While political analysts are trying to understand how the most recent municipal elections reflect the current climate and impact outcomes in the 2014 elections, there are two obvious conclusions of statewide note.
Larger urban cities are trending more Democratic while their bedroom communities lean more Republican. Secondly, continued population shifts from rural counties to urban cities and outlying suburbs ensures statewide candidates will focus even more of their money and efforts on the 15 to 20 counties with the most population and voters.
The 2014 headliner is the U.S. Senate race, as first-term incumbent Kay Hagan seeks to retain a seat with a history of one-and-done officeholders. Polls show Hagan might be vulnerable and Republicans understand their chances to recapture control of the U.S. Senate hinge on victory in North Carolina. Democrats believe retaining this seat virtually assures their plurality. Expect big dollar TV campaigns and high-profile partisans to invade our state.
House Speaker Thom Tillis is the front-runner to capture the GOP nomination but none of the current candidates has much support at this point. Conservative and Tea Party Republicans will support Charlotte Pastor Mark Harris or Cary doctor Greg Brannon, believing Tillis too moderate. If Republicans are unwilling to unite behind their nominee, as happened in the 1984 Democratic gubernatorial primary, the well-financed Hagan will likely win handily.
The best opportunity to unseat an incumbent is in his or her first re-election bid and North Carolina has four freshmen Congressmen – Republicans Richard Hudson, Mark Meadows, George Holding, and Robert Pitttenger – facing that challenge. The Tea Party has listed Pittenger as their number one target to defeat and this primary contest, along with the Senate primary, will be a real test of their strength.
Sixth District Congressman Howard Coble’s retirement will attract both Republican and Democrats in spirited campaigns for that seat. The rematch between 7thDistrict Democrat Mike McIntyre and David Rouzer, who lost by a razor-thin margin in 2012, will be worth watching. Veteran 12th District Congressman Mel Watt’s federal appointment is problematic; don’t be surprised if he runs for re-election. Third District Congressman Walter Jones already has announced opposition, but will be difficult to beat. Republicans might not retain their 9-4 dominance over Democrats but should continue to hold a Congressional plurality.
Margins will also be important in the General Assembly. Next year’s so-called short session, which typically yields little in significant legislation, promises to be different. Lawmakers understand this year’s sweeping changes are widely unpopular and will attempt to placate some unhappy factions, like teachers and state employees, by handing out pay raises.
Even if the GOP doesn’t retain their veto-proof margins in both houses they will likely maintain control. The possibility of a smaller House GOP plurality, coupled with divisions between moderates and hardliners in the house caucus might make a consensus for speaker in 2015 problematic; either factor could weaken negotiations with the senate, where President Pro Tem Phil Berger will be the most powerful politician in Raleigh.
Here are the key questions. Is the reported voter unrest just grousing or will voters take out their angst on incumbents? Can unhappy special interests such as minorities, teachers and state employees raise the dollars and become activated sufficiently to retaliate? Will Gov. Pat McCrory sit on the sidelines or support candidates within his party and can Democrats get their collective act together enough to present legitimate alternatives? How much influence will 501(c) 4 and other support groups play in the outcomes and, finally, will voters turn out for mid-term elections?
We predict the 2014 elections will be the noisiest, nastiest, most costly and most divisive we’ve witnessed in modern history.
Campbell is the executive producer and moderator of NC SPIN, a weekly panel discussion on state issues that airs on WMYT “MY TV12” at 10 a.m. on Sundays and on WJZY “CW46” at 6:30 a.m. and 11:05 p.m. on Sundays and on WFMY-TV at 5:30 a.m. Sundays.