a better-than-average chance against Harnett County Commissioner Tim McNeil.

District 52: Republican Joe Boylan vs. independents Bud Shaver and Gerald Galloway.
In the GOP primary in May, Boylan beat longtime incumbent Richard Morgan in this strongly Republican district. So why is this race still of interest? Because Morgan allies and Democrats in Moore County have recruited two independent candidates, Retired Army Gen. Shaver and former Southern Pines Police Chief Galloway respectively. The situation is fluid and unpredictable. And, no, Galloway is no relation to this kook, thank goodness.

The Piedmont Dyad

District 57: Democrat Pricey Harrison (i) vs. Republican Ron Styers
Harrison beat longtime Republican Rep. Joanne Bowie in this Greensboro seat two years ago in part because of significant help from House Speaker Jim Black. This go-round, Harrison has sought to distance herself from Black, whose shenanigans will likely dominate the campaign messages of . While I consider this seat as moderately Democratic, NC FREE’s John Davis calls it swing. Perhaps he means “jitterbug” – that is, Harrison has reasons to be jittery and bugged at the speaker.

District 77: Democrat Lorene Coates (i) vs. Republican Susan Morris
Just down I-85 from Greensboro in Rowan County, the veteran Coates finds herself in the same political predicament as Harrison – and has reacted similarly, by breaking publicly with Black. She actually called for him to “step down immediately.” Still, given her past relationship with him and Morris’ work ethic, this may be the best chance the GOP has had in this toss-up district in several cycles.

The Western Shoot-Outs

District 86: Democratic Walter Church (i) vs. Republican Hugh Blackwell
In this swing district tilting Republican, Church has been fortunate not to draw an effective challenger — indeed, sometimes any challenger — for several cycles. Not so in 2006. Blackwell, an attorney and former member of the Burke County Board of Education, has been building his campaign for many months and presents a serious threat to Church, a former banker and a 15-year veteran of the House.

District 90: Democrat Jim Harrell (i) vs. Republican Jack Conaway
In yet another rematch from 2004, Harrell is also proclaiming his independence from Black, a political patron who once talked up the young two-term representative as a potential statewide candidate. Conaway, a former policy and budget analyst for Mecklenburg County, is stressing ethics and taxes in his campaign. Harrell’s assets include a well-known name in one of the district counties, Surry, where his father is a longtime county commissioner. Conaway is from Alleghany. On the other hand, by the numbers this is a moderately Republican district.

District 111: Democrat Betsy Fonvielle vs. Republican Tim Moore (i)
Moore, an attorney and former University of North Carolina board member, represents this toss-up district in one of North Carolina’s political bellwethers, Cleveland County. His 2004 win as a freshman against Katherine Hamrick was far easier than many had expected. Fonvielle, former Mayor Pro Tem of Shelby, tellingly touts her tax-cutting credentials at the local level.

District 116: Democrat Doug Jones vs. Republican Charles Thomas
I’m adding this race to the watch list, even though the district is moderately Republican, because longtime Rep. Wilma Sherrill has retired for health reasons, leaving an open seat in politically chaotic Asheville. Thomas is an Army veteran, entrepreneur, and investment manager running on traditional Republican themes such as reducing taxes and enforcing immigration laws. Jones, a schoolteacher, is promising voters three tax cuts: on property, cars, and gas. Yes, he’s a Democrat. But he didn’t get the endorsement of the NC Association of Educators. Thomas did.

There are a few other House races that are potentially competitive – given the right mix of candidates, issues, and fundraising prowess – but I don’t see them in play right now. Out of the 15 seats, then, Democrats currently hold eight and Republicans hold seven. The way things look at the moment, the GOP would have to win 11 out of 15 races to up-end the Dems’ current 63-57 majority in the House. If it happens, much of the credit would likely go to, you guess it, a certain optometrist from Matthews.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.