2018 NC Senate Election Ratings
As Election Day approaches, Politics NC is releasing ratings for each of North Carolina’s congressional and legislative elections. In late September, we covered the state’s thirteen races for the United States House of Representatives, and we’ll now be analyzing this year’s elections for the North Carolina Senate.
The North Carolina Senate consists of fifty members, each of whom represent single-member districts for two-year terms. All fifty seats are up this November. After continuous Democratic control in the chamber since 1899, the GOP swept into power in 2010, winning a supermajority of thirty-one seats amidst a nationwide Republican wave. Republican legislators redrew the Senate map after the 2010 census and subsequently won thirty-three seats in 2012, picking up a thirty-fourth in 2014 and a thirty-fifth in 2016. However, 2017 saw federal judges strike down the map as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander, requiring legislators to redraw most districts ahead of the 2018 elections. This year, Democrats must regain six seats to break the Senate’s Republican supermajority, and eleven seats to win the chamber as a whole.
The following map displays Politics NC’s ratings for the 2018 North Carolina Senate elections, followed by an analysis of this year’s electoral landscape:
NC County Profiles
By 2016, Republicans had taken all but the fifteen most Democratic districts, even capturing one seat (SD-13 in Robeson and Columbus counties) that was drawn in 2010 to favor Democrats. While Democrats are now at their bare minimum in the chamber, this does mean no district currently held by Democrats is even somewhat competitive, so Democratic Senate candidates will be solely on the offense in 2018.
The most obvious Democratic pickup opportunity is SD-15, which now covers much of central Raleigh. Wake County and the neighboring Franklin County together have enough residents for five Senate districts, and in 2011, Republican legislators packed the area’s Democratic precincts into two districts in order to secure Republican victories in the other three. However, urbanization and diversification in Raleigh and its suburbs resulted in a sizeable Democratic trend in the area, jeopardizing the GOP plan and threatening all three Republican incumbents in 2016.
Taking advantage of court-mandated redistricting in 2017, Republicans surrendered one of their districts to Democrats in order to shore up GOP margins in the other two. Knowing one Republican district would be triaged, GOP Chad Barefoot (SD-18) decided to retire, allowing fellow Republican John Alexander (SD-15) to win the GOP nomination in his old district. Democratic Senator Jay Chaudhuri (SD-16) will be running in the new, solidly Democratic version of Alexander’s old district, while Democratic attorney Wiley Nickel will be running in Chaudhuri’s old yet still solidly Democratic district. This effectively ensures Democrats will pick up at least one Wake County seat, bringing the total number of solid Democratic districts to sixteen.
Republicans, however, are still at substantial risk in the two Wake County districts redrawn to favor their incumbents. Alexander faces a strong challenge from Democratic attorney Mack Paul in SD-18 (northern Wake County and all of Franklin County), while GOP Senator Tamara Barringer is running against Democratic distillery owner Sam Searcy in SD-17 (southern Wake County). Both of these districts are tossups, suggesting Democrats must win all five Wake County seats on their road to a Senate majority.
The other three tossup districts in 2018 are all in eastern North Carolina. In SD-01, a district containing much of the Outer Banks and the northeastern Coastal Plain, GOP incumbent Bill Cook is retiring, with state Representative Bob Steinburg (R) now facing off against Washington County Commissioner D. Cole Phelps (D) to take the open seat. The predominantly rural, ancestrally Democratic region has trended Republican in recent decades and contains a number of GOP strongholds on the coast, but Phelps has run a spirited campaign and can take advantage of remaining Democratic bastions in Hertford, Pasquotank, and Washington counties.
In suburban Cumberland County, incumbent Republican Wesley Meredith (SD-19) faces a strong challenge from Democratic former Fayetteville City Council member Kirk deViere. Court-mandated redistricting last year erased the district’s prior Republican lean, and although SD-19 still excludes most of Fayetteville’s urban core, it is one of only two competitive districts in which Hillary Clinton won the presidential vote in 2016.
In New Hanover County, meanwhile, incumbent Republican Michael Lee (SD-09) faces Democrat Harper Peterson, a former Mayor of Wilmington, in a district regularly seen as competitive. Republican-leaning New Hanover County has trended Democratic in recent years as the area urbanizes and diversifies, and although GOP legislators drew two of Wilmington’s heavily Democratic precincts out of the district to boost Republican chances, it will once more be one of the state’s premier races.
Eastern North Carolina also contains three Senate races that lean Republican but could prove to be competitive. In Wayne and Lenoir counties, Republican incumbent Louis Pate (SD-07) faces former District Court judge David Brantley, whose thirty-year career in elected office could prove helpful in a district that contains the Democratic cities of Goldsboro and Kinston but is otherwise dominated by rural Republican areas.
In Robeson and Columbus counties, Republican incumbent Danny Earl Britt (SD-13) faces Democrat John Campbell, a member of the Robeson County School Board. The district was drawn in 2010 to favor Democrats but nonetheless flipped to the GOP in 2016, epitomizing the rapid Republican trend of rural areas in southeastern North Carolina that have long been Democratic strongholds.
In Anson, Moore, Richmond, and Scotland counties, Republican incumbent Tom McInnis (SD-25) faces Democrat Helen Probst Mills. GOP legislators assumed their longtime stronghold in Moore County would ensure Republicans keep the district, but the three small counties that comprise the rest of SD-25 each favor Democrats and Moore’s suburban voters have themselves trended Democratic in recent years.
The rest of the state’s competitive districts are concentrated in the Greensboro and Charlotte metropolitan areas. In Guilford County, Republican incumbent Trudy Wade (SD-27) is slightly favored against Democrat Michael Garrett in a Republican-leaning district that wraps around the urban cores of Greensboro and High Point but still contains competitive suburban areas. The easternmost precincts of Guilford County, meanwhile, were drawn into SD-24 with the neighboring Alamance County, a likely Republican race in which Democratic attorney J.D. Wooten is challenging GOP incumbent Rick Gunn.
In Mecklenburg County, meanwhile, Democrats have one of their best pickup opportunities in SD-41, where Democrat Natasha Marcus faces Republican incumbent Jeff Tarte in a district that curves along the western portion of the county to avoid urban Charlotte but voted for Hillary Clinton by a small margin in the 2016 presidential race. Marcus is favored to win in a race that leans Democratic. Republicans, meanwhile, are considered likely to win in the neighboring SD-39, where GOP incumbent Dan Bishop faces Democratic challenger Chad Stachowicz in a district that includes predominantly white, affluent suburbs of south Charlotte and the towns of Matthews and Mint Hill.
Democrats are favored to win each of the fifteen seats they currently hold, with Wiley Nickel and Natasha Marcus expected to pick up two additional seats in Wake and Mecklenburg counties. This leaves Democrats favored outright in seventeen seats, nine short of a majority. However, if Democratic candidates prevail in each of the five tossup districts and the four districts considered to lean Republican, the Democratic caucus can walk away with twenty-six seats, reaching the majority threshold. This is no doubt a tall order, but in a year where Democratic gains across the nation appear likely, we expect this Election Night to be a long one.