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North Carolina’s role as a pivotal 2020 battleground state for the White House and U.S. Senate has been well documented. Donald Trump is unlikely to secure another four years as president without carrying North Carolina, and the winner between Thom Tillis and Cal Cunningham may end up determining which party controls the Senate.
However, beyond the consequential top of the ballot contests, an even greater prize lingers on Election Day: control of the North Carolina General Assembly. Since 2020 is a census year, state lawmakers will handle the next round of redistricting in 2021. That means new boundaries for congressional and legislative districts, and the opportunity to cultivate power for the next decade.
Republicans presently hold simple majorities in the state Senate and House. There are several state Senate races this year that are crucial, as there are 12 open seats in the 50-seat chamber and a few incumbents who could lose.
The North Carolina House of Representatives has 120 members, each serving a district of about 78,000 constituents, which is far smaller than the state Senate districts. This is noteworthy, as outcomes can be tighter and swayed by seemingly small variables. College towns could play a big role in this year’s election.
Currently, the NC House is composed of 65 Republicans and 55 Democrats. When the chamber is full, a party needs 61 seats for a majority and 72 for a supermajority, which is not expected to be in play this fall. So, Democrats need to net six seats to retake the chamber which they lost in 2010.
Before the primaries, 15 incumbent House members opted not to run for reelection, and 11 of them were Republicans. Another member — Democrat Elmer Floyd of District 43 — was defeated in the primary. In all, there are 16 open races without an incumbent, the most since 2012 when 33 seats were open.
And – friendly reminder – these legislative campaigns feature dozens of new, never-before-run-on-districts. In the summer of 2019, a panel of three state judges struck down dozens of NC House Districts for being overly partisan, and violating the state constitution. Last fall, legislators drew new legislative maps for many House races, which are now in-play.
The path to a Democratic majority in the House is more cluttered than in the Senate.
Here is an overview of the key races to watch this election season in the NC House.
*Denotes college town
- HD-1: Having served just one term in the House, Republican Ed Goodwin’s incumbency advantages are limited. Goodwin served in the Air Force, retired from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and in 2012 ran unsuccessfully for NC’s secretary of state, losing to Elaine Marshall. He is opposed in this race by Democrat Emily Nicholson, a former educator who now works with the NC Commerce Department. Nicholson is also the mother of three young children. This is Nicholson’s first time running for elected office and, according to reports, has received the bulk of her fundraising from out-of-state donors. This district sits on the inner banks in Northeastern NC and is widely viewed as a toss-up.
- HD-9*: The last candidate to carry this Pitt County district — Republican Greg Murphy — has since ascended to the U.S. House of Representatives. After Murphy won a special election in Sept. 2019 to fill the seat vacated when Congressman Walter Jones died, Dr. Perrin Jones was tapped to fill-out the term. He’s now running for re-election against Democrat Brian Farkas. Farkas previously ran for this seat in 2016, but garnered just a bit over 42% of the vote in a loss to Murphy. This district includes much of Greenville, and a considerable number of East Carolina University students. The redrawn ninth district now trends lightly blue, and operatives on both sides of the aisle agree a strong showing among young voters could oust the incumbent.
- HD-12: District 12 borders District 9 to the Southwest, and encompasses southern Pitt County and Lenoir. Republican Chris Humphrey, 59, is another first-term legislator. He defeated a Democratic incumbent in 2018. Humphrey is running against Democrat Virginia Cox-Daugherty, 74, a retired educator and the daughter of a sharecroppers. She holds two doctorate degrees, an M.B.A. from Long Island University of New York, and a master’s degree in education from East Carolina University.
- HD-45: Four-term Republican incumbent John Szoka of Cumberland County — one of the more powerful members of the House — is facing his toughest reelection bout yet. This redrawn district, which sits in part of Fayetteville, has an increased number of Black voters and is seen as another ripe pick-up possibility by the left. Challenging him is Democrat Frances Vinell Jackson, who is a professor at Fayetteville Technical Community College. Jackson has not held elected office before, but handily won the Democratic nomination with nearly 70% of the vote. She has also been endorsed by former President Barack Obama.
- HD-46: Republican incumbent Brenden Jones, 46, serves parts of Columbus and Robeson Counties, which can be found in the southeastern part of the state along the South Carolina border. In just two terms he has risen to a leadership post in the House with key positions on appropriations and disaster relief committees. Aiming to unseat him is Democrat Tim Heath, 66, a retired educator. This district — which has also been redrawn — now leans ever-so-slightly to the left. Heath is a two-time graduate of Fayetteville State University and this is his first time running for elected office.
- HD-63: Another longtime incumbent in danger of losing his seat is Republican Stephen Ross of Alamance County. First elected in 2012, he leads the finance committee and is now campaigning in a less favorable district. His general election opponent is Ricky Hurtado, a first-generation American who has received endorsements from President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Democrats and Republicans agree if the House is to change hands, this is a district that has to flip. Hurtado, the 31-year-old son of Salvadoran immigrants, has tried to mobilize Latino voters in the district.
