2018 Election Analysis: NC House
Last update: 11/13/18
Democrats needed to pick up 4 seats in the NC House to break the Republican supermajority and 15 seats to break the majority. On Tuesday, they picked up 10 seats, breaking the supermajority and bringing us two-thirds of the way to the critical goal of breaking the majority in 2020 before new congressional and legislative maps are drawn in 2021 following the Census.
Democrats flipped a total of 12 seats and lost only 2 in the NC House – a net gain of 10 seats. These gains include all 7 of the remaining GOP-held seats in Mecklenburg and Wake counties as well as two critical seats in Western NC.
Democrats also came just short of flipping several other districts that will be critical for breaking the majority in 2020. The strong first-time candidates running in these districts built a tremendous ground game and developed organizational capacity and name recognition that will be incredibly valuable in 2020 should they decide to run again (and we hope they will!).
The seats Democrats flipped in the NC House, as well as the races in which they came close, were essentially perfectly in line with our pre-election analysis. Our analysis relied on a combination of past election results that included both state-level races and Hillary Clinton’s performance in 2016. While a number of state-level races were stronger predictors of outcomes in contested NC House and NC Senate races in 2016, our analysis also incorporated Clinton’s performance because we had noticed that it was a predictor of where Democrats performed well in 2017 legislative races in other states. North Carolina’s legislative races turned out to follow this trend; while Governor Cooper’s performance was, as expected, a strong predictor of outcomes in NC House and NC Senate races, Clinton’s 2016 performance aligned to a greater degree with NC’s legislative races in 2018 than it did in 2016.
As it turns out, a relatively simple predictive model fits the 2018 results well: weighting Cooper’s margin about three times as much as Clinton’s, adding 3.3 points for the Democratic candidate due to the statewide blue wave in 2018, and factoring in a 2.6-point incumbency effect. Overall, Democratic legislative candidates outperformed Clinton in their districts by about 6 points, and the predictive model matches that statewide Democratic swing perfectly.
But that 6-point swing relative to Clinton’s performance is a statewide average across all NC House and NC Senate districts; Democrats actually performed even better in the most flippable NC House districts – outperforming the predictive model by another 5-6 points, on average – on their way to toppling a large number of well-funded Republican incumbents.
In fact, if Democratic candidates had only performed as well statewide as this model would have predicted, they would have gained only 1 additional seat in the NC House – flipping 4 while losing 3 – a result that would have left them far short of breaking the GOP supermajority. That Democrats managed to win 8 additional seats(!) and hold onto NC-H66 is a testament to the quality of the candidates, the renewed organization of the Democratic Party, the grassroots energy across the state, and the strategic focus on the most flippable districts in 2018.
Turnout for the 2018 elections was very high in NC – likely around 53 percent once all the votes are counted – and much higher than the last midterm election in 2014 (44 percent), which featured a US Senate race, and the last blue moon election in 2006 (37 percent). And in some districts, like NC-H36, turnout was even higher – around 63 percent!
At the same time, while we do not yet have final turnout numbers by race and ethnicity, it looks like Democrats underperformed expectations in districts with larger shares of African-American voters, suggesting that turnout among African-American voters may not have increased at quite the same rate in 2018.
Below is a closer look at the 2018 election results by district for the NC House. In the tables below, we show for each district (1) a Predicted margin based on the model described above and (2) the Actual margin in the 2018 election.
EASY DEM PICK UPS
When the legislative maps were redrawn this election cycle to address the GOP’s unconstitutional racial gerrymandering, these three districts became relatively easy pick ups for Democrats. NC-H61 went from Republican-leaning to strongly Democrat-leaning when the Special Master re-drew the NC House map for Guilford County. Republicans sacrificed NC-H8 to make nearby districts safer when they re-drew the maps in 2017. They also essentially changed the numbering of formerly Dem-leaning NC-H7 and formerly R-leaning NC-H25, making NC-H7 R-leaning and NC-H25 and easy pick up for Dems.
As expected, Democrats easily picked up NC-H61 and NC-H8, resulting in an expected 2-seat gain. Dems also picked up NC-25 while losing NC-H7, resulting in no net gain or loss in seats between these two districts.
Democrats underperformed the predicted outcome (based on the 2016 margins for Cooper and Clinton) in all three districts, all of which have significant portions of African-American voters, but they had plenty of ground they could concede in these districts while still managing a win.
