It was supposed to be the midterm that defied the historical trends, with Democrats rising up against the extreme agenda of the Republican-controlled General Assembly and sending a message to Thom Tillis, the state House speaker challenging Kay Hagan for the US Senate seat.
The Moral Monday protesters promised to make reactionary lawmakers pay for shortchanging education, denying Medicaid to the poor and attacking voting rights. Hagan and her surrogates repeated the charge of extremism, trying to make the Senate race a referendum on the state legislature.
Early signs suggested it was working. Registered Democrats made up 48 percent of those who went to the polls for early voting, compared to 32 percent Republicans and 30 percent independents, leading Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer to declare that 2014 was shaping up to be “more in line with a presidential year percentage basis of early in-person ballots than a mid-term electorate.”
But three days after the election, he found himself revising his analysis, stating, “The exit-poll results give some hint of a midterm electorate that wasn’t like a presidential year.”
That’s another way of saying that the electorate was the older, whiter, more conservative voters who typically show up for midterm elections, as opposed to the younger, more diverse and more liberal voters who turn out during presidential elections.
If the latter cohort, who live mostly in Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Asheville, Wilmington and Greenville, cares enough to vote, progressive candidates can eke out narrow electoral victories in North Carolina. As one Twitter correspondent put it, “The urban-rural/suburban gap is widening into a chasm in North Carolina.”
As a centrist Southern Democrat, Hagan was supposed to be the firewall that helped the Democrats preserve their majority in the Senate. But like fellow Democratic incumbents in Louisiana and Arkansas, she didn’t talk much about that because she felt obligated to distance herself from an unpopular Democratic president. Hagan has never been a particularly warm or appealing candidate, and didn’t make much impression on constituents back home during her six years in Washington. If one were looking to make an appeal to a casual voter — say a twentysomething grad student at Wake Forest University or an entrepreneurial transplant from Long Island — neither “We need to preserve a Democratic Senate so they can continue to butt heads with the Republican House” nor “We need to send a message to Raleigh” is likely to inspire much passion.
We don’t have the numbers from the state Board of Elections yet to determine the partisan, racial and gender composition of the 2014 electorate, but it’s a good bet that the early-voting advantage held by Democrats, blacks and women during early voting evaporated on Election Day.
Paradoxically, Democrats made significant gains in at least three urban counties, taking control of the Wake County Commission and flipping the at-large county commission seat in Forsyth. In Guilford County, the percentage by which Republican BJ Barnes won reelection as sheriff was whittled down 3.8 percentage points since his last contest in 2010, even though he had an opponent who left the sheriff’s department under questionable circumstances and had a lengthy rap sheet.
Democrat Susan Frye’s improved percentage — from 50.3 in 2010 to 56.8 percent in 2014 — in her successful bid for Forsyth County clerk of superior court is a sign of an awakened Democratic electorate. Similarly, with popular longtime Republican Howard Coble retiring from the 6th Congressional District, Democrat Laura Fjeld — while still losing Guilford County — improved her percentage by 5.2 points over the previous Democratic candidate two years ago.
It’s probably no coincidence that local gains by Democrats were matched by a 6.3 percentage point increase in Guilford and 1.6-point gains in Wake and Forsyth, while voter turnout across the state and in other urban counties like Cumberland, Buncombe and Pitt remained flat.
Along with competitive races for county commission and clerk of superior court, voters in Guilford and Forsyth also had local ballot initiatives to draw them to the polls. A quarter-cent sales tax in Guilford, which was defeated by a 14.4-percent margin, arguably drove turnout more than the Senate race at the top of the ballot. The number of people who weighed in on the sales-tax referendum exceeded the tally of votes for the Senate candidates by 653. Who knows — maybe that was Tillis’ firewall.
And Winston-Salem voters approved five bond referenda by wide margins, likely driving up turnout in Democrat-friendly precincts in the city, and boosting Democratic candidates like Frye and county commission hopeful Ted Kaplan.
The new Democratic majority on the Wake County Commission and the moderated Forsyth County Commission have pledged to be more generous to public schools, and the approved bonds in Winston-Salem will pay for street resurfacing, repairs at city parks, housing improvements and new police stations.
Maybe that’s what really matters to urban voters.