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Republicans secure big victories, but their future in North Carolina is less certain

The results of the congressional races came in at an even 7-7 with Democrats and Republicans claiming an equal number of seats. The results of the congressional races came in at an even 7-7 with Democrats and Republicans claiming an equal number of seats.

The predicted red wave washed over most of North Carolina’s elections last week, but now as it recedes and parties begin strategizing for the next presidential election cycle amid shifting demographics and potentially contentious primaries in several races, Republicans may have cause to worry about a low tide in 2024.

Leaning on conventional wisdom that the party holding the White House — especially when the president has as low of approval ratings as Joe Biden — will lose a good deal of House and Senate seats, media outlets predicted that the GOP’s midterm momentum might carry them to strong results nationwide. But even with some results still out and a runoff between Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and Republican Hershel Walker for a Georgia Senate seat pending, it’s clear that Democrats held more seats than many predicted while also performing better than expected in gubernatorial races

Republicans fared well overall in North Carolina, winning each statewide judicial race, the U.S. Senate race, and a supermajority in the state Senate. While the party fell one seat short of securing a supermajority in the state House and lost a couple of congressional seats strategists considered winnable, party leadership is still happy with the overall outcome. 

Strategists and leaders in both parties are already analyzing successes and failures through the lens of the next big election, and both sides are thinking things may be tougher for Republicans in state races, especially as the divide widens between its establishment and its “MAGA wing” made up largely of ardent Trump supporters who continue to believe the lie that the 2020 Presidential Election was “stolen,” often citing vague and repeatedly debunked claims. If Trump and his supporters down ballot win their primaries, it may spell disaster for the GOP.  

Breaking down the results 

Once early voting totals came in last Tuesday night, Democrats predictably took early leads, but as precincts reported, Republicans narrowed the deficits, turned the tables and surged to victory in almost every race they hoped to win in North Carolina. 

Although closer than Republicans had anticipated, Ted Budd’s Senate victory over Cheri Beasley was one the party celebrated. In that race, while Trump’s endorsement may have helped Budd in his primary, he downplayed that endorsement during the General Election and even accepted the support of former Vice President Mike Pence, whom Trump has soured on since his 2020 loss. Budd also received an endorsement from Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and was backed by Club For Growth, which a WRAL story claimed may have helped push him over the line with $14 million and continued attacks. 

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But not all congressional races went the way Republicans had hoped. In a state that elected nine Republican congressmen and just four Democrats in 2020, in 2022 under new maps with one more district, the total was 7-7 as Republicans lost two seats they thought could have been theirs in NC-13 and NC-1

While it’s expected that the party not in the White House might win somewhere around 40 combined House and Senate seats in a midterm year, Michael Bitzer, professor of politics and history at Catawba College, said that beyond inflation and gas prices, there was another strong dynamic that may have had a stronger influence on voters than previously thought — abortion. 

“If someone said inflation and the economy would be the top issues, I’d say, ‘yep, that fits what we know about midterms,’” Bitzer said. “If somebody said that within four points, abortion would be the second most important issue, most would think, ‘boy, that has some staying power.’”

Bitzer thought the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Richard Burr would perhaps fall to Budd with a wider margin of victory and that the actual result indicates what some political scientists call “calcification.” Basically, voters are more rigid and more predictable based on prior partisan behavior. For example, while many thought Republican Bo Hines could take NC-13, he lost. Although some analysts are pointing to the fact Hines was flawed and Bitzer agreed a stronger candidate may have fared better, the outcome was generally predictable. 

“What that says is North Carolina voting patterns have continued to harden,” he said. “The 13th Congressional District, by 2020, would have been 52-48 for [Congressman-elect Wiley] Nickel. He won 51-49.”

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Here’s a look at the North Carolina Legislative Building, where Republicans will enjoy a supermajority in the state Senate but fell one shy of achieving the same in the House.

Elections have consequences 

With a supermajority in the Senate and a near-supermajority in the House, Republicans should generally be able to find a way to either bring Democrats over for individual votes or time votes such that the entire Democratic caucus isn’t present to prevent an override of a veto issued by Gov. Roy Cooper. This seems likely as many expect some controversial legislation on things like abortion restrictions and gun rights, and Cooper has vetoed more bills than any other governor in state history. 

