With three months to Election Day, Democrats and Republicans are revving up for the home stretch of their midterm campaigns.
Historically, the political party that’s in the White House is the biggest indicator of election results. Midterm elections often reflect what the voters think of the current presidential administration.
In North Carolina, there are two major issues at play this year: the economy and abortion. But a range of other factors will also affect election results in this politically purple state.
While North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race between Democrat Cheri Beasley and Republican Ted Budd is drawing the most attention, the 2022 election will also determine control of the state legislature. North Carolina’s General Assembly has a Republican majority, and Gov. Roy Cooper — whose term runs through 2024 — is a Democrat.
Democrats and Republicans are counting on voter motivation to deliver wins for their respective parties.
National influence on state politics
Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University, said “the biggest factors are the immovable ones.” Because it’s President Joe Biden’s first midterm, Democrats are going to lose seats, he said.
“The Republicans are going to gain seats. For Democrats, it’s about blunting the force of the headwinds coming against them,” Cooper said.
“Issues like abortion might do that,” he added, but “it’s not going be a game changer. We’re not going to have a Democratic majority in the legislature.”
If Republicans gain enough seats for a supermajority, they could change abortion law in the state, which currently comprises an unenforced ban after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Democratic Sen. Natalie Murdock sees the issue as a “huge rallying cry” for voters. But whether abortion, or inflation, will be enough to drive voter turnout is yet to be determined.
GOP confidence and downballot races
Republican state legislative leaders — including Senate leader Phil Berger of Eden and House Speaker Tim Moore of Kings Mountain — are confident they’ll maintain a majority and regain their veto-proof supermajority, which they haven’t had since 2018.
In June, Berger told reporters that what he sees as the Biden Administration’s failures have created opportunities for Republicans in federal and state races.
“That’s one of those things where what I like to say is we probably have the wind at our backs in terms of elections,” Berger said.
He thinks Republicans can win more than 30 seats in the Senate. That’s the number they need for a supermajority.
On the House side, Moore said his confidence is driven by what’s happening at the federal level.
“There’s things that you can do to sort of rise above and stand out as a legislative candidate or on a state issue, but elections these days I think are driven so much by what’s going on with the national mood and what’s going on there,” he said in late July. “...Inflation’s real. These pocketbook issues are real, and I think the voters are going to hold Biden and the Democrats responsible for that.”
While Democrats want to make abortion an election issue, Moore said, Republicans are “focused on really running this state the way it should be done, really trying to run it like a business.”
In July, Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law the Republican-written state budget that included raises for state employees and teachers that were well below the rate of inflation. Even with a $6 billion revenue surplus the legislature set aside significant funds for savings, anticipating a recession on the horizon.
One issue that enough Republicans and Democrats support in North Carolina, regardless of 2022 results, is expanding Medicaid to give more residents access to health care. It could happen before or after the midterm elections, even as soon as later this month. But the House and Senate have been at an impasse since mid-July.
Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist for the governor and others, said that “if Republicans are smart, they would take Medicaid expansion off the table” by reaching a deal before the November election. If they don’t, Jackson said, Democrats will hang that issue around their necks during campaign season.
Jackson said midterm elections are about motivation, and the side that wins has the most motivated voters.
“For most of the last year, the voters most motivated and angry were Republicans,” Jackson said, because their party has been out of power. But the Supreme Court decision tossing abortion laws back to the states has motivated Democratic voters.
Before the court decision, Democrats were about 10% less motivated than Republicans, Jackson said. But that has changed.
If former President Donald Trump announces he’s going to run again, that will also motivate more Democrats to vote, according to Jackson. And Democrats are counting on Beasley’s historic candidacy as an African American woman to drive voter support.
2022 vs. 2020
Not much changed in the makeup of North Carolina’s statewide political power after the 2020 elections. Cooper was reelected, as were the Republican leaders of the General Assembly.
Democrats lost a few seats in the legislature, but still maintained enough to prevent a Republican supermajority.
Jackson said Democrats didn’t have an aggressive ground game in 2020 because of COVID-19, but now they are organized and knocking on doors. Republicans, who were credited with a better ground game last round, have also increased their fundraising.
Chris Cooper, the politics professor, said some of the Democrats’ strategy is regaining ground they lost in rural North Carolina. But he sees that as more likely to happen in 2032, not 2022.
Murdock — a Durham Democrat active in state Democratic Party leadership, who worked on voter outreach for the Biden-Harris campaign — said that Democrats have ramped up their field presence. She and fellow Senate Democrat Jay Chaudhuri both pointed to groups like the New Rural Project that work to drive voter registration and turnout.
“I definitely think with the ground game we’re starting much earlier,” Murdock said, out knocking on doors this summer. In her own district up for election, which now includes Chatham County, she has been canvassing since late spring.
Chaudhuri, the Senate Democratic whip, said Democrats are putting resources in areas that matter most to them, including Wake County, which includes his district, and Mecklenburg, New Hanover and Cumberland counties.
“I think the idea of a red wave is overstated,” Chaudhuri told The News & Observer. “I think what we’re seeing as we get closer to the November election is Democrats are coming home because of the January 6 hearings and seeing independents break away because of the (Supreme Court abortion) decision. I think we have a real opportunity to hold on to our senator numbers, and keep Gov. Cooper’s veto,” he said.
Chaudhuri said that inflation and gas prices are also real issues for voters, but a counterpoint is North Carolina’s economic growth and job production.
“Gas prices are coming down, that’s helpful. Inflation is heading in the right direction,” Murdock said in a recent interview. “I think all of that is going to come together.”
Although Roy Cooper is chair of the Democratic Governors Association and helping Beasley campaign, Jackson said, the governor is “laser-like focused on the General Assembly. His top priority is the General Assembly.”
Chaudhuri said that Democrats will be talking to voters about the need to invest in public education, that Democrats can take credit for job growth in North Carolina and that “we don’t want to be Texas, Florida or Georgia when it comes to protecting a woman’s right to choose.”
Another factor at play this election is the rise of unaffiliated voters. They blew past Democrats as the largest voting group before the May primary.
While unaffiliated voters generally follow the voting trends of the district they’re in, their votes aren’t guaranteed for one of the two major parties.
Stephen Wiley, director of the state Republican House Caucus, said that during a recession, voters are going to punish the people in national power. House Republicans are starting to send out political advertising in the mail, with more to come.
Voters are most concerned about the economy, Wiley said, including inflation and gas prices.
“I just filled up for $3.99 (a gallon) on Peace Street, and that’s supposed to be good news?” he said.
Wiley doesn’t think abortion will be as big a factor in the election as Democrats expect. He said “things are going to change” between now and Election Day on Nov. 8.
“I didn’t have ‘FBI raids (Trump’s home at) Mar-a-Lago on Monday night’ on my Bingo card, personally,” Wiley said. “...We just don’t know. We don’t know. It just comes down to the national mood, and history is not kind to parties of the president when there’s a recession. That’s our number one issue and it’ll stay our number one issue.”
For legislative races, Wiley said its about persuading existing voters to finish filling out their ballots, meaning all the downballot races. He said House Republicans are confident about maintaining a majority and see a “strong pathway to supermajority.”
“The economy. That’s it. That’s the whole thing. People don’t like that their life is more expensive,” he said.
For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Under the Dome politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it at https://campsite.bio/underthedome or wherever you get your podcasts.