The day after Republicans took control of the legislature and the Governor’s Mansion for the first time since the 19th century, former Raleigh Mayor and then-GOP party chair, Tom Fetzer told WRAL’s Mark Binker, “We, the Republicans, now own anything that happens in the state. If we don’t govern well, then we’ll have one of these election cycles coming up in our future.”
That day may have come sooner than expected. After just one cycle in power, there’s evidence that dissatisfaction with Republican rule may lead to an electoral backlash. In districts that, by all indicators, should be safe, GOP legislators are struggling to survive. At the very least, Democrats are poised to make deep in-roads into the Republicans’ veto-proof majority, even in heavily gerrymandered districts.
The first evidence came when Brian Turner released a poll that had him up 11 points over Buncombe Republican Representative Tim Moffitt. While Moffitt has some baggage and has endured some bad press, the double digit lead is striking. And Moffitt must be seeing the same thing since he’s buying TV now, about six weeks before he would normally be going up.
Moffitt’s district might be an outlier–except that it’s not. More polls show Republicans in trouble, in urban districts, suburban districts and rural ones. In Raleigh’s 49th House District, Democrat Kim Hanchette leads Republican Gary Pendleton 49% to 43% with almost 60% of the voters saying the state is moving in the wrong direction and 61% disapproving of Pat McCrory.
In House District 118, another mountain district but more rural than Moffitt’s, Democrat Dean Hicks leads Republican incumbent Michele Presnell by a striking 12 points, 53% to 41%. What’s telling is the political environment. Barack Obama is underwater by a 30 point margin, 34 to 64, but McCrory’s approval is underwater by 42 points, 25% to 66% and Presnell’s approval is in the basement, 16% to 65%, a remarkable 49% deficit.
It’s not just the mountains and Raleigh where Republicans are in trouble. In the red clay of the piedmont and in the heart of fracking country, Republican Representative Mike Stone is trailing Democrat Brad Salmon by 8 points, 51% to 43%, despite a generic ballot that favors Republicans. Again, while Obama is unpopular, he’s more popular than Stone who has a 17% approval rating compared to 64% who disapprove.
And there are other districts. In suburban Wake County, incumbent Republican Representative Tom Murray trails Gale Adcock, his Democratic challenger, by six. And according to consultant Brad Crone, Senate President Pro-tem Phil Berger only leads by single digits in his heavily Republican district.
In legislative districts, the political environment in North Carolina is collapsing for Republicans and their brand is seriously damaged. We’ve seen a similar situation in Kansas, where incumbent Republican Governor Sam Brownback turned his state into right-wing laboratory, too. In both states, they’ve overreached and the polling reflects that. Just two years ago, Pat McCrory had coattails. This year, he’s an anchor.
The GOP is apparently seeing similar numbers. They started hitting Democratic legislators with negative mail last week and they’ve gone up on TV with an ad saying that McCrory and Tillis have given teachers raises and brought technology into schools. Just two weeks ago, Art Pope left the governor’s office to return to his role as field marshall of the GOP independent expenditure efforts. They are in full battle mode.
Democrats in North Carolina need to be opportunistic and act now. While it favors them today, the political environment is still fluid. A lot of voters still aren’t paying much attention and won’t be tuning in for another month or so. Republicans will use that window to try to change the dynamic. Now is not the time for caution. Democrats need to keep up the pressure and not wait to fight until late September or early October.
If Democrats seize this opportunity and keep the pressure on, we’re about to find out if coattails can fly up. The Hagan campaign and her supporting political organizations should wrap Tillis around the House and its unpopular members. Instead of pushing a caricature of the Koch brothers, start tying the Speaker to rank-and-file members who have approval ratings in the teens. It’s his legislation and leadership that voters are rejecting.
There’s still time for the dynamic of the race to change but that time’s getting shorter. In all likelihood, Democrats are about to make inroads into the GOP majorities in the state House and Senate. Interest groups that sided almost completely with Republicans in 2012 would fools to wager that way this year. Democrats need to stay engaged for another 10 weeks or so. And Republicans need to find something to talk about besides Obamacare.