In Fayetteville, a Democrat unseated an incumbent Republican mayor who scrutinized his legal troubles.
In Charlotte, voters elected a Democrat despite the state GOP dumping $100,000 into her opponent’s campaign and trying to tie her to the previous mayor’s most controversial moves.
And one state north, a Democrat not only won Virginia governor’s race but the party also at least 15 seats in the state’s House of Delegates – marking the largest shift in control of the legislature since the Watergate era. New Jersey elected a Democratic governor too.
What does it all mean?
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North Carolina Democrats say the election results in and out of state show a rebuke of President Donald Trump and the divisive rhetoric that they say local Republicans employed in races across the state. Furthermore, they see reasons to believe they can gain influence in the state legislature by picking up seats in next year’s election.
Gov. Roy Cooper is a Democrat but the state House and state Senate are controlled by Republicans, meaning they have the votes to pass their agenda and override Cooper if he vetoes legislation. Democrats need four House seats or six Senate seats to break the Republican supermajorities.
“I think what we witnessed last night was the match that lit the fuse for 2018,” said Brad Crone, a Democratic political strategist.
Local elections in which Democrats won will help energize the party to recruit candidates and engage voters, Crone said. To break the supermajorities in the N.C. General Assembly, he said Democrats must find centrist candidates to appeal to unaffiliated voters: “That’s where the fight is.”
With the Republican Nat Robertson losing to Mitch Colvin in Fayetteville, Democrats or left-leaning independents will soon serve as mayor in each of North Carolina’s nine largest cities.
In Raleigh, unaffiliated incumbent Nancy McFarlane defeated Democrat Charles Francis on Tuesday in a nonpartisan election. But that result wasn’t considered a blow for Democrats, considering their endorsement of McFarlane in her previous runs and her reputation for being liberal.
On Wednesday, Cooper’s campaign and the N.C. Democratic Party circulated press releases about the “big blue wave” gaining momentum.
“Democrats are fired up and ready to Break the Republican supermajority, and are rejecting Republican’s divisive politics, racist dog whistles, and policies that hurt our middle class,” said Wayne Goodwin, chairman of the N.C. Democratic Party.
Democratic legislators celebrated the win by using social media to encourage their supporters to get involved.
“If you like what happened in VA, watch NC in 2018,” state Rep. Grier Martin tweeted.
Republicans admit that next year might be challenging but cast doubt on the Tuesday’s results as foreshadowing of big Democratic victories to come. Political experts, too, urged caution in reading too much into the results.
Curb your enthusiasm?
For one, Virginia leans more to the Democrats than North Carolina. While Trump won North Carolina, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton carried Virginia.
Kory Swanson, president of the conservative John Locke Foundation, said Republicans should be concerned but can win if they refrain from “ad hominem attacks.”
“They should stay on message — tax reform, regulatory reform, education reform, etc,” Swanson wrote on the Locke website. “In other words, expanding freedom for all North Carolinians. The economy is doing well. Keep focused.”
Dallas Woodhouse, director of the N.C. GOP, acknowledged that the party will have “unique challenges” in winning legislative races next year. But he noted that a Republican was elected mayor of Greenville – North Carolina’s 10th-largest city, and that the number of registered unaffiliated voters and Republican voters is rising.
“Also our legislative Republicans can run on actually getting legislation passed to raise teacher pay, cut taxes and create jobs,” Woodhouse said. “In the current environment, having a demonstrated record of passing legislation as our NCGOP legislature does, is very helpful.”
And a year is “an eternity” to pass new health care or tax laws at the national level, said Chris Sinclair, a Republican strategist. Sinclair said that the Democratic wins in Charlotte, Fayetteville and Virginia shouldn’t come as a surprise since they’ve elected Democrats previously.
But Democrats certainly have reason to be encouraged, he said.
“It will take a massive, massive wave for Republicans to lose power in the General Assembly,” he said. “Will they lose their supermajority? That’s always a possibility.”
Legislative maps uncertain
It’s unclear how many seats the Democrats could realistically flip in the legislature. Clouding the political crystal ball is the fact that the courts may implement new N.C. House and Senate maps before next November.
Federal judges earlier this year found election maps drawn by legislative Republicans in 2011 include 28 districts that are unconstitutional racial gerrymanders, prompting a redraw by the legislature. Several districts in the new maps are now under scrutiny from an independent mapmaker appointed by judges.
Regardless, if the national sentiment toward Trump persists, legislators in suburban districts might be the most at-risk, said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University.
“Where it might cause some consternation is how it affects the Nelson Dollars and Tamara Barringers of the world,” Taylor said, referring to state Sen. Barringer and state Rep. Dollar, who represent parts of southern and western Wake County.
Taylor said he’s not singling out Dollar and Barringer. He says Republicans like them who live in or near large metropolitan areas might have to campaign as moderates.
“It’s almost cliché to talk about the urban-rural divide, but there’s something to it,” he said.
What are Dems doing?
Dennis Rogers, coordinator of Shaw University’s political science program, says Republicans have had a better “ground game” than Democrats in recent years.
“With the advent of soft money and political acumen of organizations like the Koch Brothers and the political intensity of voters, they’ve had a superior strategy to Democrats to date,” Rogers said.
The Democrats will need a “comprehensive, statewide plan” to win next year and in 2020, he said.
The N.C. Democratic Party believes it’s come up with just that with their “Break the Majority” effort, a collaboration between the state party and the governor’s campaign.
“There’s never been a partnership between a Democratic governor and the state party in which he is fundraising for down-the-ballot races,” said Robert Howard, the party spokesman.
Sarah Nagem contributed to this story