THE MOST FLIPPABLE WAKE AND MECKLENBURG DISTRICTS
All eyes were on Wake and Mecklenburg counties on election night. Due to demographic changes and the increased alignment of state and national political choices, both counties have been trending increasingly Democratic. Republicans had previously managed to hang onto seats in both counties primarily through racial gerrymandering. When the courts forced them to correct their racial gerrymanders, they used the opportunity to increase their partisan advantage in both counties.
NC-H98, NC-H104, and NC-H105 in Mecklenburg County were all drawn 1-2 points more favorable for Republicans (as was NC-H103, which we discuss later in this post). But the kicker was in Wake County. Not only did Republicans make NC-H40 – the most vulnerable Democrat-held district in the county – 7 points more favorable for Republicans and NC-H35 2 points more favorable for the GOP, they did everything they could to protect Republican incumbent Nelson Dollar, drawing NC-H36 to be 8 points more favorable for Republicans, in part by sacrificing several Republican-leaning precincts from NC-H37, which became just one point more favorable for Democrats.
Yet, it wasn’t enough. On Tuesday, Republicans lost all six of these districts to Democrats!
These wins were no easy feat for Democrats. Well-funded Republican Nelson Dollar won NC-H36 by 10 points in 2012, 8.5 points in 2014, 3 points in 2016 – and then the district was drawn 8 points more in his favor before the 2018 elections – and yet Democratic challenger Julie von Haefen still managed to defeat him on Tuesday. Dems lost NC-H37 by 14 points in 2012, didn’t run a candidate in 2014, and lost by 10 points in 2016, and yet Sydney Batch will now become the first Democrat to represent the southern-most Wake suburbs. And Democrats had never come within 10 points of winning NC-H98, NC-H104, or NC-H105 in Mecklenburg County before sweeping all three districts on Tuesday!
THE EXCEPTIONAL CANDIDATES
NC-H119 and NC-H93 were the final two districts among our top targets for Dems in 2018. Joe Sam Queen lost his seat by fewer than 300 votes in 2016 and was well-positioned to take it back in 2018. The margins were somewhat larger in both NC-H93 and NC-H103 but could be overcome with a big enough blue wave in 2018.
With a strong reputation locally, Joe Sam Queen won NC-H119 easily on Tuesday, regaining this critical seat for Democrats. And while he was a first-time political candidate, Ray Russell also used his excellent local reputation as a well-known weather forecaster and professor to flip NC-H93, which was a good target but certainly far from a sure thing.
NC-H103 was long shot on paper, but Democrats fielded an exceptionally strong candidate in Rachel Hunt, who beat the odds to win the most right-leaning district in Mecklenburg County. This is a huge win for Democrats as they look to take back the majority in the NC House in 2020.
OUTPERFORMING EXPECTATIONS BUT COMING UP JUST SHORT
Democrats fell just short of picking up two additional seats on Tuesday, losing NC-H63 by only 295 votes and NC-H19 by 953 votes (in the vote count as of Election Day).
First-time candidates Erica McAdoo and Marcia Morgan built excellent organizations and established themselves as strong candidates in 2018. They should have an excellent chance to win in 2020 if they choose to run again. Gaining these seats would put Democrats within just three seats of breaking the majority in the NC House.
BREAKING THE MAJORITY IN 2020
If the current maps remain in place, these five districts represent the best chance for Democrats to break the majority in 2020; Dems would likely need to win three of the five to do it.
The candidates in NC-H20, NC-H51, and NC-H75 all outperformed expectations in 2018 – but not by enough to overcome the structural advantage Republicans have in these districts.
Dems should have a great chance to win NC-H1 in 2020 but will likely need to significantly increase turnout among African-American voters to do it.
Incumbent George Graham lost NC-H12 by 14 points on Tuesday, but both Roy Cooper and Hillary Clinton performed well there in 2016, and Dems should be able to flip it back in 2020 with a strong candidate.
ADDITIONAL OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCES IN 2018
Four other Democratic challengers – Terri LeGrand, Aimy Steele, Gail Young, and Tess Judge – waged highly successful campaigns in 2018 but fell short simply because the partisan lean of their districts was too great to overcome this election cycle.
Winning these districts will remain challenging in 2020, but Democrats certainly stand a chance in NC-H75, NC-H82, and NC-H83 if these very successful first-time candidates choose to run again.
In NC-H6, Tess Judge over-performed the predictive model by 17 points – the best performance among all of the Democratic legislative candidates for both NC House and NC Senate. In 2020, she should consider running in NC-S1, which has far less of a structural advantage for Republicans and which Democrats likely need to win to break the majority in the NC Senate.