Opinion: Daily Journal

Legislature will remain a prize

CJ file photo
CJ file photo

As Democrats and Republicans actively contest North Carolina’s governorship, U.S. Senate seat, and 15 electoral votes for president this fall, don’t expect them to ignore other races on the ballot.

Two statewide offices, for example, will be vacant for the first time in many years: attorney general and state treasurer. Each office is powerful. Two former colleagues in the state senate, Democrat Josh Stein and Republican Buck Newton, are running for the former post. As for state treasurer, first-time candidate Dan Blue III of Raleigh, formerly the head of the Wake County Democratic Party, will face Republican Dale Folwell, a former state representative and McCrory administration official from Winston-Salem.

In addition, while the top priority for state Democrats this year is to replace Republican Gov. Pat McCrory with Democrat Roy Cooper, they are also working to regain more ground in the state legislature. In 2010, Republicans won majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction. These majorities have waxed and waned since then, with Republicans currently holding 34 of the 50 seats in the state senate and 74 of the 120 seats in the state house.

Democrats hold out little hope of seizing control of either chamber in 2016. After gaining just three seats in the house and losing a senate seat in 2014, however, they’d like to make more substantial gains in 2016 as part of a plan to control at least one of the chambers after the 2020 elections, which would give them a hand in redrawing the legislative districts after the next census.

I’m a longtime critic of partisan gerrymandering. Democrats used to be for it but are now its most impassioned foes. Republicans used to be against it but many have either changed their minds or at least concluded that redistricting reform is not a high priority.

It’s worth noting that legislative elections in North Carolina are not entirely predetermined by the shape of the maps. Remember that Republicans won their 2010 majorities by running in districts drawn by the Democrats. Furthermore, contrary to what you may have heard, North Carolina Republicans have never used favorable districts to win a legislative majority while getting just a minority of the statewide votes for legislature. Only the Democrats have managed to pull off that impressive feat of gerrymandering, by taking one or both legislative chambers in the 2000, 2002, and 2004 cycles despite getting fewer votes than the Republicans did.

In any event, today’s Democrats aren’t pinning their hopes for legislative influence on reforming the redistricting process. They hope that a combination of favorable media coverage, a massive turnout effort by the Hillary Clinton campaign, and good candidates will result in significant legislative victories this year.

The first two of those conditions are pretty much guaranteed. But Republicans did a better job than the Democrats this year of fielding solid, well-financed candidates for all competitive districts. I’m currently tracking 19 key races — 15 in the house and four in the senate — that seem competitive on the basis of demographics, fundraising, and candidate quality. There ought to be six more races on the list. In five of the six, however, Democrats failed to recruit a candidate for a Republican-held district with the potential to be competitive. (In the sixth instance, Republicans fielded no candidate against a conservative Democrat who often votes with the GOP majority.)

I’ll leave you with a bit of historical context. Since 1952, the net change of partisan control in the General Assembly has averaged 11 seats. Most of the large shifts have occurred either right after a redistricting cycle or contemporaneous with a national wave election (such as the 40 seats Republicans lost in the post-Watergate 1974 cycle or the 39 seats they gained in the anti-Clinton 1994 cycle). In North Carolina, major shifts are also more likely in midterms than in presidential elections.

Still, Democrats are desperate to regain influence in Raleigh. Republicans are intent on maintaining it. The General Assembly will be one of this year’s most interesting political battlegrounds.

John Locke Foundation chairman John Hood is the author of Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans.