This year, North Carolina Democrats made their largest gains in legislative elections since 1974, netting six seats in the state Senate and ten seats in the state House to break the Republican supermajorities in both chambers. In the Senate, the margin of Republican control decreased from 35-15 to 29-21, while in the House, the margin decreased from 75-45 to 65-55. Come 2020, the party’s goal will not be to prevent Republican supermajorities in the General Assembly, but rather to take the legislature for themselves – Democrats need only five more seats to win the Senate and six more to win the House, so replicating the magnitude of this year’s gains would be more than sufficient to take control.

          Notably, the Monte Carlo simulations I derived from the legislative election ratings released in October correctly predicted the exact new partisan compositions of both chambers, suggesting Republicans would win a 29-21 majority in the Senate and a 65-55 majority in the House. Moreover, the individual race predictions I released in early November correctly predicted the outcomes of forty-nine of the fifty Senate races (98%) and one hundred and thirteen of the one hundred and twenty House races (94%).

          The following are analyses of the Senate and House results:

          The following map displays the outcome of the 2018 North Carolina Senate elections, with the shade of each district representing the proportion of votes garnered by the winning party:

Democratic Party – 50.1% of votes, 21 seats
Republican Party – 49.0% of votes, 29 seats

          Despite winning the popular vote by 1.1% (39,979 votes) and gaining six seats, Democrats are still in the Senate minority, largely due to partisan gerrymandering. Indeed, Democrats won each of their twenty-one seats by average margin of 31.6% (23,878 votes) while Republicans won each of their twenty-nine seats by an average margin of 23.0% (15,912 votes), indicating legislators packed more Democrats into fewer districts to waste the party’s votes and minimize its influence.

          The following map displays the results by county, with the shade of each county representing the proportion of votes garnered by the winning party:

Democratic Party – 50.1% of votes
Republican Party – 49.0% of votes

          And the following map displays the Senate districts gained by each party:

Republican Hold (29)
Republican Gain (0)
Democratic Hold (15)
Democratic Gain (6)

          The easiest Democratic pickup was SD-15 in Raleigh. Fearful that all three of Wake County’s Republican seats were at risk of flipping due to the area’s Democratic trend in 2016, GOP legislators took advantage of 2017 redistricting to triage one district, hoping to save their incumbents in other two. The triaged district, SD-15, was won by Democratic Jay Chaudhuri, an incumbent who currently represents SD-16. Chaudhuri’s current district was won by Democrat Wiley Nickel.

          In the two Wake County seats Republicans hoped to save, Democrats picked up one nonetheless, with Democrat Sam Searcy besting incumbent Republican Tamara Barringer in SD-17 by 4.25% (4,199 votes). In the other Republican-leaning Wake County seat, however, Republicans scored their closest victory of the night, with GOP incumbent Johnny Alexander defeating Democrat Mack Paul in SD-18 by 2.55% (2,639 votes).

          Like the two Democratic pickups in Wake County, the other four gains Democrats made were all in large, urban counties. In SD-09 (New Hanover County), Democrat Harper Peterson defeated Republican incumbent Michael Lee by 0.27% (231 votes), the closest Senate race outcome of the cycle. In SD-19 (Cumberland County), Democrat Kirk DeViere defeated Republican incumbent Wesley Meredith by 0.74% (433 votes). In SD-27 (Guilford County), Democrat Michael Garrett defeated Republican incumbent Trudy Wade by 1.04% (937 votes). And in SD-41 (Mecklenburg County), Democrat Natasha Marcus defeated Republican incumbent Jeff Tarte by a whopping 13.7% (11,923 votes).

          The most significant takeaway from these results was likely the escalation of the urban-rural divide, with Democrats picking up almost all of the competitive urban and suburban districts but falling short in competitive rural districts.

The Senate results are also a reminder of the importance of each and every vote – Democrats only overcame the Senate supermajority by one seat, and with three of their pickups decided by less than one thousand votes, it is clearer now than ever that every vote matters.

          The following map displays the swing in support for each party from the 2016 presidential election to the 2018 state Senate elections. Blue districts saw Democratic performance increase relative to the 2016 presidential result, whereas red districts saw Republican performance increase relative to the 2016 presidential result. The shade of each district indicates the extent to which a party’s performance increased – a lighter shade indicates only a small swing, while a darker shade indicates a large one:

          Democrats outperformed the 2016 presidential result in forty-four of fifty districts, while Republicans outperformed the 2016 presidential result in only six districts. The largest Democratic overperformances occurred in the mountains, Wake County, and Mecklenburg County outside of SD-39, in which GOP incumbent Dan Bishop won reelection to become the only surviving Republican member of the county’s legislative delegation. The largest Republican overperformance, meanwhile, occurred in SD-13 (Robeson and Columbus counties), in which popular GOP incumbent Danny Earl Britt cruised to reelection in an area historically loyal to Democratic candidates.

          The following map displays the demographic makeup of the incoming Senate:

Republican White Male (25)
Republican White Female (4)
Democratic African American Male (6)
Democratic African American Female (4)
Democratic Asian American Male (2)
Democratic White Male (7)
Democratic White Female (2)

          86% of Senate Republicans are white men, while 67% of Senate Democrats are not. Perhaps the most notable demographic shift in the incoming Senate, however, will be the 300% increase of white Democrats from three to nine.

          The following map displays total voter turnout in each district:

          Quickly-growing suburban districts in the Triangle, Triad, Charlotte, Wilmington, and Asheville metropolitan areas had the highest turnout, while the low-income, rural districts of eastern North Carolina had the lowest turnout.

          Looking ahead to 2020, we might see a different Senate map altogether, as the current districts are being challenged in state court as unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. However, if the court challenge fails and the same map is used in 2020, most attention will probably be paid to the ten Senate districts – five won by each party – in which the final margin of victory this year was under ten percentage points. From most Democratic to most Republican:

  • In SD-03, Senator Erica Smith (D) won reelection by only 7.72% against a little-known Republican opponent. Smith’s unexpectedly underwhelming performance in a district drawn to favor Democrats can be attributed to the lack of a prominent campaign effort, the Republican trend of eastern North Carolina’s rural areas, and low minority turnout. An increase in minority turnout come 2020 will likely help Smith, although she should be sure to ramp up her campaign efforts if she wants to avoid an upset loss.
  • In SD-17, challenger Sam Searcy (D) defeated incumbent Republican Tamara Barringer (R) by 4.25%. Searcy will have the upper hand going into 2020 due to his new incumbency status, the lack of an incumbent opponent, and the Democratic trend in his largely suburban district.
  • In SD-27, challenger Michael Garrett (D) defeated incumbent Trudy Wade (R) by 1.04%. Garrett will have the same advantages as Searcy come 2020, although his district is marginally more Republican.
  • In SD-19, challenger Kirk DeViere (D) defeated incumbent Wesley Meredith (R) by 0.74%. DeViere will be in a similar situation to Searcy and Garrett.
  • In SD-09, challenger Harper Peterson (D) defeated incumbent Michael Lee (R) by 0.27%. Peterson will be in a similar situation to Searcy, Garrett, and DeViere.
  • In SD-18, Senator Johnny Alexander (R) defeated challenger Mack Paul (D) by 2.55%. Alexander has demonstrated time and time again his ability to win reelection in an increasingly competitive district, although the continued Democratic trend in suburban Wake County and increased Democratic turnout during presidential election years will make this seat a prime Democratic pickup opportunity come 2020.
  • In SD-39, Senator Dan Bishop (R) defeated challenger Chad Stachowicz (D) by 5.78%. This suburban district was closer than expected, so if Democrats focus on the seat and nominate a strong challenger in 2020, higher voter turnout and a continued Democratic trend could force Bishop out.
  • In SD-01, Bob Steinburg (R) defeated D. Cole Phelps (D) by 6.42% in an open race. Phelps was as strong a candidate as Democrats could ask for and this rural, coastal district continues to trend Republican, so Steinburg is favored in 2020.
  • In SD-24, Senator Rick Gunn (R) defeated challenger J. D. Wooten (D) by 7.72%. As with SD-39, this suburban district was closer than expected, so if Democrats focus on the seat and nominate a strong challenger, they could force Gunn out.
  • In SD-07, Senator Louis Pate (R) defeated challenger David Brantley (D) by 7.8%. Democrats paid little attention to this race, so if the party nominates a strong candidate like Brantley in 2020 and dedicates a larger pool of resources to the race, this predominantly rural district could flip. Moreover, Pate is set to retire.

A number of Republican-held suburban districts (SD-24 and SD-39) were much more competitive than expected and made this list, indicating Democratic hopes in suburban areas will continue to climb. Conversely, a number of Republican-held rural districts (SD-13 and SD-25) were much less competitive than expected and failed to make the list, indicating Democratic hopes in rural areas will continue to fade.

