Everyone knows that North Carolina is a closely divided purple state. Everyone knows that in 2020, many statewide races and control of the state legislature will be hotly contested. And everyone knows that with Democrats increasingly dominant in urban areas and Republicans in rural areas, the only real battleground will be in the suburbs.
Well, on that last point, everyone can be wrong. There will be competitive races in every corner of the state, and statewide contests may well turn on split-ticket voters in both urban and rural counties.
Let’s begin with the General Assembly. Republicans currently hold a 65-55 majority in the House and a 29-21 majority in the Senate. Democrats need a net gain of six seats for a House majority and five for an outright Senate majority (or a four-seat Senate gain combined with a victory in the race for lieutenant governor to achieve a voting majority).
While state politicos have long viewed the House as more in play than the Senate, the latest set of legislative maps and other developments have changed that calculation in the minds of some observers, including Cook Political Report. It currently rates the Senate as “lean Republican” and the House as “likely Republican.”
GOP and Democratic lists of targeted races largely overlap. Most operatives, activists, and journalists agree that Democrats have a solid shot of picking up GOP-held Senate seats in Mecklenburg and Wake but will face highly competitive rematches in two Senate seats, in New Hanover and Cumberland counties, that Democrats picked up in 2018.
Just focusing on urban seats won’t get Democrats to a Senate majority, however. They’ll need to pick up Eastern North Carolina seats such as District 11, spanning Nash and Johnston counties, and District 1 in the Northeastern corner of the state.
Similarly, to reach a North Carolina House majority, Democrats will certainly have to defend their 2018 gains in Wake and Mecklenburg and pick up other urban seats in Guilford, Cumberland, and Pitt. But they’ll also need to win seats such as Alamance County’s District 63 and avoid losing seats in places such as the Sandhills (House Districts 47 and 66) and the High Country (District 93).
As for statewide races, every vote counts the same regardless of where the voter resides. Yes, there are fewer true “swing” voters than there used to be in North Carolina — they can be counted in the single digits today rather than the 15 percent to 20 percent of the electorate that once fit that definition. Swing voters also reside disproportionately in suburban neighborhoods of urban and commuter counties.
But a close look at the 2016 election results reveals species of split-ticket voters whose natural habitats lie elsewhere. There were clearly some Trump-Burr-Cooper voters, in Western North Carolina for example, who preferred Republican rule in Washington but weren’t uncomfortable with a moderate-sounding Democrat in the governor’s mansion. There were also some Eastern North Carolina voters who picked Clinton and Ross in the presidential and U.S. Senate races but, in the final weeks of the campaign, swing to McCrory for governor.
Democrats, Republicans, and the independent-expenditure groups who will be spending gobs of money on the 2020 cycle have a much-tighter focus than counties or even districts. Using the latest databases and technologies, they will micro-target neighborhoods and certain homes within neighborhoods. They will spend millions of dollars crafting and sending messages to potentially persuadable voters that the rest of us will probably never see — messages about issues that may look narrow or peculiar to us but are highly likely to resonate with the micro-targeted audience.
To be sure, Democrats are hoping for a broad anti-Trump voter turnout they can channel into tipping dozens of other North Carolina races. Republicans are hoping for a backlash among right-leaning voters to a national Democratic brand they view as increasingly extreme. But neither is content simply to clasp coattails. And both are courting voters who live in urban townhouses, rural ranch houses, and everything in between.