Wake County among the hot spots on the legislative map
Posted September 12, 2014
Updated September 13, 2014
Garner, N.C. — As Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, and Sarah Crawford, his Democratic challenger, have knocked on doors across their district this summer, they have run into sultry 95-degree days and voters who are cool to this year's political rhetoric.
"There's just a lot of mistrust and feeling that they're not getting the full story," Crawford said, pointing to conflicting messages over teacher pay as one source for the skepticism.
Barefoot, too, said he's meeting voters who don't feel like they're getting the truth – many who say negative ads criticizing his votes on natural gas drilling have turned them off.
"People want the truth right now more than ever," he said.
With less than two months to go before Election Day, voters in the Barefoot-Crawford race should brace themselves to hear more conflicting messages, as Wake County is home to some of the hotly contested legislative contests this year. Congressional races out of national spotlight
"Wake County is a subset of the greater Raleigh media market," said Nathan Babcock, political director for the North Carolina Chamber, a business advocacy group that lobbies the legislature and makes political endorsements.
Babcock said that voters in and around Raleigh tend to be more attuned to political news, which can help attract more candidates to run and help create more competitive races.
That "Raleigh bubble" centers on Wake County, where two state Senate races, including Barefoot's, and two state House races rate as some of the most closely watched this year.
"It's where all the growth is," Democratic consultant Thomas Mills said of Wake County.
New voters mean incumbents can't rely on name recognition to see them through.
"Also, a lot of these people who are coming into the state are more progressive than the ones that are already here," Mills said.
For Republican incumbents, he said, that means a bigger challenge in districts that were easy wins two or four years ago.
Many races all but over
The campaign is all but over in many districts.
In 20 of 50 state Senate districts, there is only one candidate on the Nov. 4 ballot. In 59 of 120 state House districts, only one candidate is on the ballot. In two other House districts, Republicans face only challengers from the Libertarian Party, which has never elected someone to the legislature.
That narrows the playing field considerably for Democrats, who are trying to wrest back seats lost in 2010 and 2012. Republicans control 77 of 120 state House seats and 33 of 50 state Senate seats. Those super-majorities allow GOP lawmakers to override vetoes and propose constitutional amendments without any Democratic votes.
Although Democrats' stated goal is to win back the legislature, in reality, their immediate objective is to trim the number of GOP-held districts in service of a bid to win back the General Assembly in 2016 or beyond.
"They might knock the Republicans under their super-majorities, but that would be a great day for Democrats," said Matt Bales, an analyst for the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation who used to work getting House Republicans elected.
Bales, Babcock, Mills and other analysts who spoke on background for this story agree that six races in the state House and six more in the state Senate have marquis standing this year. That's either because they are open seats or because incumbents face aggressive, well-funded challenges this year. A handful of other races, mainly near Raleigh, Asheville and other growing urban centers, could become competitive depending on events this fall.
In those races, Babcock said, voters will mainly be looking at two issues.
"Education and the economy trade places as the No. 1 and No. 2 issues, depending on where you are in the state," Babcock said.
Barefoot and Crawford said their conversations with voters bear out that logic.
"I run into a lot of new families who say, 'I thought I was moving here because I heard so many wonderful things about education,'" Crawford said.
She and other Democrats have been critical of Barefoot and his Republican colleagues for not putting more money into education.
Barefoot, who points to the pay raise for teachers that lawmakers passed this year, said that economic uncertainty is increasingly on the mind of voters.
"Even though I'm running for the General Assembly, the No. 1 thing we hear is that people are really afraid about the decisions the president is making. They have a fear about the future," Barefoot said.
While education issues rank high on his personal agenda, he said, voters sometimes surprise him with the issue they're focused on.
"We knocked on one door, and the only thing the guy wanted to know was where I stood on net neutrality," Barefoot said, referring to a debate over regulations that could determine how quickly high-speed cable carriers would have to transmit different sorts of information.
Barefoot and Crawford are also in a race where environmental issues are playing a part. That's unusual for a state legislative election, but the gas drilling process known as "fracking" and the state's handling of a Feb. 2 coal ash spill in Rockingham County have frequently been on the news and are frequent topics of campaign-style ads by outside groups this year.
"A lot of people will say, 'I don't want that fracking,'" Crawford said.
Barefoot points out that Crawford is married to an advocate and said he believes voters dismiss the attacks once they learn about that.
