RALEIGH — All 170 seats in the North Carolina General Assembly are up for re-election Tuesday, but nearly 80 already have winners because candidates are running unopposed in the general election.
Of the remaining 90 or so races, fewer than 20 are considered truly competitive this fall, according to party leaders and legislative campaign observers. Democrats attribute this to legislative districts drawn by Republicans in 2011. So far, the maps have been upheld by courts. Others say some voters are happy with their local lawmakers while new candidate recruitment can be difficult.
Here’s a look at what’s happened with legislative races this fall and why they’re so important:
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
Republicans currently hold comfortable leads in both chambers, and legislative leaders from both parties acknowledge the GOP almost assuredly will keep control of the House and Senate when the 2015-16 session begins in January. Republicans sit in 33 of the 50 seats in the Senate and 77 of the 120 House seats. They took power of both chambers after the 2010 elections for the first time in 140 years.
“We’re definitely at a high watermark in the number of Republicans at the General Assembly,” said Joe Stewart, executive director of the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation, which tracks legislative races for the state’s business community.
Democrats see an opportunity to wield more influence in the next two years by eliminating the veto-proof majorities Republicans now hold. This advantage has allowed GOP leaders to ignore Democratic viewpoints and at time even the desires of GOP Gov. Pat McCrory.
Democrats would need to pick up six additional seats in the House or four in the Senate to bring Republicans below those thresholds.
WHAT ARE THE MESSAGES?
The U.S. Senate race between outgoing state House Speaker Thom Tillis and Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan has laid out statewide the arguments being reinforced in the local General Assembly races.
Hagan has said North Carolina has taken the state backward under the watch of Republicans such as Tillis by damaging the public schools, refusing to expand Medicaid, passing additional abortion rules and making it harder for people to vote. Democratic legislative candidates say they’ll help restore a sensible balance to the Legislature and keep in check extreme Republican policies.
“Kay Hagan’s not running on her record, she’s running against Thom’s record,” said Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg, head of the House Republican Caucus campaign operations.
Sticking with Tillis, Republicans have stuck to the mantra that they have cleaned up a fiscal mess left behind by decades of Democratic rule and did what they promised to accomplish.
They point to lowering taxes and regulations they say have led to lower unemployment and raised teacher pay by 7 percent on average this fall. They’ve also promoted portions of the elections law that required photo identification to vote in person in 2016.
BIG MONEY REVERSAL
Republicans have held the upper hand in fundraising in legislative races since assuming the majority. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, alone has raised $2 million since early 2013. Republicans also got plenty of help during the last two elections from outside groups targeting individual Democratic legislators.
This year, interest groups aligned with Democrats have taken the fight to Republicans.
They formed North Carolina Families First and North Carolina Citizens for Protecting Our Schools, which targeted Republicans with television ads and mailers in a handful of House and Senate districts — primarily in and around Raleigh, Asheville and on the Outer Banks.
The two groups have reported to state election officials spending more than $700,000, but more is expected to be disclosed. The National Education Association and liberal-leaning America Votes have been among the groups’ leading disclosed donors.
Environmental groups earlier this year also poured $1.8 million into campaign-style media activities criticizing several Republicans for their votes on fracking. No outside group appears to have helped Republican legislators significantly this fall.
“I’m glad to see that there’s something close to a level playing field, said Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, co-chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “No if, ands or buts — their work is having an effect.”