According to reporting from Carolina Journal during a joint press conference with Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger last week, House Speaker Tim Moore said there are some Democrats he expects will work with Republicans. 

“We have some new members coming in, and I feel completely confident that should we need to override vetoes, we’ll be able to do our part in the House as well,” Moore said. 

Even without courting new members, there’s reason to believe Moore may be able to secure those necessary Democratic members’ votes. All it takes is one look at the House vote on the latest North Carolina budget to see there are some Democrats who may vote with Republicans in certain instances, and that could translate to veto overrides. 

In a tweet, Republican political consultant Jim Blaine said leaders told him there are one to three Democrats who may consider a party switch. Although that seems less likely than bringing Democrats over for individual votes, it isn’t unprecedented as just in the last decade Rep. Paul Tine changed from Democrat to unaffiliated and caucused largely with Republicans in the last year before he retired from the General Assembly. 

With last week’s results, when the House and Senate get back to business in January, there will be a greater chance to push the Republican agenda through. While there will be a chance to compromise with moderate Democrats on some things, there could also be a chance to lean right on some issues. 

Democrat Graig Meyer has represented the Chapel Hill area in the state House for about nine years and was just elected to the Senate. He said he’s excited to be in the Senate and wield a bit more power even though he’ll be working against a supermajority. 

“There’s still an important role to play in giving a voice to people who want to be represented and a chance to work together on things when you can,” Meyer said. 

Dallas Woodhouse is the former Executive Director of the North Carolina Republican Party and is now a columnist for the Carolina Journal. He said that while having sizable majorities in the General Assembly is obviously beneficial to the party’s agenda, he added that legislation isn’t always as simple as whipping the votes, especially on certain issues where Republicans have different beliefs. For example, when it comes to pro-life views, Woodhouse said some Republicans want no abortions under any circumstances, while Berger has said he’d likely side with restricting abortions beyond 12 or 13 weeks. The current law bans abortions after 20 weeks. 

“The most likely thing you’ll see is a small change,” he said. 

Perhaps the most consequential issue of the next two years will be redistricting ahead of the presidential election cycle. While the state legislative maps may or may not fall under scrutiny, there is bound to be controversy over congressional maps. Notably, those maps drawn by the legislature are not subject to veto. While Democrats and Republicans each claimed seven seats this year, experts think a map could be drawn by the Republican majority that would yield far more Republican seats in 2024. 

“I think 10-4 is probably a baseline,” Bitzer said. 

The biggest prizes 

The two North Carolina Supreme Court races were among the most important of the 2022 cycle. 

Trying to hold the 4-3 advantage on the court, Democrats ran incumbent Justice Sam Ervin IV and Lucy Inman, who sought to fill the seat being vacated by Justice Robin E. Hudson. Running against Ervin and Inman were Republicans Trey Allen and Richard Dietz, who won their elections with about 52.5% of the vote each. In 2020, Democrats had a 6-1 majority on the Supreme Court. Now Republicans will hold a majority until at least 2028. 

In addition to victories by Allen and Dietz, all four court of appeals seats up for election were won by Republicans. 

Democrats are concerned about what kinds of rulings may be coming down the pike from the court that has the final say in any case involving a challenge to a law based on the North Carolina constitution. There has been a trend of increased politicization of the Supreme Court ever since the elections were made partisan in 2017, and people can expect to see challenges to legislation come before justices. 

“Expect to see a lot of 5-2 rulings,” Bitzer said. 

“Judicial, ideological leaning of the Appellate and Supreme Court is concerning, especially when we look at some of the overreach the legislature has engaged in over the past few years,” said Rep. Brian Turner, who didn’t run for office this go-round. “The check and balance, as it should be, has been the courts.”

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Republicans Trey Allen (left) and Richard Dietz won their state Supreme Court races to shift the court’s balance from a 4-3 Democratic advantage to a 5-2 Republican majority.

When asked how he thought Election Day went, NCGOP Chair Michael Whatley said it was a “very nice day” and immediately cited victories in judicial races. 

