PPP is out with numbers in eight “swing” districts in the State Senate. All of them are currently held by Republicans, and all of these Republicans have job approval ratings that are underwater. Voters are unhappy with the new legislature and the new governor and Republicans’ polling numbers are suffering for it. Of the eight Republicans, two of them start out at a disadvantage for reelection. PPP calls the remaining six toss-ups.
So should North Carolina Republicans start to worry? Yes and no. If you’re one of the Republicans in those eight districts, then absolutely you should worry. At the same time, consider this: for Democrats to win back the State Senate, they would have to win all eight of them, and remember that six are supposed to be pure toss-ups. That’s with Republicans having a significant monetary advantage, combined with a midterm electorate that is likely to be more favorable to the GOP. After all of that, Democrats still need one extra seat. So, while it’s not impossible for Republicans to lose the Senate, just about everything would have to go wrong. Democrats would probably need a double-digit lead on the generic ballot. PPP still doesn’t find Democrats with an edge that big.
That brings me to another point – PPP itself. Regardless of how accurate their numbers have been in the past, they’re still a Democratic polling company, and in North Carolina especially, they tend to paint an overly rosy picture for Democrats. One should also remember that this poll is probably being used as a recruiting tool, so these numbers here probably represent the best case scenario for legislative Democrats. The bottom line? If you’re a Democrat, you better be realistic about how tough it will be just to gain a couple seats. You’re playing in unfriendly territory – Republicans designed it to be that way.
Next, let’s look at the individual numbers. Against a generic Democrat opponent, these are how the incumbents fare:
15. Neal Hunt 45%, Generic Democrat 42% (+3)
50. Jim Davis 44%, Generic Democrat 43% (+1)
12. Ronald Rabin 41%, Generic Democrat 41% (Tie)
18. Chad Barefoot 40%, Generic Democrat 41% (-1)
1. Bill Cook 42%, Generic Democrat 43% (-1)
17. Tamara Barringer 39%, Generic Democrat 43% (-4)
19. Wesley Meredith 37%, Generic Democrat 44% (-7)
9. Thom Goolsby 38%, Generic Democrat 50% (-12)
PPP finds two Senate Republicans starting out as underdogs for reelection: Wesley Meredith and Thom Goolsby.
That Meredith is in trouble shouldn’t come as a surprise. District 19 is basically the most Republican district imaginable that one can draw in Cumberland County. Unfortunately for Meredith, that still doesn’t make for a Republican district, and Obama carried it in 2012. Thus, Meredith is the only Republican currently occupying a State Senate district carried by Obama last year. Meredith was elected in the Tea Party wave in 2010, then skated by two years later against a weak opponent. If there’s any kind of Democratic wave next year, Meredith is gone.
What is surprising is Goolsby’s unpopularity. Whether it’s his comments on Moral Monday or something else, he’s done something to make people mad. PPP finds him down to a generic Democrat by 12 points. The most worrying number is that “Generic Democrat” is at 50%. New Hanover County, where the district is based, tends to be a bellwether, but most of the time a little more Republican than average. It looks like there’s more than anti-Republican backlash at work here.
In District 1, Republican Bill Cook won last year by only 21 votes. Not surprisingly, this was the closest State Senate contest, and a strong Democrat could easily win it back. This is an ancestrally Democratic district and McCrory is more unpopular here than statewide. In a neutral year, Cook is probably safe. In an anti-Republican one, he’s not.
District 12, currently occupied by Ronald Rabin, consists of Harnett and Lee counties, with a little bit of Johnston thrown in. Rabin squeaked by last year against a conservative Democrat. The poll shows him tied with a generic Democrat. This will likely be a close contest no matter what.
District 15 lies in northwestern Wake County and is currently held by Neal Hunt. Given his age, Hunt is a retirement possibility. The PPP poll shows Hunt leading by 3 against a generic Democrat. Not only is Hunt in a Republican district, he also enjoys the respect of swing voters because of his long tenure in the legislature. It will be difficult for Democrats to win here, but it is doable.
District 17 is also in Wake County, in the southwest, but it’s held by freshman Tamara Barringer, who is not as well-known as Hunt and consequently is more vulnerable. This district voted for McCain in 2008, so it won’t be a cakewalk for Democrats. Barringer will probably raise gobs of money. Still, there are a lot of swing voters here, the educated suburbanite types that have really soured on the legislature, and PPP’s poll shows Barringer down by 4. If independents in North Carolina continue to lean toward the Democrats this cycle, then Barringer will likely be a casualty.
The other Wake County district is the 18th, held by Chad Barefoot. (There’s a slight chance that Democrats could control the entire Senate delegation from Wake County next year. That’s the danger of gerrymandering – sometimes you spread yourself too thin). Barefoot is also a freshman, and part of his district lies in Franklin County, which in the past has been friendly to legislative Democrats. Right now Barefoot’s down by 1 point. But rest assured, his reelection bid will be immensely well-funded.
Finally there’s District 50, held by Jim Davis. Davis only leads a generic Democrat by 1 point, but I think he’s the least vulnerable of this bunch. Last year everyone expected him to be in a toss-up race, he won by 14 points. District 50 is in the mountains, and I really think voters there have become permanently Republican. The anti-GOP backlash will also, I imagine, be more potent in suburban districts. The rural counties will probably prove to be more resilient. Except for education, a lot of the Democrat messaging doesn’t resonate there.
Some caveats: it’s very, very early. Republicans will have a huge advantage in terms of money, and Democrats will probably suffer from some midterm drop-off. Also, there’s still a chance that the GOP can turn things around. Maybe the anti-Republican cloud will lift, and we’re just in the thick of it. Voters have short memories, and maybe in a year or so they’ll forget about all the stuff Republicans did that they didn’t like. But I doubt it. When all is said and done, I think Republicans will lose their veto-proof majorities. Republicans in suburban districts will be especially hard-hit. The backlash against the legislature could enable Kay Hagan to be reelected, despite mediocre approval numbers.
At the same time, you have declining numbers for Obama, and the looming unpopularity of Obamacare, and the six-year itch. With these two forces colliding, 2014 should be a very interesting year in North Carolina politics.
John Wynne is the “conservative voice” at PoliticsNC, where he also provides polling analysis and commentary on legislative campaigns. When not writing about politics, he enjoys gardening and listening to opera. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.