Raleigh, N.C. — There are 50 seats in the state Senate, but the battle between Republicans and Democrats for control of the chamber will come down to fewer than a dozen races this fall.
While Republicans are looking to expand a 31-19 advantage gained in 2010, Democrats are hoping collateral effects from President Barack Obama's ground game will help them retake a legislative body they controlled for more than a century.
"There are only about 10 or 11 seats that don't heavily favor one party over the other," said Thom Little, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro and an expert on legislative politics. Outside political observers, strategists for the political parties and even candidates themselves generally agree which districts are likely to be battlegrounds.
Together, the House and Senate make the laws and craft the state's $20 billion budget. Although the governor is much better known and runs the state's daily affairs, the legislature is a sometimes more-than-equal partner in governing. The contentious relationship between Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue and the GOP-lead legislature over the past two years showed it is nearly impossible for the state's chief executive to advance an agenda without legislative cooperation.
In the Senate campaigns, 18 of the 50 races are already decided, with 11 Republicans and 7 Democrats facing no opposition in the November general election. One other Republican faces only a Libertarian challenger, giving the GOP another likely win.
In 20 other races, a combination of partisan mix, strong incumbents and local factors strongly favor one party or the other.
Click on a district for race analysis.
Summary: Voter registration favors Democrats, but voters sometimes back Republicans in national elections. Analysts expect White to win but say he could be vulnerable if big money comes in for Cook.
Summary: Seat had been held by long-time lawmaker Jean R. Preston, R-Carteret.
Summary: Jenkins has no opponent.
Summary: Jones is a three-term incumbent and the district heavily favors Democrats.
Summary: Davis has no opponent.
Summary: Brown has no opponent.
Summary: Pate has no opponent.
Summary: Voter registration is closely divided in this district, but analysts say Rabon is likely to hold this seat for the Republicans.
Summary: This is a swing district closely divided between Republicans and Democrats. Both parties expect a close election here.
Summary: Jackson has no opposition.
Summary: Voter registration and historical voting trends favor Republicans in this district.
Summary: This is an open seat, vacated by David Rouzer, who is running for Congress. The district leans strongly Republican.
Summary: Voter registration strongly favors Democrats.
Summary: Blue has no opposition.
Summary: This is a swing district in urban/suburban Wake County. Both parties are expected to spend heavily here.
Summary: Stein has no opposition.
Summary: This is a swing district in urban/suburban Wake County. Both parties are expected to spend heavily here.
Summary: Berger is a four-term incumbent but he has never represented 70 percent of this redrawn district. Voter registration is closely matched in the district.
Summary: This Cumberland County district is hard to read, but many analysts say it could be close. Tatum is a former county-wide elected official but had high-profile problems when he was a DMV administrator.
Summary: McKissick has no opposition.
Summary: Clark has no opposition.
Summary: Voter registration heavily favors Democrats.
Summary: Kinnaird is an 8-term incumbent in a district that heavily favors Democrats.
Summary: Gunn is an incumbent and a Libertarian has never won election to the state Senate.
Summary: This is an open seat. Voter registration favors Democrats but both parties say it is a swing district this cycle.
Summary: Berger, the sitting president pro tempore of the senate, is favored to win this Republican-leaning district.
Summary: Registration numbers give Republicans a slim edge in this newly redrawn district, but analysts say the GOP is likely to win here.
Summary: Robinson has no opposition.
Summary: Tillman has no opposition.
Summary: East is a 7-term incumbent in a district that heavily favors Republicans.
Summary: Brunstetter is a three-term incumbent and influential budget chairman. This district leans strongly Republican.
Summary: Parmon served for five terms in the House and is expected to win this Democratic-leaning district.
Summary: Bingham has no opposition.
Summary: Brock has no opposition.
Summary: Tucker has no opposition.
Summary: Hartsell has no opposition.
Summary: Clodfelter is a 7-term incumbent in a district that heavily favors Democrats.
Summary: This is an open seat, but voter registration heavily favors Democrats.
Summary: Rucho is a veteran legislator running in a district that heavily favors Republicans.
Summary: Graham is a four-term legislators in a district thate heavily favors Democrats.
Summary: Tarte has no opposition.
Summary: Alran is a veteran of 16 legislative terms in a district that favors Republicans.
Summary: Harrington has no opposition.
Summary: This is an open seat but voter registration favors Republicans.
Summary: Soucek is an incumbent in a district where voter registration favors Republicans.
Summary: Voter registration favors Republicans in this district but its lines are newly drawn and incumbent Warren Daniel represented only about half of the voters here during his current term. Democrat John T. McDevitt is a well known former sheriff.
Summary: This district is closely divided in terms of voter registration.
Summary: Apodaca has no opposition.
Summary: Nesbitt is a veteran lawmaker in a district that favors Democrats.
