RALEIGH — It’s being called a historic milestone. But just because every state legislative seat will be contested in this year’s general election for the first time in memory doesn’t mean most races will be competitive.
“Not every candidate is created equal, nor is every campaign created equal, though you have to have players on the field to be able to win the game. Both parties have effectively done that,” said Jonathan Kappler, executive director of the N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation, which closely tracks election issues in the state.
The close of the candidate filing period at noon Wednesday, Feb. 28, brought a flurry of last-minute filers, erasing an unimpeded path to election for some candidates who neither nor primary opponents nor challengers on the other party ticket. And while a large number of first-time candidates have filed for election, it’s not clear if the charged political environment will translate into heavy turnout in either the primary or general elections.
When filing concluded, Republicans and Democratic candidates entered to run in all 120 House and 50 Senate districts. Libertarians also fielded a healthy complement of candidates, which Kappler attributed to that party’s growth and improved organization. A list of all races can be found here.
“I think it’s just indicative of a heightened level of interest in politics in a very dynamic political environment in the state,” Kappler said of the number of candidates lined up to run.
Gerry Cohen, former counsel for the General Assembly, posted on Twitter that might be the first time both major parties have contested all 170 seats in the general election. It’s certainly the first time since 1925, the earliest date reliable records were available.
This year’s races could become more competitive still because unaffiliated and write-in candidates have a later filing deadline. Also, last year’s passage of Senate Bill 656 eased ballot access for third parties. Kappler says the Green Party might qualify some candidates for the 2018 ballot as a result.
Notwithstanding the buzz about 170 contested legislative races, many candidates face no primary competition. Of the 120 House seats, 95 will be uncontested in the Democratic primary, and 92 Republicans face no competition. In the Senate, 39 Democrats automatically advance to the general election because they were the sole filers, and 38 Republicans get a free pass.
Of the 28 contested House GOP primaries, 19 are held by incumbents Larry Yarborough, District 2; Michael Speciale, District 3; Jimmy Dixon, District 4; Beverly Boswell, District 6; Pat McElraft, District 13; George Cleveland, District 14; Frank Iler, District 17; Ted Davis, District 19; Chris Malone, District 35; Jamie Boles, District 52; Jon Hardister, District 59; Justin Burr, District 67; Larry Potts, District 81; Larry Pittman, District 83; Sarah Stevens, District 90; Jonathan Jordan, District 93; Jay Adams, District 96; Jason Saine, District 97; and Kelly Hastings, District 110.
Eight contested House primaries involve Democratic incumbents Duane Hall, District 11; Michael Wray, District 27; Rosa Gill, District 33; Elmer Floyd, District 43; Amos Quick, District 58; Rodney Moore, District 99; Becky Carney, District 102; and Carla Cunningham, District 106.
Seven incumbents are among the 12 contested Senate races. They are Norm Sanderson, District 2; Tom McInnis, District 25; Joyce Krawiec, District 31; Dan Bishop, District 39; Andy Wells, District 42; David Curtis, District 44; and Deanna Ballard, District 45.
Three of the 11 House Democratic contested races feature incumbents Don Davis, District 5; Ben Clark, District 21; and Joel Ford, District 38.
Also, as Kappler notes, redistricting resulted in Republican incumbents facing off in two Senate primary races: District 31, where Joyce Krawiec will battle Dan Barrett; and District 45, where Shirley Randleman will face Deanna Ballard.
This year’s legislative primary will be less competitive than 2016’s. That year, 62 Republican House candidates had no primary opponents, and 22 of them ran uncontested in the general election. There were 74 Democrats with no primary opponents, with 19 of them facing no general election challenger.
In the Senate, 36 Republicans ran unopposed in the 2016 primary, and 29 Democrats were unchallenged. Of those, nine Republicans and four Democrats were unchallenged in the general election.
Kappler said the big question of this election season is the same after filing closed as it was months ago: Can Democrats win enough seats in one or both chambers to break Republicans’ veto-proof majority? The GOP holds a 75-45 edge in the House, and 35-15 in the Senate.
He cautioned while the political parties actively recruited candidates from across the state, other questions remain: How many are credible; can put together legitimate campaigns; can raise enough money to win; and can get solid support from their parties or caucuses? It’s likely some head-to-head contests won’t be competitive.
“There is some risk in putting up candidates that may or may not be ready for the rigors of a challenging campaign,” Kappler said. They have to do a lot of public speaking, and there’s always the chance an ill-advised statement could doom a campaign, and embarrass the party.
Michael Bitzer, a political science professor and provost at Catawba College, said untested candidates could have a more difficult time figuring out how to navigate their campaigns through challenging national events and influences beyond their control that seep into state politics.
But he says something definitely is in the air in North Carolina politics.
“It feels like it’s another outsider kind of election, that people are kind of coming out of the woodwork” to run, Bitzer said. “Three years ago a complete outsider announced his presidential bid. That’s giving impetus to just about anybody running,” he said in reference to President Donald Trump.
Convincing people to run for office if they haven’t done so before is significant, Bitzer said. It would be interesting to learn if the high number of first-time candidates reflects dissatisfaction with incumbents that translates into high turnover in Raleigh.
Candidates with high-name recognition and who have been through an election tend to have an advantage over complete newcomers, Bitzer said. “But the question is will a primary electorate be in the mood to give folks a second bite of the apple, or do they want new blood?”
Voters in two districts will choose among familiar names. Former Democratic representative Joe Sam Queen will face incumbent Republican Mike Clampitt for the fourth time in House District 119. Former GOP House member Marilyn Avila will square off in House District 40 with incumbent Democrat Joe John, who unseated her two years ago. None of them face a primary opponent.
A surprise late entry for Senate District 34 covering Iredell and Yadkin counties is former Republican Sen. Bob Rucho, who previously represented Mecklenburg County.
There will be 12 open House seats and six open Senate seats this year. Four Democrats and nine Republicans are retiring or stepping down from their House offices to run for the Senate. Five GOP senators are not seeking re-election, and one Democrat is retiring from the Senate.
Not seeking re-election in the Senate are: Chad Barefoot, R-Wake; Tommy Tucker, R-Union; Bill Cook, R-Beaufort; Cathy Dunn, R-Davidson; Ron Rabin, R-Harnett; and Angela Bryant, D-Nash.
Retiring from the House are: Reps. Susan Martin, R-Wilson; Bert Jones, R-Rockingham; Mickey Michaux, D-Durham; John Blust, R-Guilford; Jeff Collins, R-Nash; Larry Bell, D-Sampson; Beverly Earle, D-Mecklenburg; Linda Hunt Williams, R-Wake; and Bob Muller, R-Pender.
Stepping down from House seats to make a bid for the Senate are Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan (running for Senate District 1); Carl Ford, R-Rowan (running for Senate District 33); and Sam Watford, R-Davidson (running for Senate District 32).