          The following map displays the outcome of the 2018 North Carolina House of Representatives elections, with the shade of each district representing the proportion of votes garnered by the winning party:

Democratic Party – 50.5% of votes, 55 seats
Republican Party – 48.2% of votes, 65 seats

          Despite winning the popular vote by 2.3% (86,849 votes) and net gaining ten seats, Democrats are still in the House minority, largely due to partisan gerrymandering. Indeed, Democrats won each of their fifty-five seats by average margin of 33.6% (10,239 votes) while Republicans won each of their sixty-five seats by an average margin of 25.8% (7,446 votes), indicating legislators packed more Democrats into fewer districts to waste the party’s votes and minimize its influence.

          The following map displays the results by county, with the shade of each county representing the proportion of votes garnered by the winning party:

Democratic Party – 50.5% of votes
Republican Party – 48.2% of votes

          And the following map displays the House districts gained by each party:

Republican Hold (63)
Republican Gain (2)
Democratic Hold (43)
Democratic Gain (12)

Three districts were considered safe Democratic pickups due to redistricting – Pricey Harrison (D) won the open HD-61 (Guilford) by 46.6%, Kandie Smith (D) won the open HD-08 (Pitt) by 29.3%, and James Gailliard (D) won the open HD-25 (Nash) by 6.45%. Harrison, the incumbent for HD-57, was succeeded in her solidly Democratic current district by Ashton Clemmons (D).

Democrats’ remaining nine pickups were spread across suburban Wake County, suburban Mecklenburg County, and two college towns in the mountains. In Wake County, challenger Terence Everitt (D) defeated incumbent Chris Malone (R) by 5.55% in HD-35, challenger Julie von Haefen (D) defeated incumbent Nelson Dollar (R) by 2.03% in HD-36, and challenger Sydney Batch (D) defeated incumbent John Adcock (R) by 2.07% in HD-37. Von Haefen’s defeat of Dollar, a seven-term incumbent and Senior Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was of particular note.

In Mecklenburg County, challenger Christy Clark (D) defeated incumbent John Bradford (R) by 1.04% in HD-98, challenger Rachel Hunt (D) defeated incumbent Bill Brawley (R) by 0.18% in HD-103, challenger Brandon Lofton (D) defeated incumbent Andy Dulin (R) by 2.07% in HD-104, and challenger Wesley Harris (D) defeated incumbent Scott Stone (R) by 4.58% in HD-105. The Hunt-Brawley race was the closest legislative election this year and the only race to result in a recount, with the daughter of former Governor Jim Hunt narrowly besting a four-term incumbent and Senior Chair of the House Finance Committee.

In the mountains, challenger Ray Russell (D) defeated incumbent Jonathan Jordan (R) in HD-93 (home to Appalachian State University), while challenger Joe Sam Queen (D) reclaimed his former seat by defeating incumbent Mike Clampitt by 4.66% in HD-119 (home to Western Carolina University).

Republicans narrowed their losses by defeating two Democratic incumbents, with challenger Lisa Stone Barnes (R) defeating incumbent Bobbie Richardson (D) in HD-07 (Franklin and Nash counties) and challenger Chris Humphrey (R) defeating incumbent George Graham (D) in HD-12 (Lenoir and Pitt counties). Both of these rural, socially conservative districts in eastern North Carolina were made significantly more competitive due to redistricting in 2017, and neither Richardson nor Graham were able to operate effective campaigns in districts that had previously been solidly Democratic.

          The most significant takeaway from these results was likely the escalation of the urban-rural divide, with Democrats picking most competitive urban and suburban districts but falling short in most competitive rural districts.

The House results are also a reminder of the importance of each and every vote, with seven races were decided by less than one thousand votes. Republicans were only 5,070 votes across seven districts away from maintaining their supermajority, while Democrats were only 7,826 votes across six districts away from attaining a majority.

          The following map displays the swing in support for each party from the 2016 presidential election to the 2018 state House elections. Blue districts saw Democratic performance increase relative to the 2016 presidential result, whereas red districts saw Republican performance increase relative to the 2016 presidential result. The shade of each district indicates the extent to which a party’s performance increased – a lighter shade indicates only a small swing, while a darker shade indicates a large one:

          Democratic candidates outperformed the 2016 presidential result in one hundred and three districts, while Republicans outperformed the 2016 presidential result in only seventeen districts. The largest Democratic overperformances generally occurred in western North Carolina and the Triangle, Charlotte, and Wilmington metropolitan areas, each of which have seen rapid growth and diversification in recent years. A few strong Democratic incumbents in southeastern North Carolina – Charles Graham, Garland Pierce, and Ken Goodman – also overperformed, as did prominent Democratic candidate Tess Judge in HD-06 (the Outer Banks).

