Dark horses: Challenging the odds in rigged state races

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by Jordan Green

Before the 2014 election is even held, 80 out of 170 state legislative races — almost half — have already been decided because no candidates bothered to run against the incumbents.

It’s no wonder considering that only a dozen or so races for the state Senate and House are remotely competitive. Viewed in that light, it’s more accurate to say that about 150 out of 170 contests have been decided.

Elections are supposed to be about citizens making their voices heard and sending their representatives to Raleigh to conduct the people’s business, but in reality the major decisions were made by voters during the party primaries back in May. The system is rigged through gerrymandering to produce a preordained outcome by whatever party happens to be in power. The point is to maximize the number of seats they control. It’s a distortion in a winner-takes-all spoils system. The Democrats did it until they were ousted in 2010, and the Republicans have taken it to a new level.

“It’s unfortunate that so many of the candidates are facing real hardship because of the manipulation of the district lines,” said Bob Hall, executive director of the election watchdog group Democracy North Carolina. “Other states have many more competitive legislative districts because they’ve taken the redistricting process out of the hands of the politicians. The best time to catch a politician and hold them accountable is when they’re running for office. If they don’t have anybody watching them they feel like they have a free ride. You can see there is a level of arrogance by leaders in the legislature who feel they are invincible because of the way these districts are drawn.”

Outside of a post-redistricting election, it’s rare that state legislative seats flip from one party to another. The most recent exception was the Republican wave of 2010, when the GOP took control of Senate and House, riding on a wave of discontent about the recession and Democratic mismanagement and incompetence, and a backlash to President Obama. With the help of outside money, Republican challengers pushed out Democratic incumbents across the state, including districts as near to the urban Triad as Alamance and Davidson counties.

To move the needle, a wave election in which voting trends are moving in favor of one or the other party, as they did for Democrats in 2006 and 2008, and for Republicans in 2010, is typically required. Or a challenger who is extraordinarily charismatic. Or an incumbent who makes a disastrous gaffe, faces criminal indictment or undergoes a mental breakdown. The outside money typically flows in when any of the above vulnerabilities become apparent.

The rigged system produces an odd phenomenon of self-starting candidates whose willingness to challenge the odds can come across as either inspired or delusional, and whose sense of idealism and egotism often defies received wisdom. They inevitably crop up in both parties, and commit varying degrees of time and financial resources to their campaigns. They sometimes take positions that are radically out of step with both their would-be constituents and the political mainstream.

It would be hard to find a candidate more existentially alienated from his prospective constituency than Kris McCann, an electronics technician at Lorillard Tobacco who is running as a Republican for a seat in the state House representing District 71 in Forsyth County.

Earnest in conversation with careful and deliberate speaking style, McCann is taking on Democrat Evelyn Terry for the second time. Terry was elected to the seat in 2012, succeeding Larry Womble.

McCann was at City Hall in Winston-Salem on Sept. 15, not as a candidate but as a citizen speaking before city council. He voiced his objections to a decision by City Manager Lee Garrity to extend benefits to city employees who have gotten married to same-sex partners outside of North Carolina. Speaking out against the decision, McCann found himself making common cause with Apostle T. Sackcloth 2004, a self-styled restaurateur who adopted his name as a manifestation of spiritual humility. Like McCann, Sackcloth has experience as a longshot candidate, having launched an unsuccessful write-in campaign for mayor last year.

“We have opened our doors to a great breach,” Sackcloth told the council. He added, “You can’t get a seed from a same-sex marriage.”

Although McCann opposes the city’s policies on moral grounds, he tailored his argument to the law, making the case that the city and Attorney General Roy Cooper are violating the state constitution, which to date recognizes only marriages between a man and a woman.

“I think we can agree that not all marriages result in children, but all children result from a mother and a father,” McCann said.

After chatting with Sackcloth, McCann took some time to talk about his campaign in council chambers.

“I’m running in a minority district, and that’s sad,” said McCann, who is white, “because we’re far outnumbered in racial numbers and political numbers. I even question if I’m being discriminated against because the General Assembly pays a salary, and it becomes, in fact, employment.”

Actually, based on voter registration in 2011 at the time the new districts were drawn, the district is almost evenly split between blacks and whites. But politically, Democrats hold a lopsided 3-1 advantage over Republicans in voter registration.

From McCann’s perspective, the most important part of the campaign is getting his message — his truth — to the voters in the hope that it resonates enough to break through partisan loyalties. His platform rests on two simple and related pillars: family values and education.

