Two Democrats have stepped up to run against Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, who was first elected in 2010. They will face off in a Democratic primary election in May, with the winner advancing to the November ballot against Davis.
Unseating Davis won’t be easy, given the usual incumbent advantages. But the attention surrounding the controversial GOP agenda in the General Assembly last year could give Davis’ challenger a better-then-normal audience with voters.
“This could be a bigger referendum on what people think of an aggressive legislative session. The Republicans argued they had a mandate and they followed through with that mandate, and the Democrats will argue they overstepped,” said Chris Cooper, the head of the Political Science and Public Affairs Department at Western Carolina University.
Both Democrats who have announced a run for the Senate claim voters are fed up with the new policies and legislation pushed through last year, witnessed by low approval ratings.
A September poll by Public Policy Polling put Davis at a low approval rating of 27 percent among voters in the seven western counties and the approval rating of the General Assembly as a whole at 20 percent. The same poll asked respondents who they would vote for in a hypothetical race between Davis and an unnamed Democratic challenger: 44 percent said they would vote for Davis, 43 percent for whomever his opponent was, and 13 percent were unsure.
But statewide polling shows the approval rating of Gov. Pat McCrory and the General Assembly, while still low, has inched back up since the thick of the legislative session last summer.
“It is light years before the election. It doesn’t make much difference what the polls say now. In the political environment polls can ebb and flow,” Davis said. “The candidates will have the opportunity to spell out the differences among them and allow voters to have a clear choice. I love being an American where people have that choice.”
Davis’ Democratic challenger will undoubtedly face an uphill battle in campaign funding. Nearly $1 million was spent by Davis’ campaign and outside groups on his behalf in the 2012 election.
Davis won by a comfortable margin in 2012, with 57 percent of the vote. It was a marked gain over his narrow victory in 2010 when he won by less than 200 votes, just 50.1 percent of the vote.
The two Democratic candidates, Jane Hipps of Waynesville and Ron Robinson of Sylva, come from different wings of the Democratic Party. Hipps is more moderate, while Robinson is more liberal.
Cooper said a moderate Democrat likely has a better chance of winning against Davis.
“This Senate district is composed of a lot of self-identified conservative Democrats,” Cooper said, citing polling data.