By Patrick Gannon
As part of my job, I look each day at a 2014 state House or Senate race. All 170 General Assembly districts are up for grabs this year. I look at the makeup of voters, voting trends in the districts, results from recent elections and the candidates and the money they are raising to spend on advertisements and mailings. With that information, and by talking to other people who watch elections closely, I get an idea about the favorites and underdogs across the state.
The more races I look at, the more it’s clear how few contested General Assembly races there are in 2014. Because of the way districts were drawn by Republicans when they took over the Legislature after the 2010 elections, most House and Senate districts favor either Republicans or Democrats. That means most incumbent legislators on both sides of the aisle have good shots at returning to their seats for two more years. (Gerrymandering of districts is nothing new and not unique to North Carolina, and Democrats did it when they were in charge, too.)
But the way the districts are drawn makes for predictable outcomes, dull election days and questionable democracy.
This year, candidates in 19 of the 50 state Senate districts don’t have opponents Nov. 4. That means the other party believed its odds of winning were so slim that it couldn’t find anyone who wanted to vie for the seat. Each Senate district includes roughly 190,000 people — meaning plenty of potential candidates.
Of the 120 House districts, 59 races, just shy of half, are already decided — barring a successful write-in candidate, because only one name will appear on ballots.
All of this means that voters in two of five Senate districts and nearly half of the House districts won’t have a choice on Election Day about who they want to represent them in state government for the next two years. That’s millions of people who will have representatives or senators who stroll into office without any challenge from a member of the opposite political party.
The disappointing democracy doesn’t end there. In many of the remaining districts, where two or three candidates’ names will appear on ballots, the district statistics are so skewed in favor of one party that the other party’s candidate is a long shot at best, a sure loser at worst.
Those who watch the General Assembly races closely say no more than 13 of the state’s 50 Senate districts are in play this year — and that might be a stretch. They also say no more than 16 or 17 House districts out of 120 have any realistic chance of switching parties. Gerrymandering isn’t the only reason. Lawmakers don’t get rich — at least not on their General Assembly salaries — and spend long hours away from their families and careers during sessions. One political observer said part of the reason for so few competitive races is that state legislators don’t make much money and have to put up with attack ads and negative atmosphere. “You get peanuts to come to this circus and get yelled at,” he said.
Whatever the reason for the disinterest in running for office, it doesn’t seem right. But at least we reporters know we won’t have to keep an eye on most races come Election Day. We already know the winners.
—Patrick Gannon covers the state Legislature for the Capitol Press Association.