North Carolina has two statewide appellate courts, the seven-member Supreme Court and the fifteen-member Court of Appeals. Justices on the Supreme Court and judges on the Court of Appeals are elected statewide to staggered eight-year terms, with at least one seat on each court up every even-numbered year. Statewide judicial elections became nonpartisan in 2004 but have since become partisan again, with the legislature reintroducing partisanship to Court of Appeals elections in 2016 and Supreme Court elections in 2018.

Before the 2018 elections, the Supreme Court had a 4-3 Democratic majority, while the Court of Appeals had a 10-5 Republican majority. The following charts display the names, party affiliations, and election cycles of the current members of each court:

This year, elections were held for one seat on the Supreme Court and three on the Court of Appeals.

Supreme Court – Jackson Seat

Incumbent Republican Barbara Jackson was first elected to the Supreme Court in 2010 after serving six years on the Court of Appeals. Jackson was initially deemed a frontrunner in her bid for a second term – Republican legislators had made Supreme Court elections partisan for the first time since 2002 but opted to eliminate primary elections, hoping multiple Democratic challengers would enter the race and split the Democratic vote on the general election ballot.

Their scheme, however, did not go as planned. Democratic support coalesced around civil rights attorney Anita Earls, while a second Republican entered the race – attorney Chris Anglin changed his registration from Democratic to Republican shortly before the filing deadline, seemingly hoping to backfire legislators’ plan by splitting the GOP vote. Legislators sought to salvage the race by passing an essentially ex post facto law to strip Anglin’s new party affiliation from the ballot due to his recent change in registration, but their attempt was struck down in court, allowing Anglin to remain on the ballot as a Republican.

Despite Republican efforts to convince voters to support Jackson, Anglin won 32.45% of Republican ballots, the vast majority of which were likely cast by voters unaware of the situation that had transpired. Overall, Earls won just under a simple majority of votes (49.56%), while the remaining vote was indeed split between Jackson (34.07%) and Anglin (16.37%).

Republicans may claim that Jackson would have won had Anglin not run, as the composite Republican vote was slightly above Earls’ total. However, Democrats did win the two statewide judicial races in which one nominee of each major party participated, and if anything, Earls ran the most active campaign of the Democrats’ judicial nominees. The inflated Republican vote total was likely due simply to the presence of two GOP candidates on the ballot – had Anglin not run, Earls likely would have won by a similar margin to the two Democrats in the aforementioned races.

The following map displays the winning candidate in each county:

Anita Earls (D) – 49.56%
Barbara Jackson (R) – 34.07%
Chris Anglin (R) – 16.37%

Earls won a majority of ballots cast throughout the state’s typically Democratic counties, including all major urban centers and the rural, predominantly African American counties of eastern North Carolina. Moreover, the split Republican vote allowed Earls to win a plurality in a number of Republican-leaning counties – the Democrat won twenty-nine counties that had supported Donald Trump in 2016, in addition to the twenty-four that had supported Hillary Clinton.

The following map displays the proportion of Republican votes in each county won by Anglin:

Unsurprisingly, Anglin performed best in rural, less-educated counties, as the Republican voters in urban, well-educated counties were more likely to research the race and learn that Jackson was an incumbent justice with the state party’s endorsement. Indeed, Republicans in Wake County – home to a plethora of news-following lawyers, politicos, and the Supreme Court itself – provided Jackson with her largest margin over Anglin. Anglin’s overperformance in western North Carolina, meanwhile, may be attributed to the increased proportion of male voters in the region, as Anglin was the only male candidate on the ballot.

Court of Appeals – Arrowood Seat

Judge John Arrowood, a Democrat, sought a full term on the Court of Appeals after his appointment to the court by Governor Cooper to fill a vacancy in early 2017. Arrowood was previously appointed to serve on the court by Governor Mike Easley in 2007, but he lost both his first bid for a full term in 2008 and a subsequent bid in 2014.

Arrowood was challenged by Superior Court Judge Andrew Heath, a Republican, who had previously served as chair of the North Carolina Industrial Commission and as Governor McCrory’s budget director. In the only one-on-one statewide race between a Democrat and a Republican in 2018, Arrowood defeated Heath by 1.58%, providing the best barometer of this year’s overall partisan climate in North Carolina.

Arrowood’s victory was a groundbreaking moment in political history – the judge became the first LGBTQ+ candidate elected to statewide office not only in North Carolina, but in the Southern United States as a whole.

John Arrowood (D) – 50.79%
Andrew Heath (R) – 49.21%

Arrowood performed best in the state’s urban centers and the predominantly African-American counties of eastern North Carolina, typical for a Democratic candidate.

Court of Appeals – Calabria Seat

Judge Ann Marie Calabria, a Republican first elected in 2002, decided against seeking another term rather than facing the mandatory retirement age if reelected. Calabria’s early retirement was likely prompted by a recent law designed by legislators to prevent Governor Cooper from appointing replacements for the next three Court of Appeals vacancies, with the GOP seeking to decrease the court’s size from fifteen to twelve members rather than allowing Governor Cooper to replace outgoing Republican judges. Although a Republican herself, Calabria may have opted for early retirement to preserve the court’s current size rather than trigger her party’s court-shrinking plan by reaching the mandatory retirement age.

As with the Supreme Court race, the GOP sought to hold this seat by eliminating primary elections, hoping multiple Democratic candidates would run and split the Democratic vote in the general election. However, their plan again backfired – Democrats united in support of appellate attorney Toby Hampson, while Republican support was split between District Court Judges Jefferson Griffin and Sandra Ray. The state GOP endorsed Griffin, but Ray nonetheless won 30.26% of Republican ballots, preventing Griffin from uniting his party’s supporters. Ultimately, Hampson won just under a simple majority of votes (48.79%), while the remaining vote was indeed split between Griffin (35.72%) and Ray (15.50%).

Republicans may claim that Griffin would have won had Ray not run, as the composite Republican vote was slightly above Hampson’s total. However, Democrats did win the two statewide judicial races in which one nominee of each major party participated, and the inflated Republican vote total was likely due simply to the presence of two GOP candidates on the ballot. Had Ray not run, Hampson likely would have won by a similar margin to the two Democrats in the aforementioned races.

The following map displays the winning candidate in each county:

Toby Hampson (D) – 48.79%
Jefferson Griffin (R) – 35.72%
Sandra Ray (R) – 15.50%

Hampson won a majority of ballots cast throughout the state’s typically Democratic counties, including all major urban centers and the rural, predominantly African American counties of eastern North Carolina. Moreover, the split Republican vote allowed Hampson to win a plurality in a number of Republican-leaning counties – the Democrat won twenty-four counties that had supported Donald Trump in 2016, in addition to the twenty-four that had supported Hillary Clinton.

The following map displays the proportion of GOP votes per county won by Ray:

Ray’s performance relative to Griffin was relatively even statewide, although she performed notably better in the two counties (New Hanover and Pender) she represents as a District Court judge.

Court of Appeals – Elmore Seat

Judge Rick Elmore, a Republican first elected in 2002, decided against seeking another term rather than facing the mandatory retirement age if reelected. Like Calabria, Elmore probably opted for early retirement to preserve the court’s current size rather than trigger his party’s court-shrinking plan by reaching the mandatory retirement age.

Running to succeed Elmore were Democrat Allegra Collins, Republican Chuck Kitchen, and Libertarian Michael Monaco. Collins won the race by 1.75%, rounding out Democrats’ full sweep of the statewide judicial elections in 2018.

The following map displays the winning candidate in each county:

Allegra Collins (D) – 48.58%
Chuck Kitchen (R) – 46.83%
Michael Monaco (L) – 4.59%

Collins performed best in the state’s urban centers and the predominantly African-American counties of eastern North Carolina, typical for a Democratic candidate.

Notably, Collins won by a slightly larger margin than John Arrowood, the Democratic incumbent who won the only other statewide judicial race with one nominee per major party. Collins’ overperformance may have been due to Monaco’s presence on the ballot, as Libertarians are thought to typically win more votes from otherwise Republican voters than otherwise Democratic voters.

The following map displays Monaco’s performance in each county:

Like most Libertarian candidates, Monaco performed best in coastal, urban, and particularly western North Carolina counties. As Monaco likely won more otherwise Republican votes in western North Carolina than in eastern North Carolina, one might expect Collins to have performed better in western North Carolina than a Democrat otherwise would.

However, upon comparing Collins’ performance against that of John Arrowood, the Democratic incumbent who won the only other statewide judicial race with one nominee per major party, we learn that this was not the case. The following map displays whether Collins or Arrowood won by a larger margin against their Republican opponents in each county:

Almost invariably, Collins overperformed in eastern North Carolina, while Arrowood overperformed in western North Carolina. Part of this phenomenon may be explained by the candidates’ backgrounds – Collins is an appellate attorney in Wake County, while Arrowood resides in Mecklenburg County and grew up in the mountains. However, such a far-reaching correlation can more easily be explained by gender, as eastern North Carolina has a larger proportion of female voters and western North Carolina has a larger proportion of males.

Conclusion

In 2018, North Carolina experienced a Blue Moon election, with no presidential, senatorial, or statewide executive contests for the first even-numbered year since 2006. Thus, analyzing North Carolina’s overall partisan trend this year might seem difficult. Races for the Court of Appeals, however, can provide a valuable insight – as the only statewide office with partisan elections in both 2016 and 2018, the court’s election results can reveal the direction in which North Carolina is heading.

In 2016, Democrats won an average of 47.29% of the statewide two-party vote in the five Court of Appeals races, while in 2018, Democrats won 50.17% of the statewide two-party vote between three contests. This 2.88% Democratic swing suggest our state is becoming somewhat bluer but remains competitive. Republicans might argue that the swing was only temporary, as 2018 was an unusually good year for Democrats, while Democrats might argue that the swing actually underrepresents the state’s Democratic trend, as Democratic turnout is generally lower during midterm years than presidential years. Like any other, this metric is not perfect, but it does provide a helpful general sense of North Carolina’s partisan trend.

The following map displays whether each North Carolina county became more Democratic or more Republican between the 2016 and 2018 Court of Appeals elections:

Republicans actually improved their performance in the rural counties of eastern North Carolina, where African American turnout decreased relative to 2016 and white conservatives continue to abandon their Democratic roots in favor of GOP candidates. Democrats however, improved markedly in the state’s large urban and suburban counties, as well as on the coast and in the mountains. These regional trends are likely reflective of the future of North Carolina politics, with Democrats improving their performance in urban and suburban centers but Republicans gaining in rural areas.

So, was 2018 a blue wave? I’ll let readers interpret the 2.88% swing for themselves. But there are a few more records to note. Indeed, 2018 was the first election since 1996 in which Democrats won all of North Carolina’s statewide judicial elections. Moreover, Earls’ victory means Democrats now have a 5-2 advantage over Republicans on the Supreme Court, their largest majority since 1998. On the Court of Appeals, the Republican majority decreased from 10-5 to 8-7, and when GOP Judge Robert N. Hunter reaches the mandatory retirement age on March 31 of next year, his seat will dissolve, shifting the Court of Appeals to a 7-7 tie.

For the first time since 1998, Republicans will control neither of North Carolina’s statewide courts, and for the first time in state history, the partisan composition of one court will be split evenly between two parties. Had the legislature not removed Governor Cooper’s ability to appoint fill vacancies on the Court of Appeals, he would have been able to create an 8-7 Democratic advantage on the court, but Republicans will lose their majority upon Hunter’s retirement nonetheless.

The following charts display the names, party affiliations, and election cycles of the incoming members of each court, accounting for the dissolution of Hunter’s seat next March 31:

Looking ahead to 2020, the only Supreme Court race will feature Republican Paul Newby, again putting the GOP on defense and giving Democrats the potential to gain a sixth seat. The Supreme Court majority will not again be in contention until 2022, when four of the seven seats will be up, including three of the five Democratic incumbents. On the Court of Appeals, meanwhile, 2020 will again feature three races – Chief Judge Linda McGee, a Democrat, will likely retire rather than face the mandatory retirement age less than a year into her next term, while Associate Judges Wanda Bryant (D) and Chris Dillon (R) may both seek reelection. As the Court of Appeals will likely remain tied come 2020, control of the court will be determined by the results of these three elections.

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