Mills suggests that both education and environmental issues would have a less of a hold on voters if the economy was doing better. While the state's unemployment rate is lower than it was two years ago, there are also many fewer people who count themselves as part of the workforce.
"If everybody were to feel fat and happy, there would be less concern over this other stuff," Mills said.
The following are districts where those issues are most likely to make a difference on Nov. 4:
Senate 1 (Beaufort, Camden, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Hyde, Pasquotank and Perquimans counties)
This is a replay of one of 2012's most closely contested races. Just 21 votes out of 87,449 cast separated now-incumbent Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, from Stan White, D-Dare, a former county commissioner who was appointed to serve as a state senator in 2011.
"It was the closest race of the entire cycle outside of Dan Forest's race," Bales said, referencing the statewide contest for lieutenant governor that was settled by less than a 1 percentage-point margin.
The district covers several of the state's easternmost counties, including the Outer Banks, and was once held by Sen. Marc Basnight, the longtime Democratic leader of the Senate.
Analysts say that the number of conservative Democrats and unaffiliated voters who live there make it one of the harder seats for Republicans to hold this cycle.
Senate 9 (New Hanover County)
From a numbers standpoint, this district is a prototypical swing seat, split roughly evenly between Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters.
Although Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, is technically an incumbent, he was appointed to fill Sen. Thom Goolsby's term after the legislature adjourned for the year. He faces Democrat Elizabeth Redenbaugh, a school board member who could capitalize on the front-and-center attention given to education issues this year.
Senate 15 (Wake County)
This district runs from inside the Raleigh Beltline to the very northern tip of Wake County, taking in some of the area's most affluent and fastest-growing communities. Republican Sen. Neal Hunt's retirement leaves this as an open seat sought by a pair of well-known community leaders.
Republican John Alexander heads his family's trucking company and has been active in local civic efforts, such as the Triangle Flight of Honor that flew World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., when a new monument opened. He faces Tom Bradshaw, a former Raleigh mayor and state transportation secretary who has a section of Interstate 40 named in his honor.
Wake County Republicans put Alexander's name on the ballot after Rep. Jim Fulghum, who won the May primary, died of cancer in July.
Both Alexander and Bradshaw began sending direct mail in August, and the campaign is likely to be an expensive one. The district is closely divided between Republicans and Democrats.
Senate 18 (Wake and Franklin counties)
Barefoot ran what was the most expensive state legislative campaign of the 2012 cycle, easily besting then-Sen. Doug Berger, D-Franklin.
Although Democrats outnumber Republicans here, GOP candidates have typically fared well in this district. However, this is an area where new residents, particularly in the northeast portion of Wake County, could provide some ballast for Crawford's campaign.
As well, this is a district in which outside groups, including environmental advocates, are putting campaign-style ads on the air attacking Barefoot and giving Crawford a boost.
Senate 19 (Cumberland)
This is another district where the number of Democratic voters outnumbers Republicans, but GOP candidates have historically fared well.
Sen. Wesley Meredith, R-Cumberland, was swept into office along with the 2010 wave that brought Republicans control of both the state House and Senate for the first time in more than a century. He faces Democrat Billy Richardson, a former prosecutor and active civic volunteer.
Bales said Richardson has good name recognition for someone who has not been in office recently.
Babcock said Richardson will likely force Meredith to spend his money at home, rather than farm it out to others – the fundamentals of the district favor the GOP candidate.
Senate 25 (Anson, Richmond, Rowan, Scotland and Stanly counties)
Of all the state Senate seats, this is the one currently held by a Democrat where Republicans could realistically seek to expand their majority.
Sen. Gene McLaurin, D-Richmond, is defending a district that has a majority of Democrats but has had some GOP leanings, particularly in statewide elections.
McLaurin faces both Republican Tom McInnis, a school board member and small-business owner, and Libertarian P.H. Dawkins.
Other state Senate races to watch
Aside from the six races listed above, analysts will be following the money elsewhere in the state.
For example, Republican Sen. Ron Rabin, R-Harnett, has been targeted in ads by environmental groups criticizing his votes on fracking. If those ads begin to sour voters on Rabin or the Republican Senate majority, it could give Democrat Joe Langley an opening.
Urban Senate districts where there new voters have been moving are also worth keeping an eye on, if not for this election cycle then as bellwethers of future close contests.
