Opinion: Daily Journal

The Surprising Senate Scramble

RALEIGH – Political insiders in Raleigh are used to thinking that the North Carolina Senate will be an inevitable source of Democratic power. Unlike the House, it hasn’t been in Republican hands in more than a century. After a scare in the GOP surge of 1994, when Democrats retained only a 26-24 majority, Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight and others had masterminded a massive effort to outraise and outrecruit the Republicans, who gave up ground in each of the next two election cycles and ended up with a paltry 15 seats out of 50.

According to veteran political observer John Davis of NC FREE, the Senate maps throughout the 1990s actually afforded the GOP a fair shot at parity with the Democrats, with 19 seats strongly or leaning Republican, 17 strongly or leaning Democratic, and 14 swing seats. But the Republican predicament was worse than these numbers appear. In most of the “swing” seats, Democrats enjoyed a natural advantage in registration and voting behavior, protected by creative redistricting that stuffed Republican-leaning districts with extra voters and drained Democratic ones while sprinkling in a sufficient number of minority voters to give incumbents the edge.

Thus, while Republicans won almost as many votes in Senate elections in 2000 as did the Democrats, they still managed only 15 seats.

Not satisfied by the close-run nature of some of their victories, the Democratic majority in 2001 set out to redistrict the Republicans out of any reasonable contention of winning a majority. This proved to be a fatal error, precipitating the legal challenge that ultimately led to Superior Court Knox Jenkins redrawing the Senate map a few weeks ago. When Davis analyzed the 2001 map, he estimated that Democrats could claim strong or leaning positions in 28 districts – well beyond that needed for control. The 6 swing seats, in other words, didn’t matter; even if the GOP improbably won all 6, they couldn’t win the game.

The Jenkins map is very different, and was based on a Republican alternative submitted to the court. It is not a Republican gerrymander however, despite the red-faced denunciations of some Democratic leaders and their unknowing media parrots. Davis pegs the seats as 22 Democratic-leaning, 22 Republican-leaning, and 6 swings. My own analysis, about which I wrote yesterday, is virtually the same: 21 strongly or moderately Democratic, 23 strongly or moderately Republican, and 6 swings. Let me describe my swing districts, and how I think they “tilt”

• The Coastal Couple – These include District 2, now represented by Democrat Scott Thomas and encompassing Craven, Pamlico, and Carteret counties; and District 6, encompassing Onslow and Jones counties. The latter district includes the home of incumbent Democrat Kever Clark, who was just appointed to serve out the term of the late Luther Jordan.

Both of these areas are trending Republican as conservative Democrats and independents join lifelong Republican retirees from Northern states in the party’s base vote. I classify both seats, although they are very competitive, as tilting to the GOP. But strong African-American turnout, particularly in Clark’s district, could shift the outcome.

• The Western Wake Buffer – The new Senate map gives incumbent Republican Sen. John Carrington a safe seat in Northern Wake County and creates a new, moderately Republican District 17 in Southern Wake. In between are District 14, a safe Democratic seat with nearly a majority of minority voters, and District 16, a swing seat. It stretches westward from downtown to the Durham and Chatham lines. It includes many state employees, students, and moderates. On the other hand, its Democratic registration is a relatively low 41 percent with the GOP registration just over the 35 percent threshold many use as a benchmark for a Republican-leaning district.

I classify this one as tilting Democratic but, again, highly competitive. Possible candidates include incumbent Democratic Sen. Eric Reeves and former Republican Raleigh Mayor Paul Coble.

• The Piedmont Pair – Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in the 27th District (Greensboro) and Republican Sen. Hugh Webster in the 24th (Alamance and Caswell counties) can claim the most competitive seats in the Piedmont Triad area, though both tilt Democratic. By the numbers, Hagan’s district might look like a moderately Democratic seat, but the strong showing of native son Henry Frye in the 2000 chief justice race is a bit misleading. The party’s registration is below 50 percent.

In Webster’s case, he hadn’t filed for reelection under the old maps, but the new district could prove pivotal to Republican chances of taking over the Senate. In both districts, once again, a strong black turnout will likely win the day for the Democrats, while a strong anti-tax sentiment (Alamance is traditionally fiscally conservative and Greensboro taxes are going up this year) could send Republicans to Raleigh.

• The Bulk of Bunk – Buncombe County, until recently, was a bastion of Democratic strength in the Republican mountains. Things are changing, though. The new 49th District, now represented by Democrat Steve Metcalf and including the northern and southeastern portions of the county, no longer has a majority of Democratic registration, and did not favor Democratic statewide candidates by large margins in 2000. On the other hand, like the 16th, it contains lots of students, government employees, and moderates. It tilts Democratic, but if Metcalf runs, the swirling controversy about his new job at a state university could tip the balance, as could a strong showing by Republicans energized over local concerns about property rights and taxes.

NC FREE’s Davis disagrees with my classification, putting Democratic Sen. Walter Dalton in the 46th District (Cleveland and Rutherford) and Republican Sen. Patrick Ballantine in the 9th (New Hanover) into the swing category, while putting Hagan and Reeves more solidly into the Democratic column. For his part, Ryan Thornburg of Carolina Political Report agrees in part with Davis, putting Dalton in the swing category and Hagan in the Democratic column, while agreeing with me about Reeves and Ballantine.

Tomorrow: key races in the battle over the N.C. House.