The state of play heading into Election Day
Polls, early voting bode well for Republicans — but red wave may not translate to supermajority in the General Assembly
Tuesday night should be a good one for Republicans. The question is to what degree.
Around the country, there are signs of a major red wave that will reshape governance in the United States. Republican challenger Lee Zeldin has a real chance to be the next governor of New York, and blue seats are set to flip in both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate. The president’s party typically loses seats in Congress during the first mid-term election, and this year that trend is compounded by four-decade highs in inflation and concerns about violent crime.
But how will that translate to North Carolina? Here, the picture is more complicated. Our governor is not on the ballot, and new electoral districts make the General Assembly picture harder to analyze. However, it’s already pretty clear that Republicans have the opportunity to overperform — winning in areas that two years ago were out of reach.
Here’s what we know heading into tomorrow’s Election Day.
Before we start: Polling is inherently flawed, and only getting worse. Different firms conduct their polling in significantly different ways. Some use only likely voters, while others survey all potential voters. Many use formulas to correct sampling biases, with different assumptions. Generally, when you look at a poll the actual numbers are less important than how they’ve changed over time and how they compare to previous election cycles.
U.S. Senate race no longer close
FiveThirtyEight: Budd 48.4, Beasley 44.6
John Locke: Budd 46.9, Beasley 43.1
Meredith Poll: Budd 43.9, Beasley 42.7
ECU: Budd 50, Beasley 44
Emerson: Budd 50.2, Beasley 45.2
Carolina Forward: Budd 45, Beasley 45
This race is no longer close. U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, has a lead in virtually every single poll conducted over the last six weeks — and that lead is growing. Over the summer, several polls had the race virtually tied.
In Senate races, you can generally add a point or two to the Republican candidate from whatever most polls show. Cal Cunningham held a small lead in the 2020 Senate polls for most of his race against U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis. Tillis went on to win narrowly.
This year’s poll results are much more similar to the 2010 Senate race between U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall. Burr consistently came in with a two- to five-point advantage. In the end, Burr won in a rout, 55-43. Budd’s race likely won’t be quite that lopsided, but a six-point victory would not be surprising.
General Assembly generic ballot polls are inclusive
John Locke: Republicans 50.1, Democrats 43.9
Meredith Poll: State Senate Republicans 44.7, State Senate Democrats 43.8; State House Republicans 44.3, State House Democrats 44.
High Point University: Democrats 40, Republicans 39
Carolina Forward: Democrats 47, Republicans 45
It’s much harder to find General Assembly generic ballot polls. Few organizations do them, and even fewer track them over time. One was the John Locke Foundation, which is finding a growing advantage for Republicans. In August, Locke had the generic ballot gap at 47.9% to 42.9% in favor of Republicans. That five-point spread is now a six-point spread.
Of course, these generic ballot polls can only tell you so much. The General Assembly isn’t elected statewide, but in districts. I’d imagine the House and Senate caucuses have done some polling in individual races, but there’s no publicly available data on the key state House and Senate contests.
I’m on record as predicting that the GOP will take a supermajority in the Senate, but narrowly miss out in the House. I stand by that prediction, though I’m even less sure of it than I was two weeks ago.
The big reason why is in messaging. Republican General Assembly members do not have a cohesive message for why they should be given more power. Instead, members are largely relying on the top of the ticket and the power of incumbency. Democrats, on the other hand, DO have a strong unifying message: Elect us to sustain Governor Cooper’s veto. The governor, for some reason, is still relatively popular in North Carolina and voters are often suspicious of power. This may be enough to sway a small number of swing voters, enough to hold onto a few Democrat-leaning districts in the suburban areas Republicans need for a supermajority.
For what it’s worth: Back in 2010, several polls had Democrats ahead in General Assembly generic ballot races. Republicans wound up swamping Democrats in districts they drew themselves, taking the majority for the first time in a century.
N.C. Supreme Court polling
John Locke: Dietz (R) 48.8, Inman (D) 42.4; Allen (R) 49.4, Ervin (D) 42
Meredith: Democrat 44.9, Republican 43.7
HPU: Democrat 41, Republican 38
Supreme Court races are generally low information and heavily influenced by the bigger-name contests on the ballot. I expect this year to be no different.
Likely what you’re seeing here is that voters who are in favor of Beasley are comfortable saying they’ll vote for the Democrat on the Supreme Court. Unaffiliated voters who favor Budd may not be comfortable telling a pollster that they’ll also support the Republican for Supreme Court — but they almost certainly will when they get into the voting booth.
Expect this race to track the U.S. Senate results fairly well, but end up a bit closer with a smaller number of total votes.
Somewhere near half of this year’s ballots have already been cast, primarily through one-stop early voting. Democrats typically win the early voting period, while Republicans do much better on Election Day proper. You may recall that in 2020, nearly every statewide Democratic candidate was ahead when the first results came in — and then one by one, races started to flip as precincts started to report.
Republican strategist Jim Blaine pointed out on the Spectrum News podcast this week that in recent cycles, Democrats typically make up 42.5% of the first early voting days, with Republicans at 27.5%. By the end of the first week, Republicans have caught up slightly, with the spread being more like 39-30.
