While most attention is focused on the presidential and gubernatorial races, WNC’s state legislature seats will help shape the future of North Carolina politics
With election season in swing, the Blade will run occasional perspectives from locals, especially focusing on politics in our corner of the mountains. In this piece, local organizer, self-described “political junkie” and former Buncombe Democratic party official Aaron Sarver offers some opinion and analysis on how WNC might shape the key state legislature races. — D.F.
As the summer heat drags on, our political discourse is primarily focused on the most significant Presidential election since 1932. If Hillary Clinton prevails, many people will breathe a sigh of relief, but North Carolina Democrats will not truly rejoice on election night unless Governor Pat McCrory is sent packing back to Charlotte.
It’s hard to escape the pull of Trump’s 24/7 carnival barking, but independent of the Presidential race, it feels like North Carolina’s future hangs in the balance. The Governor’s race may be the most important since 1960 when Terry Sanford was elected and fought for desegregation of public schools and nearly doubled spending on public education, changing the trajectory of our state. In 2016 the question is: will the hostile takeover of North Carolina by the Tea Party be a four-year aberration to our status as a “Beacon of the South” or will our state government more closely resemble the policies of the Deep South moving forward?
In 2012, Pat McCrory campaigned as a moderate Republican, touting his record as mayor of Charlotte and pushing a supposedly business-friendly and socially tolerant agenda, promising not to further restrict abortion access, for example. His campaign platform was not unlike how the state’s Democrats ran things in the past. Since taking office, he has governed in line with the Tea Party wing of the GOP, making North Carolina’s legislative record a hotbed of the Christian Right’s wish-list. His record includes the infamous “motorcycle vagina” bill that restricted reproductive health, multiple laws targeting the LGBT community, voter restrictions struck down by the courts because “the new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision” and tax cuts for the wealthiest North Carolina families. A whopping 13 laws passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by McCrory have been struck down by the courts as partially or fully unconstitutional since 2012. Another four laws including HB2 are currently being challenged in the courts.
Roy Cooper, a moderate Democrat and the current Attorney General of North Carolina, is McCrory’s opponent in the Governor’s race. Cooper’s agenda starkly contrasts the current direction of the state by focusing on Medicaid expansion under “Obamacare,” repealing HB2 and rebuilding public education.
What would Medicaid expansion in North Carolina mean for access to health care? Advocates for expansion say it would lead to job creation, economic growth and most importantly provide affordable healthcare to hundreds of thousands of state residents. North Carolina has faced national boycotts since the passage of HB2, the most anti-LGBT law in the nation, this Spring. The law is currently facing a legal challenge in federal court from the ACLU of North Carolina and the U.S. Department of Justice. Cooper favors repeal of the law, while McCrory has offered multiple and contradictory explanations for why he signed the bill. Teacher pay, vouchers for private school tuition, the regulation and cleanup of coal ash and tax credits for renewable energy will also be hot button topics during the next legislative session, whomever holds the Governor’s office.
So let’s say voters do put Roy Cooper, the Democratic candidate for Governor, in charge of the state – how will he negotiate with Republican Senator Majority Leader Phil Berger and Republican House Speaker Tim Moore? A lot of that will depend on how many seats Democrats can pick-up in the General Assembly.
With veto-proof majorities in both the state House and state Senate, Governor McCrory has operated with limited negotiating power. As we’ve seen these past four years, the most powerful elected official in Raleigh may well be Republican Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger. Outgoing State Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Henderson County Republican and power broker, “The governor doesn’t play much of a role in anything.” So, while winning back the governor’s mansion would be a huge win for Democrats, and a position that holds much administrative power relative to controlling DHHS and DOT, without a toe hold in the legislature, we could continue to see far-right template bills drafted by ALEC rammed through after a veto from Governor Cooper.
Breaking a super-majority
In North Carolina, overriding a governor’s veto of a bill requires a three-fifths supermajority in both the senate and the house. That equates to 30 seats in the Senate and 72 in the House. During the 2015-16 legislative session, Republicans hold a 34-16 super-majority in the Senate and a 75-45 super-majority in the House.
So that means Democrats must pick up 5 seats in the Senate or 4 in the House this November (all 170 General Assembly seats are up for election every two years in North Carolina). Due to a gerrymander of the general assembly by Republicans there are simply more competitive seats in play in the House than in the Senate. Of the nine seats in the state Senate west of Charlotte, Buncombe County’s Terry Van Duyn is the only Democrat to hold a seat, which gives you a sense of how bleak prospects are in that chamber. For that reason, broadly speaking, Democratic battle plans are focused on picking up four seats in the state House to break the supermajority there.
