kirk ross by Kirk Ross

The dynamics of this election cycle can be distilled into a single word: proxy. Gerrymandered districts and a hard-to-fire-up electorate have seen to that.

If the districts were fair — not just barely legal as they are now — and the number of registered and engaged voters significantly higher, things might be different. But like nearly every non-presidential year this election is still about turning out the core supporters.

This year, driving the frustration that voting will change little is a combination of scant competition and the realities of the electoral maps.

For more than 60 percent of our state legislators, the only question about next year’s session is whether they’ll get a better office assignment. In all there are a dozen races in the House and a handful in the Senate that could flip. Each of those would take a huge surge in votes or a quick about-face from former supporters to overcome favorably drawn district lines.

Without a doubt there are districts where both things are possible and they’ve become proxy races where both parties and outside groups will pour hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to secure a win. In these races, no matter how hard the candidates try to focus on local issues, the campaign subtext will be a referendum on the General Assembly.

While in most cases the district lines have stacked the deck, Democrats have a couple of advantages in this cycle that could cause some of the contested races to go their way.

One big advantage is the back edge of the mighty sword of redistricting. In 2011, to make more Republican-friendly districts, the GOP-led redistricting plan packed Democratic voters into fewer districts. While this added more GOP districts, it made it almost impossible to flip any of these Democratic super-districts. That frees up Democratic resources and puts the GOP on defense in districts where the margins are much thinner.

While that has evened up available resources, a much bigger advantage is that the race at the top of the ticket is quickly turning into a referendum on the legislature.

The Thom Tillis campaign and its backers have been spending the bulk of their resources linking Kay Hagan to the president, a kind of national proxy strategy. Hagan’s camp, and her backers, are busy pointing to the more unpopular policies of the state legislature.

The two strategies have divergent impacts on down-ballot races. The Tillis strategy to nationalize the campaign does little to bolster candidates in local legislative races. It requires follow on messaging to link the local candidate to any scary national agenda.

By contrast, Hagan’s strategy gives local races a boost by saturating the airwaves with attacks on the legislature and its policies.

You can see the success of this effort on the Senate race in recent polls that show support for Tillis drifting lower. That’s the opposite direction Tillis needs in mid-September. At this point in the race, he should be building the momentum necessary to defeat an incumbent senator.

A simple rule of campaigns is that you don’t want a candidate’s support to drop as their name recognition increases. Yet as more voters tune in to the election, Tillis still hits resistance north of 40 percent in a three-way race with Hagan and Libertarian Sean Haugh.

That points to some success in the plan to use Tillis as a proxy for the legislature and give frustrated voters extra motivation to express themselves at the polls. Since the messaging in that effort has been so heavily focused on the policies of the past session, it could rock a few boats in the legislative races as well.

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