- HD-66: Democratic incumbent Scott Brewer was appointed to this seat in 2019 after Ken Goodman was appointed to the utilities commission. Goodman was one of the last remaining truly moderate Democrats in the legislature and Brewer is trying to strike a similar tone with a focus on education as he pursues another term. This district — which includes rural Montgomery, Richmond and Stanly Counties — has taken on a more vibrant reddish tone in recent election cycles. Republicans say this is their best opportunity for a flip, and Ben Moss is the candidate they believe will do it. Attacks from both sides heated up in September when Moss called Brewer “anti-God” in response to being called “Bad News Ben” in an ad.
- HD-93*: In 2018, amidst the district becoming a bit more blue, Democrat Ray Russell of Watauga County knocked off Republican incumbent Jonathan Jordan for this seat. Now it’s Russell, in a district that is light red, trying to avoid a similar fate. Republican Ray Pickett, a small business owner from Blowing Rock, is the challenger. He supports following CDC pandemic guidelines, and is opposed to the expansion of Medicaid in its current form. This High County district, which includes Ashe County and borders Tennessee, includes the college town of Boone. Strategists say that without a strong showing by college-aged voters from Appalachian State University, Russell’s path back to the House gets considerably more slippery.
- HD-119*: Similar to District 93 this is a district that went from Republican to Democrat in 2018 and is very much in-play this election cycle, due in part to young voters. And the two candidates — Democratic incumbent Joe Sam Queen and Republican Mike Clampitt — are familiar with one another. This is the fifth consecutive election cycle these two have squared off. Queen was in the state Senate from 2007 to 2011, representing District 47, and held this seat from 2013 to 2017 before taking it back in 2019. Clampitt is a former captain of the Charlotte Fire Department and held this seat from 2017 to 2019. The Haywood, Jackson, and Swain County district has a Libertarian streak, and includes the campus of Western Carolina University.
There are a number of Mecklenburg and Wake County House Districts where Democrats are vying to hold their position. We will likely learn on Election Night if several of these districts were truly competitive, or slipped further away from Republicans. Among those to keep an eye on are HD-35 where first-term Democratic incumbent Terence Everitt faces Republican challenger Fred Von Cannon, and HD-36, where Democratic incumbent Julie Von Haefen is battling Republican challenger Kim Coley. Perhaps the tightest race in Wake County is between Democratic incumbent Sydney Batch and Republican challenger Erin Pare in District 37.
Elsewhere in Mecklenburg County, four other Districts are up for grabs:
- HD-98: Democratic incumbent Christy Clark and Republican challenger John Bradford find themselves in a 2018 re-match. Bradford won this seat in 2014 and 2016, but Clark edged him out by 415 votes in the last cycle. Bradford is seen as having the best shot of any urban conservative for a win.
- HD-103: This is another re-match, this one between Democratic incumbent Rachel Hunt and Republican Bill Brawley, the incumbent she knocked off by a whipping 68 votes two years ago. Now re-drawn, Hunt may have a wider margin of victory.
- HD-104: Another toss-up on paper, though a strong Democratic turnout could make it less favorable to Republican challenger Don Pomeroy. Democratic incumbent Brandon Lofton claimed this seat in 2018 by defeating the former incumbent, Republican Andy Dulin. Both candidates in this south Charlotte race have raised more than $100,000, according to reports.
- HD-105: Democratic incumbent Wesley Harris is trying to fend off Republican challenger Amy Bynum. Harris, a member of four House committees, won this seat in 2018 by defeating Repuboican Scott Stone, then the Republican incumbent. Bynum has not previously run for elected office before, but she’s been the secretary of the Mecklenburg County’s GOP since 2018.
Three House districts – HD-20 (New Hanover), HD-59 (Guilford) and HD-74 (Forsyth) – each serve as a potential barometer for 2020 outcomes. In suburban Wilmington, Democratic challenger Adam Erickson is trying to defeat Republican incumbent Ted Davis. Outside of Greensboro, Democrat Nicole Quick is aiming to end the tenure of Republican Jon Hardister. And in the suburbs of Winston-Salem, Republican Jeff Zenger and Democrat Dan Besse are competing for a seat left open by Republican Debra Conrad, who had represented the district since 2012.
- HD-43: Democrat Elmer Floyd has held this seat since 2009, but he won’t be in the House chambers next year after losing a primary challenge to Kimberly Hardy of Fayetteville, who has been endorsed by President Obama. A graduate of Morgan State University — an HBCU in Baltimore — Hardy is a professor at Fayetteville State University. This district leans heavily to the left, but Hardy is facing a fight from Republican Diane Wheatley. In 2012, she ran for the HD-45 seat, but lost in the primary to John Szoka.
- HD-117: Republican Tim Moffitt – who previously served in the House from 2011 to 2014 representing western Buncombe County – was already the Republican nominee for this seat left open by Rep. Chuck McGrady of Henderson County. But McGrady didn’t just not decide to run for reelection. He resigned in early October, forcing Gov. Roy Cooper to make a temporary appointment to his seat, which went to Moffitt because he was the choice of local Republicans in the district. Moffitt hopes to keep the seat come Election Day, but faces a challenge from Democrat Josh Remillard of Mills River, who is an Army veteran and a graduate of the University of Washington.