“We were six-for-six between Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, and we’re 14-for-14 over the last two cycles,” Whatley said. 

The outcome is the result of a concerted effort by Republicans. 

The super PAC Results for NC, Inc., which is tied to Sen. Thom Tillis, amid a slew of pin-pointed donations,  bolstered Republican Supreme Court candidates with donations of $5,600. In addition, former Rep. Mark Walker launched winthecourts.com, a website that supports Republican candidates for the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. Walker has occasionally  promoted the effort on social media, showing off a bus bearing the likeness of each candidate on its exterior. 

While Walker finished third behind Budd and former NC Gov. Pat McCrory in a contentious Senate primary, he still found ways to back Republicans in those key judicial races. 

“I knew that there was a way that we could help out the party because of how many people supported us and how many places we went and contacts we had made,” Walker said. “I knew it was urgent to roll that back in quickly while those relationships were fresh. Having served three terms in Congress and seeing how the North Carolina Supreme court impacted everything, I was personally vested in making sure we put judges who didn’t use that usurp the legislature.”

Woodhouse said he was happy to see the way Republicans fared, especially within the courts, echoing the Republican refrain that those were the most important elections of the night. He had no problem pointing out what he said were partisan rulings from the Democratic majority, specifically throwing constitutional amendments passed in 2018 requiring photo ID for people voting in person and lowering the personal and corporate income tax caps from 10% to 7%. 

“You’re not going to see a Republican court act that way,” he said. 

Setting the stage for ‘24 

Now that the 2022 elections are just about wrapped up, it’s time to start focusing on 2024. 

Although this story will have gone to press prior to Donald Trump’s scheduled “special announcement” at Mara Lago Tuesday night, it’s widely expected he would announce his candidacy for the 2024 presidential election. Like in 2016, it’s expected he’ll have primary challengers in the likes of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who overwhelmingly won his reelection bid, and former Vice President Mike Pence. But unlike 2016, this primary is already shaping up to be a fight between the well-established but shrinking MAGA wing of the party and Republicans looking to move on from that movement and the man who spurred it on. And folks are already taking sides. Even over the last week, many in conservative media have turned on Trump.  

Something similar is happening in North Carolina as it’s been reported that Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a brash controversial figure who’s a steadfast Trump supporter, has long been considering a gubernatorial run. But he too will likely have at least one primary opponent in Treasurer Dale Folwell who many experts believe is posturing himself for a go at the governor’s mansion. 

Bitzer said both races will be a “kind of battle for the soul of the Republican party.”

“I think the conventional wisdom would probably err on the side of both Trump and Robinson in these races just because those candidates tend to fit the Republican primary voter base,” he said. 

Bitzer is referring to Dan Forrest, the former North Carolina Lieutenant Governor who lost to Cooper in 2020. While Republicans won a number of other statewide races, Bitzer said he believes Forrest’s hard-right views were front-and-center in that high-profile race. 

“I would put Mark Robinson slightly further to the right than Dan Forrest,” Bitzer said. 

On the Democrat side, it’s assumed Attorney General Josh Stein will run for governor, but there have also been rumblings he may be challenged in a primary by at least one serious candidate. Bitzer said it matters that Stein, the elected Attorney General for the last six years, has won two statewide elections. 

“That helps in building a campaign toward 2024’s nomination,” Bitzer said. 

Some Republicans The Smoky Mountain News spoke with expressed concerns that seeing Trump and Robinson at the top of their ticket may harm down-ballot candidates, and some of the Democrats outright said that’s exactly what they hope to see. 

“If you have some of these extremists like Trump and Robinson at the top of the ticket in North Carolina, it’s going to cause a lot of Republicans and unaffiliated voters to reassess what kind of state they really want us to live in,” Turner said. 

“I sure hope that Trump and Robinson are at the top of the ticket in 2024 because that would be the stupidest thing Republicans could do,” Meyer said. 

In 2022, Trump-supported candidates — many of whom are ardent election deniers — fell short in races across the country, including Kari Lake, who ran for governor in Arizona, and Pennsylvania Senate hopeful Mehmet Oz. in North Carolina, Bo Hines, who lost his run for NC-13, frequently voiced support for Trump. 

