Raleigh, N.C. — Republicans believe newly redrawn state House districts could pave the way for them to override gubernatorial vetoes and propose constitutional amendments regardless of opposition from Democrats.
The GOP would need to add four seats to the 68 of 120 House seats they hold right now in order reach the critical three-fifths threshold.
"I'm going to seize upon the opportunity to protect and grow our majority," said Matt Bales, the caucus director for the House Republicans.
Republicans won control in of both the state House and Senate in 2010 under legislative districts drawn by Democrats in 2001 and 2002. It was the first time they held that majority in more than a century. Following the 2010 U.S. Census, Republicans were able to redraw legislative boundaries to their liking. This is the first year those new maps will be used to choose lawmakers.
"I keep looking at it, and I see 74 districts they're (Republicans) likely to win," said John Davis, a conservative-leaning political consultant.
Other experts differ, but there's little doubt Republicans are favored to hold their majority, and expansion isn't out of the question.
A WRAL News analysis of legislative districts shows that there are 57 that appear to be solidly Republican. Democrats would have to capture the bulk of eight districts leaning Republican and add 13 swing districts in order to retake a majority.
"At the end of the day, no matter what the districts look like, voters make their choices based on local issues," said Casey Wilkinson, House caucus director for the Democrats.
In many Republican-leaning House districts, registered Democrats actually outnumber registered Republicans. Those districts are expected to fall into the GOP column based on who voters there backed in prior elections.
Wilkinson said Democrats have an opportunity in some of those districts because Republicans recruited candidates with positions too far right of the mainstream.
"There absolutely is a path to the majority for House Democrats," he said. "In some of these districts, they (Republicans) have recruited extreme candidates who are more interested in talking about UN conspiracy theories than in education. That gives us a real advantage."
Davis contends that even if the GOP does have some weak candidates, Democrats aren't in a position to take advantage. According to publicly available data, Republicans have raised more money than Democrats, allowing them to plow more into mailers and broadcast advertising. He also questions whether there is any one, strong, central figure among House Democrats who can help raise money and rally the troops as House speakers and others have done in the past.
"State Republicans are united behind savvy leaders at a time the Democratic Party is divided by scandal and weak leadership," Davis said, pointing to the controversy that embroiled chairman David Parker and former executive director Jay Parmley this year. Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, who is not running for reelection, has not been a figure on the legislative campaign trail and it's unclear, given her relatively low approval ratings, whether she could be much of a help.
* WRAL News analysis based on voter registration, voting history, fundraising, news reports and other factors.
Left unsaid by many analysts is that this is the first time Republicans and Democrats have gone head-to-head in these districts. Ten years ago, newly drawn and closely divided districts provided at least one or two surprises.
And rank-and-file Democrats say House races have always been somewhat detached from the state party operation.
In addition to former House Speaker Joe Hackney, Reps. Deborah Ross, D-Wake, Michael Wray, D-Northampton, Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, Larry Hall, D-Durham, Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg are all said to be help raising money and rallying support for their colleagues. A fundraiser in Guilford County this coming week will feature former Gov. Jim Hunt.
"And we're benefiting from a massive machine with the Obama campaign," said Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford. North Carolina is a swing state in the presidential campaign and Obama's turnout effort has brought both enthusiasm and practical benefits, Harrison said.
One example of a closely contested race is in House District 35, a Wake County district where Republican Chris Malone is facing off Democrat Lori Millberg for an open seat. The N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation rates this as a "leans Republican" district, while Davis labels it a strong Republican district.
However, both parties describe the district as competitive and its voter registration is close enough for it to be a swing district. Malone is a sitting school board member and Millberg is a former Wake County School Board member and a former prosecutor. A surge in turnout spurred by the campaigns of either leading presidential contender could help swing the district.
But Republicans say their ground game is more effective than it was four years ago and could counter some turnout generated by Democrats.
"I like to joke around with other political operatives that my House candidates can bring home a presidential election, not the other way around," Bales said. More seriously, he said, hard-fought congressional races, such as the 7th Congressional District, where Republican state Sen. David Rouzer is trying to unseat incumbent Democrat Rep. Mike McIntyre, can push more voters to the polls and affect outcomes in state legislative races.
"Most, maybe 90 percent of turnout, is going to be driven by the presidential race," said Steve Greene, a political science professor at North Carolina State University. "That's what motivates voters. There's a reason that turnout is way higher in a presidential year."
More than 4 million North Carolinians cast votes in the 2008 general election when Obama first ran for president. Only 2.6 million voters cast ballots in the U.S. Senate campaign in 2010.
Even if the presidential campaign does drive turnout, it's unclear if Obama's coattails will reach very far down the ballot. A recent WRAL News poll found Obama and Romney in a statistical tie here, consistent with other polls that showed Obama slightly ahead or tied with the Republican. However, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, a Democrat, trails Republican Pat McCrory by 12 percentage points in the race for governor.
In 55 House districts, the campaign is all but decided – 27 Democrats and 28 Republicans are running unopposed or have only third-party or unaffiliated opposition. In other districts, heavily skewed voter registration makes a victory by the minority party nearly impossible.
"The truth is, in some districts it's hopeless," Greene said.
Candidates and campaign operatives acknowledge that some districts are more likely to "swing" than others. Strength of candidate, funding and local factors can all play a part in House races. Outside groups, such as the Republican-allied Real Jobs NC, also play a part. Real Jobs has begun spending on behalf of Republicans in districts many analysts agree could flip away from the Democrats.
Harrison said she expected to see outside "progressive" groups spend on behalf of Democrats, as well. Although like Democratic candidates themselves, left-leaning groups seem to have less money to spend than their conservative counterparts do this year.