Summary: This is a rematch of the 2010 election. Davis ousted Snow, a veteran lawmaker, with the help of heavy spending by non-party groups. This is expected to be among the most closely contested races this year.
"There are pretty wide gulfs in the Senate campaigns between the competitive and non-competitive races," said Jonathan Kappler, research director with the N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation, a nonpartisan group that studies campaigns with an eye on how political shifts affect the business climate.
This is the first election in which legislative districts drawn in 2011 will be used. Republicans controlled that redistricting process, and it is widely acknowledged that they tweaked the political playing field in their favor. Two years in power gave the GOP leverage to raise funds more quickly and steadily than their Democratic rivals, an advantage that is showing up in a deluge of political fliers and television spots.
To hold their 19 seats, Democrats have to defend their hold on three of the 11 swing districts before working to flip the eight competitive seats now held by Republicans. To earn an even 25-to-25 split, Democrats would have to flip at least six of eight "in-play" GOP-held seats.
"With the combination of the way the districts were drawn and the financial advantage Republicans enjoy, the Republicans are favored to continue with a majority in the state Senate," Kappler said.
Democrats acknowledge they have a tougher road to victory, but they say the path is not as unlikely as it may seem.
Help from the president
"There is no question that the terrain is rougher for us than we have had to deal with in recent years," said Ronny Richardson, caucus director for the Senate Democrats.
Democrats controlled the state Senate for the entire 20th century and held it until the 2010 election, when a sour economy, the rise of conservative Tea Party groups and an infusion of independent spending helped Republicans take control of both the state House and Senate.
Campaigning as the minority party for the first time in more than a century, Senate Democrats are generally critical of what they characterize as a Republican-drafted budget that they say cut education and didn't invest enough in safety net programs such as Medicaid.
From a tactical perspective, Democrats say they're running to win back the chamber, not merely trim the GOP's majority. In the case of a 25-25 tie, the lieutenant governor would cast the deciding vote for control of the chamber and likely decide a great many other issues as well.
"I think your goal is always to win the majority," Richardson said.
It will be helpful to Democrats, Richardson said, that most of the highly competitive districts are in urban and suburban areas. Those are places where Obama's campaign and Democrats running statewide are expected to be especially active in turning out voters.
Get out the vote efforts and higher interest in this election will mean more Democrats heading to the polls than was the case two years ago.
"Just across the board, one of the things we take comfort in this year is there are a lot of straight-ticket voting Democrats that are going to come out this year that weren't there two years ago," he said.
That said, the Republican road to keeping Senate control is easier.
Building on success
"We think we have a good opportunity to keep what we have or maybe even grow the numbers a little bit," said Ray Martin, Richardson's opposite number with the Republican Party. "There are individual districts that concern us and that we're going to keep a close eye on and campaign in all the way through to November. But it would have to be the perfect storm for them (Democrats) to take back the majority."
One of the key advantages that comes with being the party in power is the ability to raise more money. Republicans have put that fundraising advantage to work by blanketing some competitive districts with fliers. And individual candidates have been able to put ads on television, something that legislative campaigns can't always do.
"For the most part, television is coming from (money raised) by the candidates themselves," Martin said.
Martin does agree that the most competitive districts are likely urban and suburban counties.
In part, those more competitive races were created by redistricting. In order to give themselves an edge in other seats, the GOP shifted Republican voters from seats that had been strongholds for their parties to other races. The product of those decisions can be seen throughout Wake County.
Wake County in the spotlight
Richardson and Martin disagree on the relative strength of their candidates.
"We've got really good candidates in the districts that are most competitive," Richardson said. He points to Sig Hutchinson, a Raleigh businessman who has served on a number of nonprofit boards and led campaigns for open space and parks bonds. He is running in Senate District 15, a Raleigh-based district anchored north of the Beltline, against Republican incumbent Neal Hunt.
Martin sees that profile as a weakness.
"I think the Democrats have really hurt themselves by recruiting a slew of candidates who are pretty left of mainstream," Martin said, singling out Hutchinson as one of those.
That description makes Hutchinson, who describes himself as a serial entrepreneur, chuckle.
"I'm a business Democrat. I've been in the Chamber for 30 years," Hutchinson said.
So-called "business Democrats" made up the backbone of legislative majorities for much of the 20th century. Although left of the Republicans on social issues and proponents of expanding public investments in education, they cultivated a reputation as being open to ideas from the state's biggest employers.
In his campaign materials, Hutchinson also emphasizes protecting the environment. In an interview, he said the key issue for Wake County is adding population while maintaining quality of life.
Whether because Hutchinson has been able to sell his "business Democrat" image or because of demographic factors, Republican incumbent Neil Hunt has put ads on television.
Hunt has also been the beneficiary of a blizzard of direct mail pieces sent by the N.C. Republican caucus. Many of those pieces describe Hunt as both an experienced leader who has helped cut taxes and an environmentalist.
