With fewer Dem opportunities to flip seats in 2020, GOP favored to hold NC legislature

Democrats need to seize 5 Senate seats and 6 House seats to win control

N.C. General Assembly as seen from the grounds of the Capitol building. (A.P. Dillon, North State Journal)

RALEIGH — In 2018, Democrats were able to break a Republican supermajority in both chambers of the N.C. General Assembly by flipping nine seats in the House and six in the Senate, mostly by focusing on the state’s quickly growing suburbs. This election, Democrats have their eye on taking the majority outright in at least one chamber, but this goal may be more elusive, with fewer viable pickups and the need to defend some of their gains from close races two years ago.

The Republicans have held a majority in both chambers of the state legislature since 2010 when a wave of conservative opposition to then-President Barack Obama put the party in power of both chambers for the first time since 1870. This control has been maintained in the 10 years since, but Democrats say they see an opportunity to take back control.

“In 2018, we broke the Republican supermajority in the Senate. In 2020, we’re pushing that momentum even further and we’re poised to take back the Senate,” the North Carolina Senate Democratic Caucus declared on their website, saying their mission “is to #TakeTheMajority in the State Senate and win Governor Cooper the chamber he needs to enact real change — bringing opportunity, fairness, and a better quality of life to all North Carolinians.”

But to take back control of the Senate, which has a 29-21 Republican majority, the Democrats would need to flip four seats, if they have the tie-breaking vote of a Democrat lieutenant governor, or five seats if Republicans win the lieutenant governor’s race.

In the House, where there is no tiebreaker, Republicans have a 65-55 advantage, so Democrats would need to take six seats to gain the majority. Five would create a 60-60 tie in the chamber.

But finding where to get these pickups could prove difficult. FlipNC, a nonprofit with the aim of gaining the NC General Assembly for the Democratic Party, only shows two “easy” Senate seat flips for 2020. One is the Charlotte area’s SD-39, where Democratic candidate DeAndrea Salvador looks poised to win in the newly redrawn district. FlipNC has it as a D+12 race (meaning Democrats have a 12-point advantage), and Civitas, a conservative Raleigh think tank, has the district as D+8 and the race as “likely Democrat.”

The other “easy” pickup is in SD-18, representing Wake and Franklin counties, where Sarah Crawford has a D+6 advantage according to FlipNC. Civitas scores the district, now served by Republican Sen. John Alexander, as D+2.

Beyond these two “easy” districts, there are two other races that are close enough for the Democrat to win without a major shift — SD-1, representing rural northeastern N.C., and SD-31, representing Davie and Forsyth counties. The Democratic candidates in both districts, however, are down five points, according to FlipNC’s analysis, but they are within striking distance, giving Democrats the best chance they’ve got to flip the four they need — while hoping for a win in the lieutenant governor’s race to break the 50-50 tie.

The N.C. Republican Senate Caucus site says SD-31 “is shaping up to be the most expensive race in the NC Senate this cycle,” but that GOP incumbent Sen. Joyce Krawiec “has managed to generate a slight lead.”

If Democrats don’t bat 1.000 on these four seats, the list of alternative pickups dries up fairly quickly. And they also have to play defense in two races where GOP incumbents were defeated in 2018 and are now attempting to reclaim the competitive seats — Wesley Meredith of SD-19 in the Fayetteville area and Mike Lee of SD-9 in the Wilmington area. Making SD-9’s now-incumbent Democrat Sen. Harper Peterson’s race more difficult is the fact that in his narrow 2018 victory of just over 200 votes, a Libertarian took 3.5%, while this time it will just be the two major party candidates.

More ambitious potential pickups include SD-27 in Guilford County for the Republicans, which is held by freshman Democrat Sen. Michael Garrett, and SD-24 in Alamance and Guilford counties for the Democrats, which was recently vacated by longtime Republican incumbent Sen. Rick Gunn.

Despite there being 70 more seats in the House than in the Senate, there are likely fewer real opportunities for Democrats to flip seats. HD-63 in Alamance County is the Democrats’ easiest flip, and it’s not a sure thing. FlipNC rates it as a D+4 and Civitas has the district as a D+1. The other two districts FlipNC counts as their most likely flips are HD-9 in the Greenville area and HD-45 in the Fayetteville area, which are each just D+1, according to Civitas.

But just like in the Senate, House Democrats have to defend seats, not simply focus on winning new ones. There are several districts that they won, especially in suburban areas, which will need to be defended and are predicted to be close.

These include: HD-98 in Mecklenburg (won by around 400 votes against incumbent John Bradford, who is running in 2020 to retrieve the seat); HD-37 in Wake County (won by less than 1,000 votes against incumbent John Adcock); HD-93 in the Boone area and HD-119 just south of Asheville, both which were taken from Republicans in 2018 in close races; and HD-43 and HD-47, in the Fayetteville area, which were safe Democrat but after redistricting are competitive. There is also a likely loss in HD-66, held by Democrat Rep. Scott Brewer, where Republicans are highly favored to win.

With many more close races featuring Democrats fighting off a Republican challenger, any gains in places like HD-63 and HD-9 are likely to be erased by losses in Republican pickups in HD-66 and the six other seats Democrats need to defend. Between the two chambers, the Senate is the more likely one for a potential flip, but Democrats would need to win their two “easy” pickups and two which narrowly favor Republicans. If they do not win the lieutenant governor seat, they’d also need at least one more that favors Republicans more widely. They must do this while also holding onto seats like SD-9 and SD-19, which were lost narrowly by GOP incumbents who are gunning to regain their former seats.

In depriving Republicans of their supermajority — preventing further overrides of Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes — Democrats achieved a major victory in 2018. But by flipping so many of these mainly suburban districts, it set them up to largely play defense now in 2020. It also reduces the number of new flippable districts that would allow them to wrestle overall control of the legislature away from Republicans.