Many state legislative races all but over before contests begin
Posted March 1, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — For 12 state Senate candidates and 44 aspiring state House members, this year's election began and all but ended Friday because they were the only ones who filed to run in their legislative districts.
More broadly, nearly half of all state Senate and House districts will be decided by the primary because only candidates from one party filed to run in each of the districts.
"This is where gerrymandering hurts people. They don't get real choices," said North Carolina State University political science professor Steve Greene, referring to the practice of drawing legislative districts to heavily favor one of the two major parties. Candidates seeking US, NC, local offices in 2014 Money chase leads to $1 million state Senate seat
There are two major caveats to these numbers. An unaffiliated candidate can get on the November ballot by gathering enough signatures by the end of June. Such efforts are rarely successful, although Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham, won election as an unaffiliated candidate in 2010, unseating an incumbent Democrat. He later switched his affiliation to the GOP.
An even more unlikely option is a write-in campaign, in which a candidate asks general election voters to write his or her name in on the ballot. There has not been a successful state-level write-in candidate in recent memory.
"With some of these races, the districts are drawn to the point where one party is virtually guaranteed to win," said Brent Laurenz, director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education. "It's hard for a potential opposition candidate to find the incentive to run."
Laurenz said that, while such competitive primaries offer some voters a choice, only members of a particular political party or unaffiliated voters get to participate in that selection.
In some districts, despite the lack of general election competition, the primary has shaped up to be highly competitive. For example, in Senate District 21 in Fayetteville, first-term incumbent Sen. Ben Clark faces three Democratic primary challengers.
David McLennan, a William Peace University political science professor, said that, with so many districts leaning heavily Republican or Democrat, political parties don't have an incentive to field a broad slate of candidates.
"The (House and Senate) caucuses put their money where it can make a difference," he said.
That will lead to a handful of closely watched, hard fought and likely expensive campaigns. Among those will be Wake County's Senate District 15, where state Republican Rep. Jim Fulgham is running to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Neal Hunt. Fulgham faces a Republican primary against Apryl Major, who ran for state House in 2012. The winner will take on Democrat Tom Bradshaw, a former Raleigh mayor and former state transportation secretary.
Democrats also have high hopes for Sarah Crawford of Raleigh, who is challenging District 18 Republican incumbent Sen. Chad Barefoot, who waged bruising campaign two years ago.
Currently, Republicans hold 77 of the 120 state House seats and 33 of 50 state Senate seats. Most political analysts say it would be nearly impossible for Democrats to flip either the House or Senate this year.
"From what I've seen from smart Democrats, the goal is just to make some inroads," Greene said. A few successes this year, he said, could set up an earnest bid to flip one or both chambers in 2016.
That said, districts where there will be no general election competition have no chance to play a role in that effort.
"Many of the constituents in our state are pleased with the representation they have and don't feel the need to file to replace their current member of the House or Senate," said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, who played a leading role in drawing the current legislative districts.
State leaders are currently fighting a lawsuit brought by civil rights groups and Democrats, who claim the voting district lines violate state and federal laws. However, Lewis points out that uncompetitive districts have been around for decades.
For example, there are 57 state House districts this year where, after the primary, either the Republican or Democratic nominee faces no registered opposition and two more districts where the major party nominee will face off against a member of the Libertarian Party, which lays claim to fewer than 0.5 percent of the voters in the state. Ten years ago, 55 state House candidates were unopposed in the 2004 general election, with 15 more facing opposition from only Libertarians or unaffiliated candidates.
Matt Bales, research director for the N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation and former Republican House Caucus director, said the partisan makeup of legislative districts contributes to candidates shying away from races, but it is not the only reason.
"Some of it is driven by the strength of an incumbent," Bales said, with a popular and well-financed incumbent less likely to draw a challenger.
As well, some Democratic candidates may have avoided getting into the race because they were worried about ongoing leadership problems at the state Democratic Party, Bales said.