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2020 North Carolina Election: Races To Watch In The State Senate

WUNC has all the coverage you need this election season. Check out our 2020 Voter Guide for information on absentee ballots and more. And be sure to check out our Races To Watch stories for everything you need to know about candidates in statewide and legislative elections. Subscribe to WUNC's Politics Podcast, and follow reporters Rusty Jacobs and Jeff Tiberii on Twitter.

Republicans re-claimed the state Senate in North Carolina in 2010 after more than a century in the minority. Two years later, Republicans added a three-fifths veto-proof majority, which they held until after the 2018 elections. Now, the stakes are set for a series of battleground contests. The sought-after prize is majority rule, and the winner gets to lead the next round of redistricting — and draw legislative and Congressional maps.

The state Senate is a 50-seat chamber and presently has 29 Republicans and 21 Democrats. That means Democrats need to net five seats, or pick up four and the Lieutenant Governor post. Similar to the Vice President casting tie-breaking votes in the U.S. Senate, the North Carolina Lt. Governor — generally a role with limited power — breaks ties in the state chamber.

And remember there are new, never-before-run-on legislative districts in play this year. That’s because in 2019, three state judges struck down dozens of legislative districts for being extreme partisan gerrymanders that violated the state constitution. Lawmakers were ordered to establish new boundaries for the 2020 election.

The new maps help set the stage for what is already a momentous election year. In addition to being a national battleground in the race for the White House, North Carolina is one of just five states in the country with U.S. Senate and Gubernatorial elections this fall. Those more prominent top of the ballot races, coupled with legislative contests and the fight for redistricting make this the most consequential election in North Carolina since at least 1980.

In total, about one fourth of the state senators from this past legislative session will not return in 2021. Several retired, four ran — unsuccessfully — for other posts, and in doing so relinquished running for re-election in their current seats.

In all, 11 incumbents — eight Republicans and three Democrats — did not file for reelection. One Republican, District 29’s Eddie Gallimore, was defeated in the primary. That makes 12 open seats, the most since 2012.

However, only a few races are truly competitive.

Let’s take a look at the new map and the math. Pundits, pollsters and political scientists expect Democrats to easily pick-up two seats, districts more favorable following the re-draw.

Likely Democratic Pick-Ups In Redrawn Districts

  •  SD-18: The expiring Senate District 18 includes a crescent of northeastern Wake County and all of Franklin County. Republican incumbent John Alexander’s time in the Senate will expire at the end of December. He decided not to run in what will now be a more Democratic constituency, with the redrawn district including much of Eastern Wake County. Democrat Sarah Crawford — who ran unsuccessfully for this seat in 2014 — is viewed as having a strong shot at victory. She is opposed by Republican Larry Norman, a Louisburg-based lawyer who was at one time a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

  • SD-39: The last person to win this Mecklenburg County seat was Republican Dan Bishop, perhaps best known for authoring and championing House Bill 2. Bishop won a special re-do Congressional election in September 2019 and is running for re-election to the U.S. House. After redistricting, state Senate District 39 looks much more favorable to a Democrat. DeAndrea Salvador is expected to defeat Joshua Niday in a few weeks. Salvador is a UNC-Charlotte graduate and the founder of RETI, a non-profit focused on helping families sustainably reduce energy costs. She also previously served on the Mecklenburg County Air Quality Commission. Niday, who ran unsuccessfully for House District 99 in 2018, is an insurance broker.

Open (and competitive)

Lisa Barnes Allen Wellons
Credit Campaign Photos
Lisa Barnes faces Allen Wellons in the race for the open state Senate seat in District 11.

  • SD-11: This constituency includes all of Nash and parts of Johnston Counties and leans to the right. When Republican Rick Horner, who currently holds this seat, announced his retirement, the open district was enticing enough for Republican Lisa Barnes to give up her seat in the NC House, to run for a spot in the upper chamber. She’s opposed by Democrat Allen Wellons, who served three terms in the state Senate from 1997 to 2003 and knows part of the district well. Wellons was part of a long list of candidates endorsed by President Obama back in August. Dark money attack ads have been directed at both candidates in this race.

JD Wooten Amy Galley
Credit Campaign Photos
Republican Amy Galley faces J.D. Wooten, a Democrat and Air Force veteran, in the race for District 24.