“I don’t have a family, so people might distance themselves from me on that topic,” he said. “I believe family is one of the most vital units of society. In order for children to succeed in school, they need an anchor. The family unit does that. It’s necessary for the survival of our state and our economy. If we don’t help our children, what does our future hold?”

McCann was adopted as a child. He said he believes that explains why he cares so much about family values. He remarked with a touch of sadness that his adopted mother died in June. He lost his adopted father long before, in 1982. “I looked after her,” McCann said, “and sometimes I feel like she looked after me more.”

When asked what odds he gives himself of winning the seat, McCann paused, showing a coy smile.

“I think I have a chance because I believe in the people,” he said.

He’s not naïve to the unforgiving math of the district’s electoral makeup.

“Somebody told me: ‘Before you even put your name on the ballot, you’re 25 points down,’” McCann said. “But I still have hope: Sometimes a longshot wins the race.”

In fact, based on the returns from his contest with Democrat Evelyn Terry two years ago, McCann is 55.9 points down. That’s the spread between Terry’s resounding 77.9-percent win and McCann’s 22.1-percent showing.

It’s actually not by any means the most Democratic friendly district in the state House, ranking No. 22 in the 43 districts held by members of the minority party. Other districts have a higher share of registered Democrats, with District 47 in Robeson County topping the list at 74.5 percent. And 35 percent of voters in Democratic-leaning District 71 cast their ballots for Republican Richard Burr in the 2010 US Senate race. In contrast, Burr corralled only 15.2 percent of the vote in Durham’s District 29, while winning across the state by an 11.8 percent margin.

Democrat John Motsinger  is running for Senate District 31.
Democrat John Motsinger is running for Senate District 31.

The odds are only slightly better for John Motsinger, a Democrat running for state Senate in District 31, which resembles a pair of carpenter pincers encircling Winston-Salem and Kernersville, while taking in suburban Rural Hall, Tobaccoville, Clemmons and Lewisville, along with the entirety of Yadkin County.

Sen. Pete Brunstetter, who co-chaired the powerful Appropriations Committee as a close ally of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, previously represented the district. Brunstetter resigned from his seat in December 2013 to take a position as chief legal counsel for Novant Health. Joyce Krawiec, a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 2012, was appointed to fill out his term and is the Republican nominee for the seat.

Motsinger said over the course of his involvement with the Moral Monday movement, which has vocally protested many of the policies implemented by the Republican supermajority, he became convinced that somebody needed to challenge the Republicans in District 31. He said several members of the local Democratic Party approached him to run. He went back and forth on the idea and finally, while traveling to Raleigh for a state party executive meeting in February, he made the decision to go for it.

While acknowledging the steep odds, he said he senses an opportunity.

“It’s an uphill climb for a Democrat,” said Motsinger, an arbitration lawyer who has taught at Guilford College. “This is Ms. Krawiec’s first campaign, so I don’t think she has much more recognition than I do. If there’s a time this district could flip, it’s now.”

Motsinger is relatively seasoned as political candidates go. He ran for mayor of the town of Ticonderoga in New York, losing by only 1 percentage point, he said. Of more relevance, he’s been closely involved in his wife, Elisabeth’s campaigns. She first ran for an at-large seat on Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board in 2006 and won reelection in 2010. Although she lost her bid to unseat arch-conservative US Rep. Virginia Foxx, John Motsinger said his wife’s strong showing in state Senate District 31 proves that a Democratic candidate can turn out voters there.

Citing the 38-point spread between Brunstetter and Democratic challenger Delmas Parker in 2012, Motsinger said that Brunstetter had a record of “exemplary service” and enjoyed support from a wide swath of Democratic voters. Motsinger said he thinks he can win the Democrats back, while enticing a fair number of Republicans to cross ranks.

“There are a lot of suburban Republicans in the district,” Motsinger said. “A lot of very well educated Republicans are not as dogmatic. They tend to be vote-splitters. As you go up in income level you tend to be more discerning in your political choices.”

Whether Brunstetter was perceived as moderate by voters, his record was decidedly conservative. He was a sponsor of the legislation to put the marriage amendment on the ballot, and authored budgets decried by Democrats as draconian.

While less guarded than Brunstetter, Krawiec holds positions that dovetail closely with her predecessor. As a chair of the NC Federation of Republican Women, she campaigned for the marriage amendment, while also promoting voter ID. She founded an organization to promote offshore drilling, and worked as a field organizer for the tea-party group Freedom Works.

