What’s in store for North Carolina politics in 2018

North Carolina had a huge political year in 2016, taking the national stage over H.B. 2 and the subsequent boycotts of the state over the controversial bill. And on the same day the state helped elect President Donald J. Trump, it elected Roy Cooper—a Democrat—as governor. H.B. 2 was back in the news with a compromise from Cooper and the legislature—and then this fall the state led national news again after a Confederate monument was toppled by activists in Durham.

This year was supposed to be different: There’s no U.S. Senate or statewide race to dominate the news cycle. Republicans hold a 10-3 majority in the congressional delegation and only three districts ( NC-2, NC-9 and NC-13) were expected to be competitive no matter how big the Democratic wave is in November.

But on Tuesday a federal district court panel found that congressional map to be an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander and ordered the state legislature to redraw the districts before candidates begin filing for this year’s elections in February.

Instead of high-profile candidates and record-breaking spending by the campaigns, 2018 will be about redistricting in North Carolina, a continued advance of a conservative legislative agenda, and an effort by Democrats to achieve a comeback down the ballot.

Redrawing the maps, again

The long-rumored objective of the Republican majority in the General Assembly this year is an overhaul of North Carolina’s judicial system.

North Carolina elects its judges both at the appellate level and in district and superior courts throughout the state. But last October the North Carolina House of Representatives approved a redraw of judicial districts that would weaken the influence of urban areas and elect more conservative judges and district attorneys at the local level.

The change drew harsh criticism from members of the North Carolina Courts Commission, who saw it as a rash and ill-advised process, and the full legislature paused on approving the map, instead cancelling judicial primaries in 2018 to give them time to debate the issue.

After the election of 2016, liberals won a 4-3 majority on the state Supreme Court, which has been critical in deciding those issues, and when lawmakers returned to Raleigh this January it came as no surprise that their ambitions included not only local judicial districts, but a complete switch to a merit-based system that would give the GOP controlled legislature the greatest amount of authority over appointments to the courts.

The judicial maps are just one piece of the puzzle: The state legislative maps drawn by the Republican legislature in 2011 were ultimately found to be an unconstitutional racial gerrymander by the U.S. Supreme Court; Republicans’ efforts to redraw those maps in 2017 led to continued controversy, and quibbling over the final maps has continued into the new year. This week’s federal court ruling over the 2016 congressional maps means all of North Carolina’s districts are up for renegotiation in 2018, with potentially huge consequences for party politics as well as racial politics in the state.

A conservative legislative agenda

On Wednesday, Jan. 10, the state legislature reconvened for a special session with its agenda largely unannounced. Democrats in the House wanted to address medicaid expansion, class size funding and GenX pollution found in the Cape Fear River last June, and a bill to provide the state Department of Environmental Quality with an additional $1.3 million to test for GenX could gain traction.

Last year the General Assembly passed legislation reducing K-3 classes to no more than 17 students, but many schools lack the resources to make those changes. Editorials and protesters have encouraged lawmakers to provide necessary funding and Democratic Governor Roy Cooper has made it a priority.

But Democrats don’t have the upper hand this year, and the Republican-run legislature is under no obligation to compromise. The GOP has a 75-45 majority in the North Carolina House and a 35-15 advantage in the North Carolina Senate, more than enough to override any veto from Cooper.

In recent years the legislature’s philosophy has been to cut taxes and cut government, and the expectation in 2018 is more of the same.

“They’ve never achieved what they really want which is to remake the social contract,” says Rob Schofield, of the GOP majority in the General Assembly. He’s the director of NC Policy Watch, a liberal think-tank in North Carolina that’s documented the cuts to food stamps and legal aid in recent years.

“There’s fear they’ll push for a constitutional amendment to cap state spending and they’ve got a blueprint to transform higher education,” says Schofield who also worries about the return of Voter ID and suppression policies which were struck down in court.

Unrest in the electorate

North Carolina faces no shortage of challenges including the opioid epidemic, lack of mobility in urban areas and dying manufacturing economies in its small-towns – but there’s been little progress.

That said, Trump’s victory in 2016 could contribute to a Democratic backlash in the state in 2018. Last year unaffiliated voters surpassed Republicans as the second largest group of registered voters in North Carolina and this might be the year Millennials and those born after become a plurality of the state’s electorate – and the Millennial generation skews to the left.

Those changing demographics helped elect Barack Obama in 2008, and they are a glimpse of North Carolina’s future. But that coalition of Millennials, minorities, and single college educated women was also outnumbered and out-motivated by the conservative counter-revolution in North Carolina, and probably damaged by the Republican gerrymandering, too.

“If you’re a Democrat, you’re motivated and you really want to win,” says John Hood, the president of the John William Pope Foundation and a conservative scholar. Democrats faced fairly disastrous election nights in North Carolina in 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016.

The Democrats’ only real shot in North Carolina this year is likely to be a handful of races for the state legislature.

Democrats need to pick up 16 seats in the House and 11 in the Senate to retake control. But to break the veto-proof majorities and make Republicans work with Governor Cooper, Democrats need only four seats in the House or six in the senate, and that’s where the action is.

As 2017 came to a close – spurred by the results in Virginia – North Carolina Democrats announced the candidacies of several recruits in swing districts, most of them women.

It’s clear where the battlegrounds will be. “The areas most likely to be competitive are suburban districts in the largest counties,” says Graig Meyer, a state Representative from Orange County who spearheaded a recruitment and mobilization effort called Our Shot.

Examples of candidates include Terri LeGrand, a financial aid administrator at Wake Forest University, and Martha Shafer, a hospital executive, who will challenge incumbents in the suburbs of Winston-Salem and Greensboro.

To win, “Democrats will need to speak about core values,” says Meyer. “We value people’s work. We value their families. We want to build strong communities.”

Democrats are optimistic about a weatherman running for the state House in a rural district (in a seat made viable by the presence of Appalachian State University), but the challenge of rebuilding the party in rural areas will probably be left for 2020. This year will be about motivating the base and appealing to appealing to suburban women. Even in these state-level races, the vehemence of Democrats’ dislike for Donald Trump will likely be front and center.

“Trump is unpopular nationally and in North Carolina and you should expect there to be political consequences,” says Hood. “As frustrating as this is for North Carolina politicos who want to talk judicial selection and school choice I guarantee you most of the messaging will be about Trump.”