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Why No One Is Challenging A Third Of NC Lawmakers In This Year's General Elections

Cumberland County Government

The May 6 primary election is a week from today, and television air waves are crowded with ads for North Carolina’s US Senate seat. But some campaigns for the state General Assembly aren’t being advertised at all.

That’s because there is no challenger in about a third of the districts represented in the assembly.

In Central North Carolina, Representative John Szoka likes visiting elementary schools in his district.

“Now,” Szoka says, “we have a lot of state symbols, right? What’s the state bird? What’s the state tree?”

Szoka is teaching fourth-graders how it is that state laws are made. Oh, by the way, the state bird is the cardinal and the tree is the pine. Szoka has students pass their own law about another symbol.

In this year's North Carolina General Assembly elections, no opposition candidate filed against the incumbent party in 60 races. The assembly has 170 seats.

Szoka asks a classroom: “Is there an official state pizza?”

The students reply: “No”

Szoka asks: “Does anyone here think there should be?”

A roaring chorus replies: “Yes.”

Szoka represents the General Assembly’s  House District 45. It’s a mostly rural area that wraps around the southwest corner of Fayetteville.

And this year, he doesn’t have to campaign for his seat. That’s because no one is running against him. He works full time in real estate, so I ask him what else he’s doing now that he doesn’t have to knock on doors for votes.

“It's an interesting way you phrase the question,” Szoka says. “I don't have to spend my time knocking on doors, but I am choosing my time to spend knocking on doors.”

So he’s going to schools, speaking to groups, going to fairs. But Szoka, who is a Republican, says he was actually planning on waging a full campaign for re-election. Before the candidate registration deadline, he asked around about which Democrats might run against him. No one seemed to know.

"And at 12:01 at the last day of filing, I got a call from somebody, 'Congratulations, there's no one against you. You're in,' " Szoka remembers. “I said, 'Oh, thanks a lot.' I hung up, and I didn't really believe it. Somebody else called me and told me the same thing, and I was like, 'How could this be?' "

'A Shift In Who’s Drawing The Maps'

There are a couple of answers to that question. There’s what happened in Szoka’s case, and there’s what’s been happening across the state. In a third of the General Assembly seats this year, there is no opposition candidate running against the incumbent. That means Republicans aren’t challenging Democrats or the other way around.

"I think that North Carolina is a purple state," says Jane Pinsky is the director of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Refrom. "What we’ve seen is a shift in who’s drawing the maps."

She’s talking about the process that happens every 10 years when electoral maps are re-drawn based on population change.

"The Democrats certainly gerrymandered," Pinsky says. "They designed districts that met their needs. They did it really well. The only advantage that Republicans had in 2011 is that computers have gotten better."

In other words, a central reason so many seats are unchallenged is that members of the General Assembly themselves drew them to be heavily Republican or heavily Democratic.

Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College, points out that members of the General Assembly decide on things that have a big impact on people’s lives. Like, who gets unemployment benefits, who gets public health insurance or who gets a tax cut.

"And those are decisions that are made by the general assembly and should be up for, you know, consideration every two years by the voters," Bitzer says. "Do you like what the legislature is doing or do you want different policies? This is accountability in our democracy."

NC House District 45

Now, back to Szoka’s question, the one about how his seat is unchallenged. He is a Republican, so for the answer, I asked the chair of the Cumberland County Democrats, Vikki Andrews.

She says she had a candidate, but the night before the deadline, the candidate told her their spouse didn’t want them to run.

"And, umm, I mean, I did say, 'Well, do you think it would help if I talked to the spouse?' " Andrews remembers. "They were like, 'Nope. Don’t. Nope.' I was like, 'OK.' You know, I said, 'I understand. I have to stay out of that.' "

Andrews actually recruited a second candidate. But when that person didn’t show up for registration the next morning, Andrews called them.

"And then, it was 11:30," she remembers. "I was like, 'What’s going on?' And they say, 'Changed my mind.' At that point, what could I do in 30 minutes? Because, you know, the filing period closes at noon, so there’s nothing to do."

What this means is that House District 45 is one of 60 seats in the General Assembly with no candidate from the opposing party. There are 17 that face a primary challenge from within their party. Unless they face a runoff, they’ll likely be done campaigning next Tuesday.

Jorge Valencia has been with North Carolina Public Radio since 2012. A native of Bogotá, Colombia, Jorge studied journalism at the University of Maryland and reported for four years for the Roanoke Times in Virginia before joining the station. His reporting has also been published in the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, and the Baltimore Sun.
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