Motsinger said even his he doesn’t win, the campaign is time well spent because it’s putting important issues in front of the public. He added that opposition at the voting booth can cause entrenched politicians to moderate their positions. Win or lose, his goal is to restore balance and accountability to the political process.

Bob Hall with Democracy North Carolina said citizens should resist the cynical conclusion that voting doesn’t matter in legislative races that are heavily stacked in favor of one party or the other.

“I think it’s important to demonstrate that you are making sure that your voice is heard,” he said. “These districts are still fluid over the long term. It’s also the case that [lawmakers] can look at the changes from one election to the next. They may have won by a 12-percent spread, and the next time they’re winning by a 4-percent spread. That makes them nervous.”

Most competitive state Senate districts

Republicans hold 33 out of 50 seats in the Senate — a veto-proof majority. There is virtually no possibility of the Democrats regaining control of the Senate this year. A more realistic goal would be eliminate the GOP’s supermajority by picking up four seats — still an uphill battle. Most of the opportunity in this cycle lies with the Democrats, with the Republicans’ best shot at expanding their majority in District 25, where Gene McLaurin won his seat two years ago by 6 percent — the narrowest spread for any Democrat in the Senate.

1. District 19 (Republican held, Cumberland) —  R+11

The GOP flipped this Cumberland County district in 2010, with Republican Wesley Meredith unseating Democrat Margaret Dickson, helping them take control of the Senate. Neither party holds the advantage in voter registration, and Meredith faces a challenge from Democrat Billy Richardson this year.

2. District 1 (Republican held) — R+12

Republican Bill Cook won his 2012 election by a razor-thin margin — only 21 votes. The geographically sprawling district covers virtually all of the northeastern coastline and major portion of the inland river region, with a demographic mix that favors neither of the major parties. The Republicans picked up the seat, formerly held by Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, in 2012, following redistricting. Cook is defending a challenge from Democrat Stan White this year.

3. District 12 (Republican held) — R+13

Covering fracking country in Lee and Harnett counties, District 12 doesn’t provide a built-in advantage to either party in voter registration, and one-term Republican Ronald Rabin won the seat by only 2 percent in 2012 against Democrat Brad Salmon. This year, Rabin is fending off a challenge from Democrat Joe Langley.

4. District 18 (Republican held) —  R+14

Republican Chad Barefoot, the son-in-law of marriage amendment campaigner Tami Fitzgerald, unseated Democrat Doug Berger in this suburban Wake County district in 2012 after the Republican mapmakers redrew the lines to their party’s advantage. Relatively affluent voters in the district don’t reliably follow party lines, and an influx of newcomers adds an unpredictable element. Barefoot is fighting off a challenge from Democrat Sarah Crawford.

5. District 50 (Republican held) —  R+18

The percentage of Republican voters in District 50, covering the far western tip of the state, is just below the safety threshold for the GOP, and voters tend to display independence at the polls. District 50 was a pick-up for Republicans in the wave election year of 2010. Republican Jim Davis won his second election in 2012 by a comfortable margin two years ago, and the odds of Democratic challenger Jane Hipps returning the seat to the Democratic column have to be considered long.

Most Republican-leaning Senate districts

Three districts drawn to be held by a Republican are in Guilford and Forsyth counties.

1. District 31 (13 of 33, R+61)

Covering the suburban doughnut of Forsyth County and all of neighboring Yadkin County, District 31 is ranked the 13th most Republican-leaning district in the state. Republican Joyce Krawiec was appointed to fill a vacancy when Pete Brunstetter retired from the Senate. Krawiec is defending the seat against Democrat John Motsinger.

2. District 26 (19 of 33, R+50)

Covering northern Guilford County and all of neighboring Rockingham County, District 26 is the home of Republican Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, the most powerful elected official in the state. Berger won his last race by a 22.2-percent spread. Berger is defending his seat against Democrat William Osborne this year. As leader of the Senate, Berger also holds a fundraising advantage because donors pour money into the campaign coffers of legislative leaders for distribution to rank-and-file members in more difficult contests.

3. District 27 (22 of 33, R+45)

District 27 was redrawn to favor the GOP in 2011, flipping it from Democrat Don Vaughan to Republican Trudy Wade. Wade, a former Greensboro City Council member and Guilford County Commissioner, fended off a Democratic opponent in 2012 by a 15.2-percent margin and is running unopposed this year.

Most Democratic-leaning Senate districts

Two districts drawn for Democrats are in Guilford and Forsyth counties.