  • SD-24: This Alamance County seat could very well end up being the tipping point as to which party has power in the chamber come January. It is described by both sides as a toss-up. Republican Rick Gunn is stepping down after six terms, and the race to replace him is between Republican Amy Galey, a county commissioner, and Democrat J.D. Wooten, an Air Force veteran. Both are lawyers in the county, and Wooten ran unsuccessfully for this seat in 2018. Galey has accused Wooten of illegally using a Veterans Affairs-backed loan to purchase a home. In turn, Wooten has sued her for libel.

According to Democratic and Republican strategists, both of these open seat races — in SD-11 and SD-24 — could see campaign spending by both major party candidates exceeding $1 million. And all that for a seat that provides annual compensation of just under $14,000. Again, the stakes are high.

The Lightest Hue of Blue

Among the tightest races this year are a pair of re-matches from the 2018 midterms.

Harper Peterson Michael Lee
Credit Campaign Photos
Democratic incumbent Harper Peterson faces Republican Michael Lee in the race for state Senate District 9.

  • SD-9: District 9 in coastal New Hanover County pits Democratic incumbent Harper Peterson, a former Wilmington mayor, against Republican Michael Lee, a commercial real estate and land use attorney. Two years ago, Lee was the incumbent and Peterson knocked him off by 231 votes, or 0.27% of the vote. While this new district — and a downtown Wilmington precinct — is seen as slightly more favorable to the incumbent, voter turnout and local water quality issues could carry the day. WHQR interviewed both candidates in early September.

Kirk deViere Wesley Meredith
Credit Campaign Photos
Incumbent Democrat Kirk deViere is facing Republican challenger Wesley Meredith in District 19.

  • SD-19: The situation in Cumberland County is very similar. This time around, Democrat Kirk deViere is the incumbent seeking another term, and Republican challenger Wesley Meredith is attempting to take back the seat that was his from 2011 to 2019. Two years ago, DeViere narrowly topped Meredith by 433 votes, which amounted to less than 1%. The environment is an issue in this district, too. The water quality concerns facing Wilmington voters began upstream in the Cape Fear River in Fayetteville, where PFAS, or polyfluoroalkyl substances, such as GenX, entered the watershed at Chemours plants. DeViere is the president of a public relations firm, while Meredith, a former Army sergeant, owns a landscaping business.

GOP Playing Defense

  • SD-1: This Northeastern District spans 11 counties, largely rural in population, positioned around the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds. Republican incumbent Bob Steinburg, a veteran lawmaker, carried the race two years ago by more than six points. Now, Democrats are optimistic that Tess Judge, a Kitty Hawk business owner, is popular enough to make this competitive. Judge ran unsuccessfully for the District 6 House seat in 2018, and her late husband ran for that same seat in 2016. Tess and the late Warren Judge were named Co-Citizens of the Year by the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce in 2011.

  • SD-31: Republican Joyce Krawiec is a four-term incumbent serving parts of suburban Forsyth County and all of Davie County. While she has never received less than 61% of the general election vote, her redrawn district should make things decidedly more competitive in 2020. Democratic challenger Terri LeGrand has raised around $500,000 while campaigning for this seat. She and other Democrats concede that if they’re to take back the chamber, this is a must-win. LeGrand works in financial aid at Wake Forest University and previously ran unsuccessfully for the District 74 state House seat in 2018.

Trending Away?

The map of competition for Democrats and Republicans doesn’t end with these seats. However, insiders with both parties concede that flipping other districts may be quite challenging in a moment of hyper politicalization and darkening pockets of red and blue. 

The conventional wisdom is that Democratic incumbents in urban areas and sitting Republicans in more rural areas aren’t sweating too much. The districts that may be harder to flip in 2020 include the following:

Drifting further to the left?

  • SD-17: Sam Searcy (D-Wake); challenged by Mark Cavaliero (R)
  • SD-27: Michael Garrett (D-Guilford); challenged bySebastian King (R)

Hardening on the Right?

  • SD-7: Jim Perry (R-Lenoir, Wayne); challenged by Donna Lake (D)
  • SD-13: Danny Earl Brit (R-Robeson); challenged by Barbara Yates-Lockamy (D)

And Don’t Forget About…

In Senate District 3, Democratic incumbent Erica Smith did not seek re-election for her seat and instead ran for the U.S. Senate, finishing second in the primary to nominee Cal Cunningham. Vying for the opening seat in a district that represents Beaufort, Bertie, Martin, Northampton, Vance and Warren counties is Democrat Ernestine Basemore and Republican Thomas Hester Jr.

Jeff Tiberii covers politics for WUNC. Before that, he served as the station's Greensboro Bureau Chief.
Mitchell Northam is a Digital Producer for WUNC. His past work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SB Nation, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and is also a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for women's college basketball.
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