Following surprising results from a special election in Pennsylvania, North Carolina Republicans are apparently concerned that momentum on the Democratic side could drastically diminish their hold on state government.
Democrat Conor Lamb on Tuesday won a special election for Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, an area Republican President Donald Trump carried by nearly 20 points less than two years ago. The next morning, a staffer for NC state House Republicans warned GOP representatives in an email that they would not only lose their supermajority but would lose complete control of the House if North Carolina Democrats replicate Lamb's success in Pennsylvania.
The email circulated by Matt Bales, political director for the GOP House Caucus, was posted on The Daily Haymaker, a conservative blog. Bales listed 23 incumbent House Republicans in districts that might be considered safe but that supported Trump in 2016 by 20 points or less.
"The outcome is yet another example of the Democratic base being fired up and the Republicans not turning out their voters," Bales wrote. "The momentum on the Democratic side is real."
The North Carolina Democratic Party pounced quickly, circulating a newsletter that highlighted the "leaked email" and boasted of the party's momentum.
The email "shows just how terrified Republicans are of the upcoming election," party spokesman Robert Howard wrote. "Even House Republicans see a blue wave building (despite months of spin otherwise)."
The Democrats listed 24 Republican-held House districts and 15 NC Senate districts that are more competitive than the Pennsylvania district. "Republicans would have lost every single seat if turnout — and the huge and growing enthusiasm gap — was the same here. ... Not only would it have broken the supermajority, it would flip both chambers," a party newsletter said.
Experts, however, are less inclined to believe the Pennsylvania election is a harbinger of Democratic success in North Carolina.
Andrew Taylor, political science professor at NC State University, said Lamb won the Pennsylvania race in part because he tailored his campaign to fit the right-leaning district. For instance, Lamb defended union rights but opposed a ban on assault rifles.
"Lamb ran a 'New Deal politics' campaign that was sort of a blast from the past. He had a conservative message on social issues and liberal one on economic issues,” Taylor said.
Republicans hold 10 of North Carolina's 13 seats in Congress, and Taylor identified Ted Budd of Davie County and Robert Pittenger of Charlotte as the most vulnerable to Democratic takeover. But, he said, Democrats in right-leaning districts will likely need to follow Lamb's lead and steer clear of "identity politics."
Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball website, considered a political weather vane by experts, echoes Taylor's analysis. The only other Republican who might be vulnerable is Rep. George Holding of Raleigh, according to the website.
"Is the environment potentially very bad for Republicans? Yes. Are they likely to lose ground in the House and in state legislatures? Yes. Are they going to lose every single seat that is similar to PA-18? No way," said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the website. He noted that the Pennsylvania seat was open, with no incumbent."
Incumbents are harder to beat, Kondik said, "and not every challenger will be as well-funded or as skilled as Conor Lamb."
A Democratic supermajority?
As for the NC General Assembly, Theodore Arrington, political science professor at UNC-Charlotte, thinks Democrats will break the Republican supermajority but gives them a 50 percent chance of gaining a majority.
"I think the Republicans in the General Assembly and congressional delegation should be concerned, and the Democrats who plan on challenging them should be cautiously optimistic. However, it is still months away from Election Day and nothing in politics is ever certain," Arrington wrote in an email.
"A super-majority is very unlikely," he said in an email. "Applying the 20% gain the Democrats had in the PA election directly to districts in NC is inviting, but dangerous. A general election is different from a special election, PA is not NC."
The NC Free Enterprise Foundation, a nonpartisan advocate for businesses that tracks and handicaps legislative races, thinks there are 14 competitive districts in the NC House and seven in the NC Senate.
Jonathan Kappler, the foundation's executive director, said legislative Republicans have less name recognition than Republicans at the national level. So, even if they have solid records, they're somewhat "tied to the whims of the President."
"So fundraise and fundraise more is right," Kappler said, referring to the Bales email. "And even if those individual incumbents don't wind up needing those resources for their own campaigns, their colleagues (mostly in suburban districts) almost certainly will."
How tied to Trump are legislative Republicans? Michael Bitzer, political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury, examined the alignment between votes for Trump and votes for legislative Republicans in 2016 on his blog.
"There is a close correlation to how President Trump performed in 2016 and NC's congressional and state senate races, and to a slightly lesser extent, in the state house races," Bitzer wrote.
About that email
As for the leaked Republican email, Bales couldn't be reached for comment. Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the NC GOP, told The NC Insider that Bales' job is to fight complacency and said that "nobody is better at it than Matt."
Woodhouse downplayed the Democratic Party's suggestion that Republicans are "terrified" of the coming election.
The Pennsylvania election results have "limited application here," he said.
"The Democrat candidate ran as a conservative on guns, unions and life issues," Woodhouse said. "Democrats in North Carolina have moved away from the conservative Democrats like Jim Hunt that used to be pro-life, pro-gun, pro-death penalty and pro-business."
Kappler, the foundation director, speculated that the email was "was part honest reflection of their concern, part an effort to light a fire under the caucus to fundraise and get organized.
"Folks like Rep. Dollar know they're in for a real race, but some of the more GOP-leaning seats might be taking things for granted," Kappler said, referring to Nelson Dollar of Cary. "His memo strikes me as an effort to try and prepare folks so they're not caught flatfooted and to try and prevent the GOP from losing some seats they shouldn't if they're prepared."