1. District 28 (1 of 17, D+88)

Incumbent Gladys Robinson is running unopposed in District 28, the most Democratic friendly district in the state, covering urban Greensboro and High Point. The Republican mapmakers packed Democrats and African-American voters — who tend to vote consistently within the party — into the district to dilute their influence in neighboring District 27. Two-thirds of the registered voters in District 28 are Democrats.

2. District 32 (10 of 17, D+66)

Incumbent Earline Parmon is running unopposed in District 32, covering major parts of Winston-Salem. Parmon won her last race by a 46-percent spread, and is running unopposed this year.

Most competitive House districts

Democrats hold most of the opportunity in this election cycle, with Republican members currently sitting in seven of the 10 most competitive seats. Republicans currently hold 77 of 120 seats in the House, with 72 votes required to overturn a veto by the governor. Democrats would have to pick up six seats in this cycle to effectively curb the power of the ruling party — no easy task.

1. District 6 (Democrat held) —  D+5

Democrat Paul Tine won his 2012 election only 458 votes against Republican Mattie Lawson. Neither party holds an advantage in voter registration in this district, which covers major portions of the Outer Banks and the Intracoastal Waterway, and Democratic voters often cross party lines to support Republican candidates like US Sen. Richard Burr. This district gives the Republicans the best opportunity to expand their veto-proof supermajority in the House.

2. District 8 (Republican held) — D+7

District 8, covering suburban portions of Wilson and Pitt counties, actually leans Democratic, based on voter registration. The Republicans flipped it into their column with the 2011 redistricting round. Susan Martin, serving her first term, faces a challenge from Democrat Bobi Gregory. The race represents the Democrats’ best chance to cut into the Republican’s veto-proof supermajority.

3. District 118 (Republican held) —  R+10

Republican Michele Presnell narrowly defeated longtime Democratic lawmaker Ray Rapp in this western mountain district in 2012, following redistricting. The percentage of registered Republican voters in the district is below the safety threshold, and past elections reveal a tradition of independence within the electorate. Presnell is defending her seat against Democrat Dean Hicks.

4. District 115 (Republican held) —  R+12

Republican Nathan Ramsey, a one-term member of the House, is defending this suburban Buncombe County district near Asheville against Democrat John Ager. Similar to District 118, voter registration doesn’t favor either party, and the electorate has a history of crossing party lines. And like neighboring District 118, the Republicans flipped the district after redistricting in 2011.

5. District 119 (Democrat held) —  D+12

Independent voting patterns can cut both ways, and Republicans have their best shot at expanding their supermajority in District 119, covering western Swain and Jackson counties. Democrat incumbent Joe Sam Queen faces a rematch from Republican Mike Clampitt.

6. District 9 (Republican held) —  R+14

District 9, which covers the campus of East Carolina University in Greenville, is evenly split in voter registration and past electoral results. First-term Republican Brian Brown won by only 3 percent two years ago, ousting Democratic incumbent Marian McLawhorn after redistricting. Democrat Uriah Ward is seeking to vindicate his party.

7. District 51 (Republican held) —  R+14

District 51 covers parts of Lee and Harnett counties. Incumbent Mike Stone, a pro-fracking Republican serving his second term in the House, faces a challenge from Democrat Brad Salmon, whose name is likely to be familiar to voters thanks to his unsuccessful run for Senate two years ago. With only 31.6 percent of the electorate registered as Republicans, Stone needs support from a lot of unaffiliated voters and conservative Democrats, and he only won his last race by 4.1 percent.

8. District 44 (Democratic held) — D+17

Democrat Rick Glazier has represented this Fayetteville district for over a decade, and is well respected within his party. A high number of unaffiliated voters and a willingness on the part of Democratic voters to occasionally cross party lines makes this a relatively competitive district.

9. District 53 (Republican held) —  R+18

Republican David Lewis, who was in charge of House redistricting, faces a challenge from Democrat Susan Byerly in this Harnett County district.

10. District 63 (Republican held) —  R+19

Republican Stephen Ross, who is serving his first term in the House, is defending his seat against Democrat Ian Baltutis.

Most Republican leaning districts

Six Republican-leaning House districts are in Guilford and Forsyth counties.

1. District 75 (22 of 77, R+73)

Republican Donny Lambeth ran unopposed for the District 75 — the southern half of the suburban doughnut in Forsyth County — after longtime representative Bill McGee announced his retirement. The district is ranked 22nd most Republican friendly in the state. A solid 40.8 percent of voters are registered with the GOP, and Republican Richard Burr carried the district by 29.3 percent over Democrat Elaine Marshall in his 2010 reelection bid to the US Senate. Lambeth is defending his seat this year against Democrat David Gordon.