Seats held by Sens. Jeff Tarte, R-Mecklenburg, and Tamera Barringer, R-Wake, fall into this category.
Senate District 42 is home to one of the more unusual campaigns of the year.
State House Rep. Andy Wells is running to fill the seat long occupied by Sen. Austin Allran, R-Catawba, who opted not to run. He faces an unaffiliated candidate, Pat Hensley, who gathered signatures to get on the ballot.
As with state Senate races, House seats in urban and suburban areas are some of the most likely to be closely contested this election cycle.
Asheville and Raleigh in particular anchor some of the most competitive races for these 120 seats, although a handful of more rural seats are also being closely watched.
House 2 (Granville and Person counties)
Rep. Winkie Wilkins, D-Person, is retiring, leaving an open seat. Wilkins, a retired newspaper editor, was a conservative Democrat who generally focused on economic development issues at the legislature. While Democrats hold a registration advantage in the district, they are of a conservative strain, which gives Republicans an opening.
This year, Republican Larry Yarborough, a Roxboro businessman and former county commissioner, faces Democrat Ray Jeffers, a sitting county commissioner.
House 6 (Beaufort, Dare, Hyde and Washington counties)
Much like state Senate District 1, there are more Democrats than Republicans registered in this eastern North Carolina district, but voters here are more conservative than their party registrations would indicate.
Rep. Paul Tine, D-Dare, a first-term Democrat and insurance agent, faces Mattie Lawson, a retired systems engineer who has been active in Republican politics in a rematch of their 2012 race. Although not quite as close as the Cook-White race from that year, Tine edged out Lawson by only 458 of 41,054 votes cast.
House 41 (Wake County)
Of all the state House seats currently occupied by Republicans, this district may be the hardest to hold, analysts say, and an early bout of outside spending could drive up the overall cost of this campaign.
Rep. Tom Murry is a second-term Republican who has largely focused on business and health care issues during his time in the legislature. Murry, a pharmacist, faces Gale Adcock, a Cary Town Council member and nurse practitioner who serves as the chief health officer at SAS Institute.
This district is anchored in Cary and runs along Wake County's western border with Chatham County. A swing district by nature, outcomes here are getting harder to predict due to immigration from outside North Carolina.
"He would have been smart to set down roots as a moderate," said Mills, who thinks Murry will be hurt by some of the legislature's more conservative moves.
House 49 (Wake County)
As with Senate District 15, this Wake County House seat runs from inside the Raleigh Beltline north through some of the areas more affluent neighborhoods. Fulghum was elected to the seat in 2012.
Babcock described it as "very competitive," both because voters here are very attuned to debates over state government and because it is closely divided between Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters.
Republican Gary Pendleton, a retired brigadier general who has served on the Wake County Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, faces Democrat Kim Hanchette, the founder of a diabetes management nonprofit who has been involved in civic affairs.
House 51 (Harnett and Lee counties)
Outside groups are already targeting Rep. Mike Stone, R-Lee, and analysts say the two-term incumbent faces a rocky election season.
Although Stone's district should be fairly friendly to Republicans, it sits at the heart of North Carolina's fracking debate. Stone has played a central role in crafting legislation to open the state to the controversial drilling process.
It's also worth noting that, in 2012, Stone won by fewer than 250 votes out of more than 30,000 cast. He faces Brad Salmon, a lawyer and farmer from western Harnett County who has been critical of Stone's work on fracking.
House 116 (Buncombe County)
This district takes in a piece of Asheville and much of rural Buncombe County. By the numbers, it appears to be something of a slam dunk for Republicans, but consultants who have seen polling numbers say Rep. Tim Moffitt, R-Buncombe, appears to be lagging.
Moffitt has been at the center of several stories in which local officials have battled lawmakers over control of local resources, most notably Asheville's water system. He faces Democrat Brian Turner, who made waves earlier this year when he said Moffitt offered to help him get a state job if he withdrew from the race.
Other state House races to watch
Along with Moffitt, fellow western North Carolina Reps. Michelle Presnell,R-Yancey, and Nathan Ramsey, R-Buncombe, have been targeted by the liberal Aim Higher campaign that is airing a television ad against the three of them. Although Moffitt is the most vulnerable of the three, Ramsey and Presnell could face tougher re-election bids as a result of the spending.
Among seats held by Democrats, House District 44, currently occupied by Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, is consistently mentioned by analysts as one that could be competitive under the right circumstances.