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More choices won't mean more competition

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service.


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

For the past three election cycles, I haven't been able to choose my representatives in the state House and Senate.

Sure, those offices appeared on my Election Day ballot. But the choice was between the incumbents — Rep. Darren Jackson and Sen. Dan Blue — and simply not voting. There was no Republican alternative. No third-party candidate. Not even a blank space where I could write in "Oprah" or "Rameses Ram."

My ballot was likely a product of gerrymandering: My House and Senate districts were drawn to pack in as many Democrats as possible, a strategy that would Republicans win seats elsewhere. And with Jackson and Blue all but guaranteed to win re-election, no one wanted to tilt at windmills and run a campaign they'd likely lose.

This year is a lot different. When candidate filing wrapped up last month, nearly 170 legislative districts had at least one candidate from each major political party in the running. About 35 will also have a Libertarian option on the ballot.

That's good news for democracy, which thrives on choices, and it's heartening that more than 470 candidates want a thankless, stressful job with a $13,951 base salary and frequent commutes to Raleigh.

The 2018 legislative election features new district maps drawn under court order last year, so it's tempting to assume the new districts are more competitive. N.C. Republican Party executive director Dallas Woodhouse hailed the candidate filing numbers as something that "will forever put to rest the idea that Republican-drawn legislative maps keep people from running for office."

Not quite. The shift we saw this year — from 73 uncontested legislative races in 2016 to nearly none in 2018 — is largely due to strategic decisions made by Republican and Democratic Party leaders.

Most people take a lot of persuasion to get off the couch and run for office. Candidate recruitment is a painstaking process for party leaders, and in past elections, they've focused their efforts on districts where they've got a decent shot at winning. They privately reach out to people they know would be strong candidates.

But this year, Democrats decided early on that they wanted to field a candidate in every race. With an opportunity to break Republicans' veto-proof majority and give Gov. Roy Cooper more power, that strategy was smart. Fielding 170 candidates makes the Democrats look strong and helps them build momentum early in the election cycle, and it forces the GOP to play defense in even the safest of conservative districts.

Democrats were public about their plans, and Republicans followed suit to ensure their party looks equally strong. But both parties had to expanding the recruiting pool well beyond the people they know.

Leaders took to social media and issued mass messages in districts that lacked a candidate as the filing period wrapped up. A few days before filing ended, Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, went on Facebook to list the eight remaining districts where Democrats needed a candidate. Woodhouse even paid filing fees for some GOP candidates.

I doubt some of these candidates will run strong campaigns, and the state parties aren't likely to spend money or resources in districts that aren't competitive. I also doubt that the last-minute recruits were vetted thoroughly, so opposition researchers will be busy looking for embarrassing biographical details.

Even with new maps, an analysis by the N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation found that only 14 House districts (12 percent) and seven Senate districts (14 percent) are rated "competitive" based on previous election results. The overwhelmingly majority of districts are rated "strong Republican" or "strong Democratic" by the nonpartisan group.

My House and Senate districts are in the latter category. So while I'll look forward to researching the candidates and making a choice on Election Day, it's a safe bet that Blue and Jackson will continue representing my neighborhood in the legislature. It will be up to the voters in those 21 "competitive" districts to determine the balance of power in Raleigh.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com.