2. District 62 (23 of 77, R+72)

Redistricting didn’t do much to change this northwestern Guilford district long represented by John Blust. In voter registration and electoral history, it closely resembles District 75. Blust easily defeated a Libertarian challenger two years ago, and this year is defending his seat against Sal Leone, a one-time Republican who is now registered as a Democrat, with several unsuccessful bids for elective office under his belt.

3. District 59 (24 of 77, R+72)

The 2011 redistricting process effectively flipped District 59 from Democrat Maggie Jeffus to Republican Jon Hardister. This rural-urban hybrid district is in a tight pack with districts 75 and 62 for demographics that are calibrated for a GOP win. Hardister is defending the seat against Democrat Scott Jones this year.

4. District 79 (31 of 77, R+66)

District 79 encompasses Davie County and the western tip of Forsyth. Republican Julia Howard, the district’s representative, chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Howard won her last election against Democrat Cristina Vazquez by a 40.1-percent spread. Vazquez is giving it another shot this year.

5. District 74 (38 of 77, R+56)

Republican Debra Conrad was elected to represent District 74 — the northern half of the suburban doughnut in Forsyth County — after longtime representative Dale Folwell announced his retirement in 2012. Ranked 38 in favorability to Republicans, it is also offers the best opportunity for Forsyth County Democrats to make inroads in GOP territory. Conrad bested her Democratic opponent, David Moore, by 28.7 points in 2012. This year, she faces Democrat Mary Dickinson, a progressive activist who has excited party regulars.

6. District 61 (40 of 77, R+55)

Republican John Faircloth held this district, covering north High Point, Jamestown and southern Guilford, against Democrat Ron Weatherford in 2012, winning by 27.7 percent. Demographically and politically, it’s similar to District 74, and represents the Democrats best prospect for advancement in Guilford County. Weatherford is on the ballot again this year.

Most Democratic-leaning districts

Five seats drawn for Democrats are in Guilford and Forsyth counties.

1. District 58 (11 of 43, D+84)

Democrat Alma Adams buried Republican challenger Olga Morgan with a 59.7-percent spread in the last election in District 58, covering southeast Greensboro and reaching into the Friendly Avenue corridor. Adams is headed for Congress now, and Ralph Johnson, the Democratic nominee in District 58, faces no GOP opposition.

2. District 60 (12 of 43, D+84)

Democrat Marcus Brandon ran unopposed for District 60, covering inner-city High Point and southwest Greensboro, two years ago. Brandon chose not to run for re-election to the seat, putting his efforts instead into a failed bid for Congress and now a run for mayor of High Point. His protégé and successor, Democrat Cecil Brockman, is also running unopposed this fall.

3. District 57 (17 of 43, D+80)

The Republicans packed Democrats into District 57, along with 58, during the 2011 redistricting round, to make District 59 favorable to one of their own. Democratic incumbent Pricey Harrison, well known for her progressive, environmentalist positions, is running unopposed this year, as she did two years ago.

4. District 71 (22 of 43, D+77)

The election in District 71, covering the southern portion of Winston-Salem, is a rematch between Democrat Evelyn Terry and Republican Kris McCann. The odds heavily favor Terry, who won with almost 78-percent of the vote last time around.

5. District 72 (27 of 43, D+71)

Ed Hanes, the one-term Democrat who represents District 72 on the north side of Winston-Salem, is running unopposed this year.

Methodology

This ranking is based on a synthesis of data from three categories: 1) party registration in the districts, 2) returns from the 2010 US Senate election between Republican Richard Burr and Democrat Elaine Marshall in the districts and 3) the results of the 2012 elections for each district. Party registration is based on a rule of thumb that Republicans need at least 34 percent of registered voters to win election in North Carolina legislative districts, while Democrats need at least 50 percent. The rule of thumb, which is used by political operatives, assumes a certain share of conservative Democrats will cross party lines to support Republican candidates. This analysis allocates points based on how well the various districts serve the two parties under each of the two criteria. The returns from the Burr-Marshall race are meant to capture general voter behavior apart from both party registration and the appeal of particular candidates in each district. The Burr-Marshall data is handicapped 11.8 percent in favor of Democrats based on the margin of Burr’s victory. The 2012 data, in contrast, reflects the appeal of local legislative candidates, including incumbents who tend to benefit from name recognition among voters. The highest possible overall score is 100 (most favorable for one party or the other) while the lowest possible score is 0 (most competitive).