But picking up four seats is the bare minimum needed ensure that Tea Party-backed legislation is not passed given that conservative House Democrats have broken ranks to vote for bills like HB2 in fairly large numbers and with regularity (11 out of 45 Democrats in the House voted for HB2). Realistically, Democrats will feel a lot more comfortable about holding up against veto-override votes if they pick up 8-10 seats. Hopefully, Cooper would also be able to enforce more discipline among the caucus as well.
Holding serve in Buncombe County
If Democrats want to break through in the House, keeping all three of Buncombe County’s seats in Democratic hands is absolutely essential. Seat 114 is safe as Democratic Rep. Susan Fisher faces no Republican challenger — this seat is very liberal and is mostly consists of the city of Asheville.
The two other seats favor Republicans, but in 2014 two first-time Democratic candidates pulled off upsets in close races. In the 115 seat, John Ager won by just 493 votes over incumbent Nathan Ramsey and in probably the biggest upset statewide Brian Turner defeated the infamous Tim Moffitt by 963 votes in one of the most expensive and hotly contested races in the state. Combined Turner and Moffitt spent more than a million dollars in the 2014 race and that excludes outside money on behalf of the candidates.
House district 116 is the most Republican-leaning seat held by a Democrat in the entire state, to underscore how impressive Turner’s win was. Moffitt, who was for a time considered to be in the running for the House Speaker’s office, needs no introduction for folks who follow WNC politics. Moffitt (currently serving an appointed stint as county commissioner) was powerful, well-funded and had deep ties locally and in statewide GOP circles. So how did Turner slay the dragon? In short, he had a top-notch campaign staff, raised a ton of money and benefitted from the volunteer army of Buncombe County Democrats that regarded Moffitt as public enemy number one.
For a bit more context, let’s look at the 2014 results compared to Moffitt’s win in 2012.
Democrats have struggled mightily in this district up and down the ticket since it was re-drawn in 2012. That’s a mighty impressive margin to turnaround compared to Whilden’s results given 1) how poorly Democrats fared statewide in 2014 and 2) it’s generally tougher for Democrats in non-presidential years.
Is a generic Republican a better candidate than Moffitt?
Turner also ran well ahead of other Dems in this district. For further evidence of how strong Turner was let’s compare the results to the District 3 county commission race in 2014 (both district are identical in voter makeup and boundary lines).
Same district, same year and Turner runs more than 5 points ahead of Waldrop. Or the inverse, you’ll notice former county commissioner Miranda DeBruhl running well ahead of Moffitt. (Waldrop was the de facto Democratic candidate in this race.) That means that either Turner was a strong candidate who ran a great campaign (he did) or that Moffitt had worn out his welcome with some of his constituents who frankly, didn’t like Moffitt’s dismissive nature, even to Republicans (Moffitt definitely alienated some, if not many, folks in the district.)
So it looks as if the 116 seat would normally be a competitive race again this year and is a prime pick-up opportunity for Republicans in 2016. But so far they have whiffed at candidate recruitment. During the filing period, all eyes were on Moffitt to see if he would sign-up for a rematch, but surprisingly, not only did Moffitt not run, the GOP failed to field a candidate with much name recognition or ties to the district. And even more surprisingly, Kay Olsen, the candidate that did file to run against Turner has now withdrawn from the race.
That means that currently the GOP has no candidate for NC House 116 seat as we enter the crucial late summer campaign season.
There has been a lot of speculation that Olsen was always a placeholder candidate in 116. Evidence of that was in her lack of an active campaign and fundraising as reported by the Citizen-Times.
There is little evidence that Olsen had campaigned actively for the seat. The state Board of Elections initially levied two $500 fines against her campaign June 22 for late campaign finance reports, but waived the first penalty. The reports that were eventually filed showed no money raised or spent for Olsen’s campaign.
So now we’re back to square one, with speculation that Moffitt may jump into the race after all. Moffitt was recently appointed to the Buncombe County Commission to fill out the term of another commissioner. The Moffitt rumors were strong throughout the spring, but why the delay if he wants a rematch? Either way, the Buncombe County Republican Party has until August 25th to select a replacement candidate to run and it looks as if it’s Moffitt or bust for the GOP.