The last week of early voting is where the difference is made. In a good year for Democrats, this spread holds steady. In a good Republican year, GOP early votes catch up significantly. That’s exactly what happened this year.
By the end of early voting on Saturday, Democrats made up 38.1% of early voters, with Republicans at 31.3% and unaffiliated voters at 30.2%, according to the latest data from the State Board of Elections. That’s out of 2.1 million votes cast early.
That’s significantly different from the last midterm year (2018), when Democrats made up 42.5% of the early vote, with 30.3% being Republicans and 26.9% unaffiliated out of more than 2 million ballots cast early. This is the year Democrats broke the supermajority in the General Assembly and generally did well.
In 2010, the last Republican wave election, Democrats racked up 46.4% of the early vote, compared with 36.5% for Republicans. This is harder to translate to today, for several reasons. One, early voting was not nearly as popular a decade ago. About 961,000 votes were cast early in the 2010 election, less than half of what we’ll get this year. Also, Democrat affiliation has declined significantly since then as more conservative voters became Republicans or unaffiliated voters.
The first thing to watch on Tuesday
The results of early voting are published soon after the polls close, which will be 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. Republican strategist Paul Shumaker told The Assembly this weekend that if GOP statewide candidates are down by 100,000 votes or fewer at that point, you’re looking at a “red tidal wave.”
Assuming registered Republicans and Democrats largely voted for their party members, that would mean the GOP would need to capture roughly 53.5% of the unaffiliated early vote. Our state’s unaffiliated voters largely swing Republican already, so this is certainly doable in this environment.
7 things of note
Leandro decision is clear judicial activism — but a new Supreme Court is likely coming
Since I started kindergarten, the North Carolina judicial system has sought to determine whether the state is adequately providing for the education of its children. In 1994, a group of parents in poorer southeastern counties sued the state, alleging that North Carolina did not provide enough money for their children to receive an adequate education. Three years later, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that the state constitution requires a “sound basic education,” and that North Carolina currently wasn’t providing one to all students. This was the Leandro case, and its iterations have been active in the court system ever since.
A lot has changed in North Carolina public education since then, much of it as a direct result of the case. The state has a dedicated fund to boost low-wealth counties, created advanced teacher roles to broaden the impact of the best educators, and spent millions to end the waitlist for public pre-K.
However, the court system has continued to rule that North Carolina is still failing to provide all students a sound, basic education. I don’t disagree. Too many children are stuck in underperforming schools. The issue is how to solve it, and the Democrat-run court has a one-track mind on this: Increase funding from the General Assembly. Last year, I tackled this issue and why it’s misguided:
Which leads us to today. The latest series of court battles has been over how much power the judiciary has to dictate North Carolina’s response to its education failures.
The court overseeing the Leandro case commissioned a report from the liberal San Francisco-based consulting group WestEd, which came up with a multi-billion-dollar plan that purports to help the state meet its requirements. Last year, a judge ordered the General Assembly to allocate $1.75 billion to fund this plan.
Obviously, this raises all sorts of constitutional issues. The General Assembly has the power of the purse and the responsibility to dictate policy choices. The court system is within its rights to declare North Carolina is failing to adequately educate students, but it’s the legislature’s job to figure out how to meet that requirement. Multiple times, the state Supreme Court has recognized this elementary level of understanding of our country’s system of government.
That all changed on Friday. The Democratic majority on the N.C. Supreme Court ruled 4-3 along partisan lines that its justices do have the power to require the General Assembly to spend the money and implement the judiciary’s own preferred plan. From the opinion:
“For twenty-five years, the judiciary has deferred to the executive and legislative branches to implement a comprehensive solution to this ongoing constitutional violation. Today, that deference expires.”
This is a radical view of the judiciary's role and creates a constitutional crisis (very similar to the one in the Moore v. Harper case I wrote about last week). It’s also worth pointing out that this case is no longer adversarial between the low-wealth counties and the state. Instead, the Democrat-run attorney general’s office has cut the General Assembly out of the picture altogether. Justice Phil Berger Jr. sums it up neatly in his dissent:
“Fundamentally, and contrary to what plaintiffs, executive branch defendants, and the majority would have the public believe, this case is not about North Carolina’s failure to afford its children with the opportunity to receive a sound basic education. The essence of this case is power—who has the power to craft educational policy and who has the authority to fund that policy.”
The case now goes back to the trial court level to determine exactly how much money must be transferred. By the time that happens and the appeal process runs its course, there will presumably be a new majority on the N.C. Supreme Court. Perhaps they will reinstate some measure of sanity.
Wake County school board latest to virtue-signal in lieu of doing actual work to help students
As misguided as the Supreme Court ruling was, at least the justices are displaying some urgency about the education crisis in North Carolina. The same cannot be said for the school boards in the state’s largest larger urban districts.
Test scores are abysmally low for North Carolina students in general, but they’re downright catastrophic for low-income and minority students. But instead of working urgently to bring these scores up, these school boards are spending time crafting “equity” policies.
