Democrats flush with cash to challenge GOP in state House races

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roy cooper and terri legrand
NC House candidate Terri LeGrand with Gov. Roy Cooper

Two Democratic challengers have outraised Republican incumbents in state House races in Forsyth and Guilford counties as midterm elections approach.

Democratic challengers in Forsyth and Guilford counties are riding into the upcoming November election on a flood of cash, buoying hopes to break the Republican supermajority in the state General Assembly, allow Gov. Roy Cooper to sustain a veto and rebalance power in state government.

Four Republican House seats in Forsyth and Guilford counties, including the district represented by Majority Whip Jon Hardister, are on a list of targets released by the state Democratic Party in April. Almost all Democratic challengers in the two counties have posted impressive campaign fundraising totals in second-quarter reports, which were due on July 10, and in two districts the Democratic challengers have outpaced Republican incumbents in both receipts and cash on hand.

At the head of the pack is Terri LeGrand, an administrator at Wake Forest University, who is seeking to unseat Debra Conrad, a three-term Republican lawmaker and former Forsyth County commissioner known for pushing hard-line immigration-enforcement policies. House District 74, which carves a horseshoe around the north side of Winston-Salem, is typical of the suburban and exurban areas where the Democrats are seeking to make gains. LeGrand has been raising money since last October and has reported a fundraising total of $163,229, more than double what Conrad posted. Gov. Cooper himself came to Winston-Salem in May to help LeGrand raise money.

“We felt like that was indicative of two things,” LeGrand said. “He believes this is a winnable race, and he really wants us to break the supermajority.”

The party needs to pick up four seats in the House or six in the Senate to reach that goal.

Martha Shafer, a retired executive at Cone Health who previously served as a vice president at Women’s Hospital, has raised a reported total of $147,757, almost 10 times more than Republican incumbent John Faircloth, in her bid to flip House District 62, which covers a slab of western Guilford County from Summerfield through Colfax and down into High Point.

Ashton Clemmons, who has worked as an assistant superintendent and school principal, has raised a reported total of $129,104 in the new House District 57 in Greensboro, compared to negligible fundraising by Republican opponent Troy Lawson. The new district’s voter composition favors a Democratic candidate. The district effectively flipped through a court-ordered redistricting plan earlier this year that forced Republican lawmaker John Blust into political retirement.

In other local legislative races, Republican incumbents maintain a fundraising advantage, while Democratic challengers have posted respectable numbers. Republican Trudy Wade has raised $189,062, compared to $104,999 by Democrat Michael Garrett in Senate District 27. Republican Jon Hardister has raised $114,180, compared to $81,614 by Democrat Steven Buccini in House District 59. And in House District 75, Republican incumbent Donny Lambeth has raised $73,033, compared to $50,369 by Democrat Dan Besse, who currently serves on Winston-Salem City Council.

Democratic candidates’ fundraising performance in the Triad supports party leaders’ continued confidence in a “blue wave” election.

“Democrats across the state are outworking, outhustling and outraising Republicans, showing that the grassroots energy and momentum are on our side and many Republicans are going to be caught flat-footed in November,” Wayne Goodwin, the party’s state chair, predicted in a July 12 statement. “The party is in the strongest position we have ever been in before a midterm election, with outstanding Democrats running in every single district for the first time ever and the resources and support they need to get their message out.”

Matt Bales, the political director of the House Republican Caucus, discounted the notion of a Democratic fundraising advantage. Although not all Republican candidates have filed second-quarter reports, Bales said Republican House candidates hold more cash on hand in aggregate. If Republican incumbents’ fundraising totals appear unimpressive compared to Democratic challengers, Bales said that’s because sitting lawmakers were in Raleigh through the end of the legislative session last month.

“It’s easy to focus on fundraising while the Republicans are in the General Assembly delivering Hurricane Matthew recovery money, expanding rural broadband access and conducting the people’s business while all the Democrats are doing is spending time fundraising,” he said.

“Each Republican candidate is up to the task of getting their message to the voters of the great state of North Carolina,” Bales added.

Republican John Faircloth, who has only raised $15,303 so far in the current election cycle, acknowledged the enthusiasm of voters on the opposite side of the political ledger, but expressed a sanguine view of the money race.

“They were raising money while we were in session,” he said. “It’s relatively early in the season. We’ll be raising money and talking to our supporters about what we need. I think in the long run it will work out fine.”

Not surprising given Martha Shafer’s career as a hospital administrator, the largest chunk of financial support for her campaign has come from individuals employed in the healthcare industry, followed by higher education and public schools. The professional composition of LeGrand’s donors reflects a similar pattern, but with healthcare slightly trailing education. As a reflection of grassroots enthusiasm, each candidate has received $10,200 from Work for Democracy, a political action committee organized in early 2017 that has built a donor base among progressive activists in Greensboro and Winston-Salem. Both campaigns have received cash infusions from Lillian’s List, a state PAC that supports candidates that champion reproductive freedom. Shafer’s campaign has also drawn support from Fred Stanback, a Salisbury philanthropist who supports conservationist causes, and Our Shot NC, a PAC financed by a national donor base that includes a significant number of healthcare professionals from North Carolina and New York.

“I think there’s a lot of palpable enthusiasm for our campaign,” Shafer said. “We’ve put together a good campaign. We’re working hard reaching out to voters. It seems like the money is following.”

In 2016, the Democrats didn’t even bother to field a candidate against Faircloth, but Shafer said the new electoral map imposed by the courts has made the district more competitive.

“I’ve certainly been getting that message out to voters that this is an opportunity to make a change,” Shafer said. “In the past, the chances weren’t as favorable as this.”

While Shafer’s campaign has benefited from large donations from a handful of prominent supporters and political action committees, she’s also collected donations as small as $5 and $10. With nearly 500 donations in total, the average amount received by the Shafer campaign is $304, compared to $402 by the Faircloth campaign.

The contrast is even greater in House District 74, where Democrat Terri LeGrand has amassed more than 850 donations, averaging $189. Donations to Debra Conrad, LeGrand’s Republican opponent, average $423. Both candidates are pulling significant support from affluent neighborhoods like Buena Vista that flank Reynolda Road and Country Club Road in northwest Winston-Salem. LeGrand’s top donors include employees of Wake Forest University and Jose Isasi, the owner of Que Pasa Media.

Banking and finance represent the largest industry sector in Conrad’s donor base. Her largest donor to date is Steve Vanderwoude, a former telecom executive and investor based in Chapel Hill, followed by Edgar Broyhill, a furniture industry scion and investor who has been active in Republican politics for decades.

A political newcomer, LeGrand said her biggest challenge will be overcoming Conrad’s “excellent name recognition” as a three-term incumbent and former county commissioner.

“My task is to get my name out there,” she said. “That’s why I have to raise a significant amount of money.

“All Republicans are vulnerable because of the direction they’ve taken our state,” LeGrand added, “and people are motivated to change that.”

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