Over the longer-term, Asheville residents are pushing into the county because of rising housing prices and that means 116 is gaining reliable Democratic voters. But, between now and November, each day that Turner’s top-notch campaign works the ground game unopposed is a huge advantage.
Turner may be the luckiest person in Buncombe County if the GOP fumbles away what should be a tight race by not fielding a serious candidate.
Farmer vs. brewer in House District 115
Like something out of the yesteryear of politics, the district 115 race in 2012 featured farmer versus farmer and neighbor versus neighbor. Republican Nathan Ramsey and Democrat John Ager both have long family ties in Buncombe County and faced off in this very slightly lean-GOP district. Ager prevailed by 496 votes, driven by an army of Democratic volunteers and a superior ground game. Some Democrats grumbled early about a lack of fundraising from Ager, but tons of outside money on both sides eventually flooded into the district.
Ager is possibly the nicest guy you’ll ever meet and is a real salt of the earth farmer, no fake pickup truck photo shoots needed here. Undoubtedly his personal relationships helped put him over the top. Ager’s father-in-law once represented Buncombe County in Congress.
Once again let’s compare the 2014 and 2012 results and look down-ballot to see how impressive of an upset this was. In my opinion, defeating Nathan Ramsey in an off-year was a very impressive feat. Ramsey, a well-known and well-liked former Buncombe County Commission Chair cruised with 54 percent of the vote in 2012 in the newly configured district.
Ager and Frost ran very, very close and that’s no accident. Their campaigns canvassed together and again, we see evidence of a Democratic ground game boosting both candidates over the finish line.
This year, Ager faces Frank Moretz, a retired doctor and part-owner of Highland Brewing. Moretz can self-finance as needed and his ties to the local brewing industry are an interesting twist from what you would expect from a Republican in Buncombe County.
Many political wonks are big on the “party decides” theory of campaigns these days, which basically says political polarization and political institutions drive elections. But Ager and Turner sure look like two candidates who are a great fit for their respective districts and moved the needle in ways that other candidates haven’t been able to by garnering support that crossed party lines.
Good candidates do matter, even down-ballot, and, at least that time around, Buncombe County Democrats knew how to pick ‘em.
Other competitive races in WNC
For the most part Western North Carolina, which we’ll define here as West of I-77 is solidly Republican. Buncombe County is the exception to the rule, but there are a few other specks of blue in the sea of red seats.
The best opportunity for a Democratic pick-up is House seat 118, which stretches across Haywood, Madison and Yancey counties and is held by Republican Michele Presnell. In 2014, Presnell won with 51 percent of the vote and less than 700 votes over Democrat Dean Hicks. (She also won with 51 percent in 2012.) Democrats grumbled that Hicks didn’t work to win the seat and think Presnell is vulnerable because of local issues. Central Elementary in Waynesville was closed earlier this year with a 6-2 vote by Haywood County school officials. They blamed a lack of funding and declining enrollment for the move. One of those two dissenting votes came from Rhonda Schandevel who is running against Presnell this time.
Other races for Democrats to watch are Sue Counts running for House district 93 in Watauga County running against three-term incumbent Jonathan C. Jordan. This is a rematch of the 2014 race where Jordan prevailed with 53 percent of the vote. Counts is hoping an emphasis on school funding and environmental issues will play well with a much larger voter pool during a Presidential election year.
On the Senate side the only plausible pick-up in WNC is the District 50 seat, where Jane Hipps is the Democratic candidate. That expansive district covers Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties. The low population density makes a ground game in this district tough, but one advantage for Hipps is that incumbent Jim Davis is retiring. Hipps ran against Davis in 2014 and lost 54 to 46 percent. Realistically the only way Democrats pick up this seat in 2016 is if Trump implodes and creates a Democratic wave election.
While the spectacle of a Trump concession speech or extended rant claiming voter fraud will be must-watch TV on the night of Nov. 8 (god forbid a Trump win on election night), party stalwarts across North Carolina will be carefully tracking the down-ballot races. If Trump continues to implode Hipps and other competent Democratic candidates in safe Republican districts may end up serving a two-year term in Raleigh and shift of the balance of power at the NCGA. I’d urge folks who are upset with the direction North Carolina is headed to volunteer to make phone calls or knock doors for a state House or state Senate race. One of those little known state legislators might provide the crucial vote needed to pass Medicaid expansion or get a repeal of HB2 to the Governor’s desk.
Aaron Sarver, a politics junkie, has played many roles in local politics from communications director for the Buncombe County Democratic Party to campaign manager in a county commissioner race. He lives in Asheville.