Wake County is the latest to do so. Their school board is close to passing an equity policy that promises to fix its problems through a series of platitudes. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools passed a similar policy in 2019, and Winston-Salem/Forsyth did so in 2020.
There’s nothing wrong with these policies, per se. The issue is that school board members pat themselves on the back for passing them, while displaying little to no urgency to do anything about chronic underachievement. WCPSS has not put together a strategic plan since 2014, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools hasn’t had a superintendent with any ideas since that same year.
Gov. Cooper wants to examine how university trustees are appointed
Gov. Roy Cooper announced this week that he's signed an executive order forming a committee to study how North Carolina appoints members to the Board of Governors that oversees the UNC system and to each university's Board of Trustees. In his office's press release, the governor is apparently concerned about "undue political influence and bureaucratic meddling."
The problem is that the public university is inherently political, and should be. The General Assembly chartered the university in 1789, and it continues to exist at the pleasure of the people of North Carolina, as represented in the legislature. The North Carolina Constitution stipulates that the General Assembly shall select the members of the university system's Board of Governors and all university boards of trustees. Accomplishing what Cooper wants would likely take a constitutional amendment, and any efforts toward that are obviously DOA in the legislature.
Gov. Jim Hunt campaigned as a modern Republican
I recently finished reading Gary Pearce’s brief biography of former Gov. Jim Hunt. It’s really more of a memoir of Pearce’s work on the Hunt campaigns and in the Hunt administration, and is biased by Pearce’s adulation of his long-time boss. But it’s fascinating just the same, and well worth the read for anybody seeking to understand the latter half of the 20th Century in North Carolina.
As the book traced the path of Hunt’s gubernatorial campaigns, I was continually struck by how much he sounded like today’s Republican Party in North Carolina. Hunt campaigned as:
Tough on crime, calling for a special session of the legislature on the issue in 1994
Fiscally responsible and anti-tax, pushing lower tax rates
In favor of more accountability in public education, including high standards and mandatory testing
Wary of bureaucracy, as we see in the Smart Start structure
Pro-gun, courting the NRA endorsement in 1996
Pushing personal responsibility, as evidenced by his work-first welfare reform.
This is essentially a model for what North Carolina is looking for in a governor, and it’s really no wonder why Hunt won an unprecedented four terms. Expect Attorney General Josh Stein to try to model himself after Hunt in 2024.
Mark Robinson’s unconventional memoir
Speaking of 2024, I also had the opportunity to read Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s new memoir “We Are the Majority: The Life and Passions of a Patriot.” It traces Robinson’s early years, then goes in-depth into his rise to power. Robinson’s story is unique in North Carolina: He is the first major political figure in the modern era to rise from hard-scrabble, inner-city poverty to statewide office, and the first to attain office primarily based on viral internet popularity. His personal story is remarkable and inspiring, lending Robinson a gravitas when he speaks on topics like education and economic mobility.
But it simply doesn’t translate in his book. In the context of his impending run for Governor of North Carolina, “We Are the Majority” is, frankly, bizarre. Political memoirs are tricky things. They can be useful in political myth-making, fleshing out sometimes-apocryphal stories that will be trotted out on the campaign trail to explain why the candidate is passionate about public service. Or they can outline the underpinnings of the candidate’s political philosophy, almost a manifesto for a future administration.
“We Are the Majority” does neither. In frenetic early chapters, Robinson careens between descriptions of his mother being brutally beaten to reminiscences of putting sugar in his Frosted Flakes. He spends paragraphs describing his habit of spinning in circles in his backyard, while only mentioning in passing his sister’s sexual assault in the foster care system. Entire chapters are devoted to professional wrestling and model trains, but he never really reflects on his experiences to explain the impact his upbringing had on his life. Perhaps he’s never truly come to grips with it himself.
Abortions in North Carolina spike post-Dobbs
Abortions in North Carolina have risen faster than in any other state in the country since the Dobbs decision this summer. The number of babies killed in the womb across the state rose 37% between April and August, according to a report from the Society of Family Planning. Elsewhere in the Southeast, abortions have plummeted — decreasing by more than half in Georgia and South Carolina, and by 78% in Tennessee. Nationally, abortions overall fell 6%.
Presumably, this is evidence that women seeking abortions have traveled out of state to get them, if laws in their own states have changed to protect the unborn at earlier stages. Gov. Roy Cooper has encouraged North Carolina as a destination for abortion, and other states that have taken a similar approach have seen similar increases: Colorado abortions are up 33%.
However, the data is limited because there are no year-over-year comparisons. It would be more useful to know how abortions this August compared to abortions in August 2021. The state of North Carolina has yet to report abortion statistics for 2021 or this year.
Election update coming Wednesday; next week’s issue will be on the UNC admissions case
We’ll be back in your inbox late Tuesday or early Wednesday with a recap of the midterm election. Substack has recently rolled out a “chat” function, so perhaps I’ll open up a thread on Tuesday for any of our readers who want to discuss the results as they come in.
Next week, I’ll tackle the UNC admissions case that went before the U.S. Supreme Court this past week. I’ve spent hours poring through the case file, and just couldn’t pull together my thoughts fast enough to include here.
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