North Carolina is poised to be a closely watched state in the world of politics during the 2020 election cycle.
While the state will no doubt play a crucial role in determining who is elected president, the Senate race is also expected to be hotly contested. The 2018 Senate map put Democrats on defense, as they were forced to protect 26 of the 35 seats up last year, ten of which were in seats carried by President Trump. Although they got away with a net loss of only 2 seats, Democrats will need to net at least 4 seats in 2020 if they want to retake the Senate. Many Democratic strategists see North Carolina, where Sen. Thom Tillis is up for reelection, as a key state to capture in their path to the majority.
There’s also intrigue at the House level, where two special elections are scheduled to take place this year while several other sitting members are rumored to be considering retirement. Add in possible Supreme Court rulings that require statewide redistricting, and it’s easy to see why the state is poised to grab headlines this cycle. With that in mind, here is the current state of play for politics in North Carolina.
In 2016, North Carolina voters split their support for statewide and federal offices. President Trump carried the state by nearly four points and incumbent Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) was reelected by nearly a six-point margin. However, Democrat Roy Cooper was able to edge out sitting Gov. Pat McCrory (R-NC) by a quarter of a point. It’s also worth remembering that Sen. Thom Tillis also had a close race in 2014, which he narrowly won by less than two points.
North Carolina has 13 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives; Republicans hold eight, Democrats hold three, and two are currently waiting to be filled by special elections (although they were previously held by the GOP). Although most of the seats are solidly red or blue, three were decided by six points or less in 2018: NC-02, NC-09, & NC-13.
After signaling he would not vote for President Trump’s border emergency declaration in February, incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis drew a primary challenge from Sandy Smith, an accountant who owns a sustainable farm. Although it is possible that other candidates may emerge to challenge Tillis, he is currently favored to secure the nomination.
Democrats are in a more difficult position. Although two candidates have already announced their candidacy – Trevor Fuller, an “At Large” member of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, and Erica Smith, a teacher and member of the North Carolina state Senate – neither are currently viewed as top-tier candidates.
Democrats were trying to recruit state Attorney General Jeff Stein, who would have been considered a top prospect, to run, but sources close to Stein told Politico last month that he would instead run for reelection as AG. There are at least six other candidates that Democrats are courting to run, but none seem to have the campaign appetite. Anthony Foxx, who is working to take Lyft public, has been included as a top prospect but seems unlikely to run due to the lucrative nature of his current position. Attorney and state Senator Jeff Jackson, who has campaigned with national Democrats and met with the DSCC earlier this year, has been courted but is hesitant to run with an infant at home. Other possible candidates include Charlotte Mayor Vy Lyles and Attorney Deborah Ross, who lost a 2016 senate race to Sen. Richard Burr. However, each of these individuals have compelling reasons not to run (or at least defer their decisions).
The statewide primary election date is scheduled for March 3, 2020.
House Special Elections
There are two special elections for the U.S. House of Representatives scheduled for 2019. The first is NC-03, which is open due to the untimely passing of Rep. Walter Jones. The primary will be held on April 30, 2019 and the general election is scheduled for July 9 (unless a candidate does not receive 30% of the vote). There are 17 Republicans who filed to run for the seat, including Greg Murphy, a state representative and physician, Jeff Moore, a risk consultant and adviser to former Gov. Pat McCrory, and Michele Nix, the vice chair of the NCGOP and a financial adviser. Democrats have six candidates to choose from, including two former mayors and Richard Bew, a USMC veteran who has been gaining attention by positioning himself similarly to Reps. Conor Lamb (D-PA) and Joe Cunningham (D-SC).
The other special election is to fill the seat in North Carolina’s 9th District, which was infamously scheduled after suspected vote tampering left the seat vacant following the 2018 election. The primary has been set for May 14 with the general election scheduled for September 10 (again, assuming a candidate receives 30% of the vote). Ten Republicans have filed to run, including Dan Bishop, a state representative who is known for authoring North Carolina’s ‘bathroom bill,’ Leigh Thomas Brown, a motivational speaker and CEO of a real estate company, and Chris Anglin, an attorney who made waves last year by switching his party affiliation and running unsuccessfully as a Republican for the state Supreme Court.
More detailed information on these races can be found here.
Recent Statewide Political Developments
Last month, for the second time in two years, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on partisan gerrymandering in North Carolina. In 2016, a new congressional map was developed by the state’s redistricting committee. The map gave Republicans a 10-3 advantage in Congress, even as statewide vote totals for Republican and Democratic candidates was nearly even. During the hearing, Supreme Court justices appeared to be reluctant to rule specifically on gerrymandering, and it is unclear if they would rule to redraw the districts before the 2020 midterm. That said, Democrats and Republicans will eagerly await the outcome because a new round of redistricting will follow the 2020 census, and the decision could help shape the makeup of Congress and state legislatures over the next decade.
The North Carolina Republican Party is also embattled going into the 2020 election cycle. Earlier this week, GOP chairman Robin Hayes and a prominent political donor faced federal charges for allegedly attempting to bribe a state official. Although he was not named in the indictment, Politico identified Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC) as a public official who received $150,000 from the donor. The news comes as the state GOP prepares for two special elections, a senate race, as well as the Republican National Convention next year. There is no good time for a state party leader to be indicted, but this development comes at an important moment for the state party.