"I thought they were a little unnecessary," Hunt said of the direct mail blitz.
Combined, spending by Hunt and the party give the veteran lawmakers a significant resource lead over Hutchinson. Hunt says the television ads are part of an effort to turn out Republicans in a year when President Obama's turnout machine will be particularly active.
Hutchinson acknowledges the fundraising disadvantage but says he'll have more than enough money to campaign. He questions whether Hunt's television commercials can penetrate the miasma of ads aired in the presidential and gubernatorial races.
In terms of voter registration, the district is closely divided. Republicans have a slight edge but one that would be vulnerable to a big turnout by Democrats.
Incumbent as challenger
One of the hardest fought races in the Triangle will be in Senate District 18, where incumbent Democrat Doug Berger faces Republican Chad Barefoot. It is one of three very competitive seats Democrats must defend if they are to make a run at retaking the majority.
Recently redrawn, more than two-thirds of the voters are new to the district, which comes from Franklin County into Wake County.
"I don't have the full advantage of being an incumbent," said Berger. A lawyer by trade, Berger is talking up a career that included a three-year stint as a school teacher and a decade as a prosecutor.
Barefoot is emphasizing his efforts as a staffer for House Majority Leader Paul "Skip" Stam and in some ways is running more as an incumbent, or at least an insider who can take some credit for the budget and other policy decisions of the past legislature.
"I'm serious about this job," Barefoot said, who now recruits business for a public relations firm. His campaign, including a commercial he has on television, paints Berger as ineffective and someone who has spent time on periphery issues.
"He's going to talk about his biography because he can't run on his record," Barefoot said.
Although Democratic voters make up a bigger proportion of the district than Republicans, they are conservative voters who often go for Republicans in national elections. Berger is playing up his support from the NRA and his relatively conservative stand on gun rights.
Nine other races to watch
In addition to Senate Districts 15 and 18, strategists and political analysts agree there are nine other state Senate races that will determine control of the chamber this year:
Senate District 1: Voter registration heavily favors Democrats in this coastal district, but voting trends show voters have conservative sympathies. Most analysts expect incumbent Stan White, who replaced longtime Senate leader Marc Basnight, to fend off Republican Bill Cook, but the district is one that is seen as potentially competitive.
Senate District 9: The voters in this Wilmington-based district sent a Democrat to the state legislature in 2008, and voter registration here is closely split. Republican Thom Goolsby should have an edge over Democrat Deb Butler, but analysts say New Hanover County is a bellwether and the kind of urban district where Obama's campaign could be a factor.
Senate District 12: This is an open seat once held by congressional candidate David Rouzer. Voter registration should give Republican Ronald Rabin an edge over Democrat Brad Salmon.
Senate District 17: Voter registration gives Republicans a slight edge in this district, but it is an open seat once held by Sen. Richard Stevens. Republican Tamara Barringer faces Democrat Erv Portman. Many of the same factors that make Senate District 15, the Hunt-Hutchinson race, competitive are at play here.
Senate District 19: Cumberland County is home to Fort Bragg. This district is comprised of many split precincts, making it hard to analyze. Wesley Meredith, the Republican incumbent, faces Democrat George Tatum, who was the subject of several investigations when he was head of the state DMV. However Tatum is a former Register of Deeds, a countywide elected position.
Senate District 25: An open seat based around Scotland and Anson counties, it is currently held by Democrat William Purcell. Voter registration in this district favors Democrats, but statistics from prior elections suggest voters are susceptible to poaching by a conservative Republican. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are investing heavily here this year, but Kappler suggests this could be a district that sees outside spending late in the campaign. Democrat Gene McLaurin is running against Republican Gene McIntyre.
Senate District 46: Voter registration favors Republicans in this district but its lines are newly drawn and incumbent Warren Daniel represented only about half of the voters here in the past. Democrat John T. McDevitt is a well-known former sheriff. Libertarian Richard C. Evey and could serve as a spoiler in a close race.
Senate District 47: This district is closely divided in terms of voter registration. Incumbent Republican Ralph Hise faces Democrat Phil Feagan.
Senate District 50: Republican incumbent Jim Davis faces a rematch against Democrat John Snow, whom he ousted in 2010 with the help of a big-money infusion from outside political action committees. The district favors Democrats in terms of voter registration but this far-western district favors conservative politicians in national elections.
Just off the radar
In addition to the 11 swing districts, political observers say they're watching two other races that could be competitive under the right circumstances. Both of them are expected Republican wins at this point. In Guilford County, Senate District 27 is an open seat that leans Republican. In Senate District 8, which includes parts of Bladen, Brunswick, Pender and New Hanover counties, voter registration statistics indicate that a Democrat could wrest the seat from the GOP but observers say the seat doesn't appear to be in play at the moment.