Republican overperformances, meanwhile, were largely concentrated on the Coastal Plain of eastern North Carolina, with GOP incumbent Greg Murphy in HD-09 (Pitt County) besting his party’s presidential performance by the largest margin. Most Republican overperformances in eastern North Carolina can be attributed to weak Democratic candidates – George Graham of HD-12, Raymond Smith of HD-21, and Jean Farmer Butterfield of HD-24 all fell short of expectations, with Graham losing his tossup seat to a Republican challenger, Farmer-Butterfield nearly losing her likely Democratic seat, and Smith only narrowly winning an open seat that should be solidly Democratic.

          The following map displays the demographic makeup of the incoming House:

Republican White Male (54)
Republican White Female (11)
Democratic African American Male (17)
Democratic African American Female (9)
Democratic Native American Male (1)
Democratic White Male (14)
Democratic White Female (14)

          83% of House Republicans are white men; 75% of House Democrats are not.

          The following map displays total voter turnout in each district:

          Quickly-growing suburban districts in the Triangle, Triad, Charlotte, Wilmington, and Asheville metros had the highest turnout, while low-income, rural districts in eastern North Carolina and those home to military bases had the lowest turnout.

          Looking ahead to 2020, we might see a different House map altogether, as the current districts are being challenged in state court as unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. Indeed, four Wake County districts were already found unconstitutional, as legislators redrew them mid-decade in 2017 despite having no court mandate to do so. However, if the court challenges fail and the same map is used in 2020, most attention will probably be paid to the twenty-four House districts – fifteen won by Democrats and nine won by Republicans – in which the final margin of victory this year was under ten percentage points. From most Democratic to most Republican:

  • In HD-116 (Buncombe), Rep. Brian Turner (D) won reelection by 9.76% in a district drawn to favor Republicans. The popular Turner should face little trouble winning another term come 2020, although he may seek higher office.
  • In HD-25 (Nash), James Gailliard (D) defeated John Check (R) by 6.45% in an open district drawn to favor Democrats. Gailliard underperformed expectations, and given the partisan trend of rural areas in eastern North Carolina, this district will likely become competitive.
  • In HD-40 (Wake), Rep. Joe John (D) defeated former Rep. Marilyn Avila (R) by 6.22% in a rematch of their 2016 race. As this Republican-leaning district has already been deemed unconstitutional, it will likely revert to its prior, slightly more Democratic form by 2020, allowing John to win reelection comfortably.
  • In HD-35 (Wake), challenger Terence Everitt (D) defeated Rep. Chris Malone (R) by 5.55% in a district drawn to favor Republicans. Everitt will have the upper hand going into 2020 due to his new incumbency status, the lack of an incumbent opponent, and the Democratic trend of his suburban seat.
  • In HD-21 (Sampson and Wayne), Raymond Smith (D) defeated Robert Freeman (R) by 5.30% in an open district drawn to favor Democrats. As with HD-25, Smith underperformed expectations, and given the partisan trend of rural areas in eastern North Carolina, this district will likely become competitive.
  • In HD-119 (Haywood, Jackson, and Swain), former Rep. Joe Sam Queen (D) defeated Rep. Mike Clampitt (R) by 4.66% in a rematch of their 2016 race. This competitive district is rural, but a promising Democratic trend in the mountains and increased college student turnout during presidential election years spell good news for Queen in 2020.
  • In HD-105 (Mecklenburg), challenger Wesley Harris (D) defeated Rep. Scott Stone (R) by 4.58%. As with HD-35, Harris will have an advantage in 2020 due to his new incumbency status and the Democratic trend of his suburban seat.
  • In HD-93 (Ashe and Watauga), challenger Ray Russell (D) defeated Rep. Jonathan Jordan (R) by 4.42%. As with HD-119, this district is rural, but the Democratic trend in Watauga and high college student turnout will help Russell in 2020.
  • In HD-66 (Montgomery, Richmond, and Stanly), Rep. Ken Goodman (D) won reelection by 4.13% in a district drawn to favor Republicans. Goodman, the last conservative legislative Democrat from a conservative district, may switch parties or retire altogether by 2020, making this district one of the most likely GOP flips.
  • In HD-104 (Mecklenburg), challenger Brandon Lofton (D) defeated Rep. Andy Dulin (R) by 3.56%. As with other suburban seats that flipped Democratic in 2018, Lofton’s incumbency and Mecklenburg’s Democratic trend will help him in 2020.
  • In HD-37 (Wake), challenger Sydney Batch (D) defeated Rep. John Adcock (R) by 2.07% in a seat drawn to favor Republicans. Wake’s Democratic trend and Batch’s incumbency advantage should help her going forward, but as this district has already been struck down as unconstitutional and will likely revert to its prior, somewhat more Republican form by 2020, this district will again be a tossup.
  • In HD-36 (Wake), challenger Julie von Haefen (D) defeated Rep. Nelson Dollar (R) by 2.03% in a district drawn to favor Republicans. This district has also already been deemed unconstitutional and will revert to its prior, somewhat more Democratic form by 2020, boosting von Haefen.
  • In HD-24 (Wilson), Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield (D) defeated challenger Kenneth Fontenot (U) by only 1.60% in a district that typically favors Democrats. Fontenot, who is registered as an unaffiliated voter but identifies with the GOP, massively outperformed expectations, so Democrats will need to find a much stronger candidate than Farmer-Butterfield if they wish to prevent a Republican pickup in this eastern North Carolina district come 2020.
  • In HD-98 (Mecklenburg), challenger Christy Clark (D) bested Rep. John Bradford (R) by 1.04% in a district drawn to favor Republicans. Clark will benefit from incumbency status and Mecklenburg’s Democratic trend in 2020, but this longtime GOP district will continue to be competitive.
  • In HD-103 (Mecklenburg), challenger Rachel Hunt (D) bested Rep. Bill Brawley (R) by 0.18% in the closest legislative race statewide. Hunt’s name recognition and massive financial advantage gave her party an small, artificial edge in this strongly Republican district, and although Hunt will benefit from incumbency status and Mecklenburg’s Democratic trend, she will need to continue dedicating massive financial resources to this district if she wishes to keep it.
  • In HD-63 (Alamance), Rep. Stephen Ross (R) defeated challenger Erica McAdoo (D) by 0.98% in the closest Republican victory statewide. This area’s Democratic trend and McAdoo’s strong performance in a district drawn to favor Republicans will excite Democrats in 2020.
  • In HD-19 (New Hanover), Rep. Ted Davis (R) defeated challenger Marcia Morgan (D) by 2.42% in a district drawn to favor Republicans. If this suburban district continues to trend Democratic, it will become even more competitive in 2020.
  • In HD-20 (New Hanover), Rep. Holly Grange (R) defeated challenger Leslie Cohen (D) by 5.32% in a district drawn to favor the GOP. As with HD-19, if this suburban district continues to trend Democratic, it will become even more competitive.
  • In HD-82 (Cabarrus), Rep. Linda Johnson (R) defeated challenger Aimy Steele (D) by 5.50%. Same story as HD-19 and HD-20.
  • In HD-82 (Cabarrus), Rep. Larry Pittman (R) defeated challenger Gail Young (D) by 5.56%. Same story as HD-82.
  • In HD-51 (Harnett and Lee), Rep. John Sauls (R) defeated challenger Lisa Mathis (D) by 5.58%. The trend in this partially rural, partially suburban district is unclear, but Democrats might have a chance if they nominate another strong candidate.
  • In HD-75 (Forsyth), Rep. Donny Lambeth (R) defeated challenger Dan Besse (D) by 6.18%. If Forsyth continues to trend Democratic, this seat will be competitive.
  • In HD-01 (Bertie, Camden, Chowan, Perquimans, Tyrrell, Washington), Eddy Goodwin (R) defeated Ron Wesson (D) by 6.2% in an open district drawn to favor the GOP. This eastern North Carolina district is rural and trending Republican, so although Democrats might be able to run a competitive race in 2020 with a strong candidate and higher minority turnout, Goodwin will have an advantage.
  • In HD-74 (Forsyth), Rep. Debra Conrad (R) defeated challenger Terri LeGrand (D) by 9.02%. Same story as HD-75 but in a somewhat more Republican district.

GET UPDATES

Get the latest posts from PoliticsNC delivered right to your inbox!

You have Successfully Subscribed!