Many state legislative races all but over before contests begin

Posted March 1, 2014

— 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. Election 1 Candidates seeking US, NC, local offices in 2014 Money 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.

The primary-only U.S. House race

In 12 of the state's 13 Congressional districts, voters will have at least one Democrat and on Republican to choose from.

The exception is the 9th Congressional District, where the winner of the Republican primary between incumbent Robert Pittenger, a former state lawmaker from Charlotte, and Michael Steinberg, an investment adviser from Matthews, faces no registered Democratic of Libertarian opposition.

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.

2014 Uncontested legislative races*

* State legislative races in which only one candidate had registered to run by Friday at noon, the close of the filing period.

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.

2014 races with no general election*

*Races in which the winner of the Repulican or Democratic primary faces no registered opposition from the other party. These numbers include those races in which only one candidate filed to run as pictured in the first table.

**This chart does not include two state House races in which the winner of the Republican primary will face a Libertarian candidate but no Democrat in the General Election.

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. 


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  • Charlie Watkins Mar 1, 2014
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    Chairman Voller will bring home the bacon. Rest assured of that.

  • Robin Dean Mar 1, 2014
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    Good news for the GOP and glad the Dems have nothing to offer.

  • Marty Martin Mar 2, 2014
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    Republicans are destroying democracy via their Tillis incited gerrymandering.

  • Mike Rigsbee Mar 2, 2014
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    Gerrymandering should be highly illegal! Gerrymandering got the GOP absolute control of NC in the last election, though both parties do it. NC is one of the most severely gerrymandered states if you look at the graphic maps depicting voting districts.

  • Jim Bradshaw Mar 2, 2014
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    Professor Greene writes as if the Democrats had never gerrymandered the state of North Carolina. Nothing could be further from the truth. Regardless of the majority make up for each district, nothing prevented members of the opposition party from filing for office. Apathy, on the other hand, had a lot to do with it.

  • Charlie Watkins Mar 2, 2014
    user avatar

    Yes, the ol' gerrymandering argument. However, gerrymandering was never a problem when the Democrats were in charge of drawing the lines. I think Providence guides their hands as they drew the lines to their advantage. It was truly magical. But it was Blessed.

  • cframe Mar 2, 2014

    Dear Representative Lewis,
    Respectfully, I would like to let you know that you could not be more mistaken about how many North Carolinians feel about their current representation in the legislature. Tens of thousands of us are very unhappy about our representation. By limiting our choices of representation, you diminish democracy itself. Representatives would not feel free to insult the people they represent if they respected the power of their votes. There can be no democracy if there is no choice. There is no respect of the citizen and their constitutional rights by the representative. I am pleased that some of our local seats will be contested, and will be an active promoter of legislators who share my concern over the direction our state is heading. The damage you are doing to the educational system alone in our state will take years to recover from. Damaging the educational level of the workforce will inevitably damage business and industry in a state who relies on innovation.

  • bottsjw Mar 2, 2014

    great graphic. Isn't that a pro-pot sign to the right?

  • Mike Rigsbee Mar 2, 2014
    user avatar

    And why isn't gerrymandering illegal? It certainly undermines democracy!

  • notexactly Mar 3, 2014

    "this is where gerrymandering hurts people"

    Um didn't seem to matter when the dems were in charge and redrew the lines every 10 years for over a decade. Imagine that.