“Trump candidates are not attractive to a large swatch of voters,” Woodhouse said. 

For example, Woodhouse was excited that freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn, a steadfast Trump supporter, lost his primary to Sen. Chuck Edwards, a Hendersonville Republican who won in the General Election against Democrat Jasmine Beach-Ferrara and will now represent NC-11 in Congress (see STORY, p. 6). He believes Edwards will be a far more competent legislator than Cawthorn. 

“A lot of voters in the middle that are hesitant to vote for candidates that are completely engulfed in Trump. Ted Budd wasn’t, Chuck Edwards wasn’t,” he said. 

While Woodhouse thinks Biden or even Vice President Kamala Harris appearing at the top of the Democratic ticket in 2024 would hurt that party’s down-ballot hopes, he also has plenty of concerns for his own side. 

“I worry greatly about the future of my party, which I’ve spent a good deal of my adult lifetime working to support,” he said. 

The kinds of bills the General Assembly takes up and how those votes shake out, especially how veto override votes and court cases play out, may have an impact on 2024 election results. Multiple people who spoke with SMN expressed the belief that House Speaker Tim Moore is likely to have a congressional district carved out for him in the 2024 maps — something that was attempted in 2022 but ultimately didn’t pan out. 

In addition, people believe Moore may use his power to push legislation he could tout in 2024. 

“I can say that is commonly believed in Raleigh because it is,” Meyer said. 

Reaching out 

There’s no shortage of unique dynamics that could shape the crucial 2024 elections, but a big part of success for either party will be identifying areas where they can pick up persuadable voters — which despite a rise of unaffiliated voters still seems to be in shorter and shorter supply. 

Republicans interviewed for this story said they need to up their efforts to court urban voters while Democrats wanted to figure out how to reach out to rural folks while also increasing turnout in population centers like Mecklenburg. That county came in under 44% turnout despite a statewide turnout of about 51%, which is itself lower than 2018 and a good deal lower than the 2020 presidential election cycle

Bitzer noted that where the “real play” will be is in “urban suburbs,” in other words, outlying areas in urban counties, such as Buncombe County outside of Asheville or Mecklenburg County outside of Charlotte. Whoever can win in those areas while also shoring up their weaknesses whether in urban or rural areas, will have the best chance. 

Whatley thinks his party has the perfect messaging to attract those traditionally liberal urban voters. 

“Long-term, we have to be able to compete in urban, suburban areas and rural areas,” he said. “I think with our economic messaging, we can do that. It doesn’t matter where you live, you’re worried about inflation, gas prices, grocery prices.”

Meyers said that the Democratic brand has been damaged in rural areas in the eastern and western parts of the state, adding that it’ll take local leaders such as Canton’s Democratic Mayor, Zeb Smathers, to begin building a working-class message from the ground up. 

“Zeb is taking care of jobs and providing recreation for people who live and retire here, but people hear more about AOC than the work he’s doing,” Meyer said. 

Another element that may tip the scales in favor of Democrats is the state’s changing demographics as an influx of millennials and even younger voters continues to come into the state. While those people typically make their way to blue districts, this reliable Democratic voting bloc is also spilling into other counties. Buncombe County is well-known as Western North Carolina’s blue stronghold, however that element may be seeping into surrounding areas. In 2022, Henderson County, typically reliably red, only went 55-45 for Republicans. 

“I think that continued in-migration and … the generational transformation of this state will play a large role,” Bitzer said. “Millennials who are now under 41 and particularly Gen Z, if they show up at their respective political weight, the state will go from purple with a slight red tint to purple with slight blue hue in it.”

Leave a comment

2 comments

  • Can anyone give a real reason why a sane person would vote for the party which thinks it's fine to overturn elections that they lost?
    When I say "real", I mean "not based on lies".

    posted by Mike Goodman

    Thursday, 11/17/2022

  • Democrats could not get away with their cheating in Western Carolina, even with their mail in ballots which are unconstitutional last I checked. At least this time around.

    posted by Lucille Josephs

    Thursday, 11/17/2022

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