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Split decision shows parties have work to do

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John Hood

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Thursday, November 8, 2018

If you expected the 2018 midterm elections to settle all scores and clarify all unanswered political questions in the era of Donald Trump, you were just asking for disappointment — and that’s what voters gave you.

In North Carolina and around the country, Democrats savored many sweet victories. They recruited good candidates, raised gobs of money, and deployed solid campaigns. Winning the U.S. House, netting some governorships and legislative chambers, and breaking the GOP supermajority in the North Carolina House were all impressive accomplishments.

But as the election returns came in, most Republicans were actually breathing a sigh of relief. Earlier in the year, they feared the worst: a massive anti-Trump blue wave that would give Democrats historic gains in Washington and the states. It didn’t materialize.

Republicans actually gained seats in the U.S. Senate, including defeats of longtime Democratic incumbents. The Democrats’ House gain was close to the historical average for midterms — so much for Trump upending all the political rules — and key governorships in Florida and Ohio stayed in Republican hands.

In North Carolina, Democrats underperformed in congressional races and overperformed in state ones. None of the three targeted U.S. House seats — the 2nd district in the Triangle, the 13th district in the Triad, and the 9th district stretching from Charlotte to the Sandhills — flipped from red to blue, despite the influx of vast resources to the three Democratic campaigns.

The Democrats’ investment in state races was far more productive. In the 12 midterm elections since 1970, the party not controlling the White House has gained an average of 11 seats in the state legislature — an average of eight seats in the N.C. House and three seats in the Senate. Although some close races were not yet called by my deadline, it looks like state Democrats have beaten both spreads, with particularly noteworthy success in urban counties.

Six of the net nine seats Republicans lost in the House, and three of the six seats they lost in the Senate, were in Mecklenburg or Wake. As for Guilford County, it delivered another of the Democrats’ Senate pickups while longtime Republican Sheriff B.J. Barnes went down to surprising defeat (as did Wake County’s Republican sheriff, Donnie Harrison). Essentially, the blue cities became more deeply blue, rural and exurban areas stayed red, and the inner suburbs tilted blue.

As for statewide contests, Republican lawmakers struck out with their two attempts to reduce the institutional power of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Voters said no to constitutional amendments that would have created an evenly bipartisan state elections board and limited the governor’s ability to fill judicial vacancies. Most important of all, arguably, were the Democrats’ victories in races for appellate courts. With the election of Anita Earls — an outcome Republicans themselves may have aided by eliminating judicial primaries and allowing two GOP candidates to split the right-leaning vote — the North Carolina Supreme Court has a solid 5-2 Democratic majority.

State Democrats are happy with these outcomes, understandably so. But Republicans did maintain control over the most powerful branch of state government, the General Assembly, with still-healthy majorities in the House and Senate. They also celebrated voter approval of constitutional amendments that instituted a photo ID to vote and protected the rights of taxpayers, hunters, and victims of crime.

North Carolina is a closely divided state. We are going to have highly competitive elections for years to come. The 2018 results actually present both parties with tough challenges.

Republicans are clearly struggling to hold the loyalty of inner-suburb voters in counties such as Mecklenburg, Wake and Guilford. While disaffection with Trump may be a factor, GOP candidates also failed to align their messages with the priorities of these voters.

At the same time, Democrats fell short in a number of potentially winnable races elsewhere in the state. They can break supermajorities by winning urban areas. But that won’t be enough to put them in charge of the state legislature.

Back to work. Up next: the 2020 cycle.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30p and Sundays at 12:30p on UNC-TV.

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