Dare to Dream: The Path to a Democratic Trifecta in North Carolina

12 mins read
by Julie Frontera

Last November, voters in Virginia handed Democrats unified control of state government for the first time since 1993. A “trifecta” – the state House and Senate, as well as the Governorship – under a single party’s control is exceedingly rare, even more so for Democrats, in modern Virginia history. Democratic leaders have moved swiftly to pass the significant progressive change that voters demanded, most notably taking redistricting out of their own hands.

This remarkable accomplishment would’ve happened a lot sooner, were it not for a series of pernicious (and racist) Republican gerrymanders in the Commonwealth. In 2017, Democrats won the statewide vote by 10 points, but were still denied a majority in the Virginia General Assembly – in other words, the Republican gerrymanders did what they were designed to do. It took court action to strike down those legislative maps as illegal denials of legitimate representation. When finally given fair elections, Democrats won the clear majority.

Sound like any other state you can think of?

Given the deep similarities between our states, watching our northern neighbor’s steady trend blue has been tantalizing for North Carolina Democrats. With the new legislative maps written under court order just for 2020, some in our state are now daring to imagine the prospect of repeating the Virginia trifecta in Raleigh. The 2020 maps still plainly tilt Republican, but they contain a clear and viable path towards a majority for Democrats, given the right magnitude of a Democratic swing. Consolidating North Carolina under Democratic leadership is completely feasible in 2020 – though certainly not easy. Here’s what that path to a North Carolina “trifecta” will look like.

The Fundamentals

The 2020 election will obviously be dominated by the Presidential race, a cycle that always increases voter turnout. President Trump is not popular in North Carolina. He faces a net disapproval rating of anywhere between 5-12 points in the state, depending on the poll you read. Polls generally show Joe Biden leading him by mid-single digits; even the RCP polling average rounds to a dead heat, and that’s taking into account a shady Civitas Institute poll whose reliability is dubious.

In the 2018 “Blue Wave” election, Democrats flipped 9 seats in the state House and 6 in the Senate. Although Democrats remained in the minority (despite winning the statewide vote by almost 2.5 points – about 100,000 votes!), they broke the rigged Republican supermajority. Given the Presidential cycle, turnout this fall will most likely be around 15 points higher than in 2018. That turnout is almost certain to advantage Democrats, who have a larger number of infrequent voters. (Republican-aligned groups are already targeting voter rolls in Mecklenberg and Guilford counties for suppression.)

Worse for Republicans, they are facing uphill challenges in both the gubernatorial and senate races. Polling not only shows Democratic Governor Roy Cooper with a double-digit lead over a weak opponent, but Senator Thom Tillis losing badly to moderate challenger Cal Cunningham. Those races could always change, but they suggest low voter enthusiasm for Republicans and how badly the party’s brand is tarnished in North Carolina.

If you were looking for evidence that Republicans are more popular than the numbers suggest, you might point to the special election in North Carolina’s ninth congressional district, where Democrat Dan McCready lost a close special election to Republican state senator Dan Bishop. (The first election was voided due to ballot fraud abetted by the state party.) Unfortunately, the results aren’t as positive as they seem. Bishop scratched out a special election victory by just 2 points in a district that Trump carried by 12; that past November, McCready had done even better. 

The real question right now is not whether there will be another “Blue Wave” election in North Carolina, but rather, how big will it be? Even under the new legislative maps, Democrats don’t just need to net a majority of votes cast to win a majority in the legislature – they need to win in a landslide in many parts of the state. So how will they do it?

The House

Democrats nominally need a net gain of 6 seats to win back a majority in the House; though in reality, they probably need 7, given a potential loss in one vulnerable district. Democrats are defending 8 very close seats, most of which are essentially 50/50 districts or have a slight Democratic lean. Given strong Democratic incumbents and a “wave” election, most of these will probably be successfully retained (with the aforementioned exception).

Going on offense, there are at least 11 districts that are newly competitive for Democrats. Most of these districts were altered to remove the intended Republican overweighting. All of them have strong candidates running this year:

CandidateDem Lean
HD63 – Hurtado+4
HD9 – Farkas+1
HD45 – Jackson+1
HD59 – Quick(3)
HD82 – Steele(3)
HD74 – Besse(4)
HD20 – Ericson(5)
HD83 – Young(6)
HD12 – Cox-Daugherty(6)
HD1 – Nicholson(7)
HD51 – Cain(7)


(Green shade indicates a candidate supported by the Long Leaf Pine Slate)

Given these districts, a 4-5 point shift would likely be enough to secure a majority for Democrats. With a surge in turnout, combined with strong campaigns and popular Democrats at the top of the ticket, all of these seats are winnable. Beyond that, with a shift of 6 or even 7 points, the political landscape will be completely changed.

The Senate

In the Senate, Democrats nominally need 5 net new seats for a majority. Theoretically, they might get away with only 4; ties in the Senate are broken by the Lt. Governor, and Democrats have a strong candidate there with Yvonne Holley. Nevertheless, everyone would prefer winning a majority outright and ending Phil Berger’s chokehold on democracy in North Carolina.

The new maps have retained a structural advantage for Republicans, and will require Democrats to win a disproportionately large victory – again – to change the seat math. Nevertheless, a clear path to the majority exists. While Democrats are defending a handful of seats, none of them are highly vulnerable and should be retained.

The 2020 map includes new districts in Mecklenberg and Wake counties that should be easy pickups for Democrats. These two are shaded in blue below. Beyond those two lies an uphill battle:

CandidateDem Lean
S39 – Salvador+12
S18 – Crawford+6
S1 – Judge(5)
S31 – LeGrand(5)
S11 – Wellons(7)
S24 – Wooten(8)
S7 – Lake(9)


(Green shade indicates a candidate supported by the Long Leaf Pine Slate)

As you can see, a 4-5 point swing for Democrats may not be enough to win Democrats 4 new seats in the Senate. A solid 5-point swing should be enough, but would depend directly on Tess Judge and Terri LeGrand’s campaigns, and could still fail in the face of local idiosyncrasies. Democrats really need that 6-7 point swing to take the Senate. Bear in mind, though, that these are districts that Roy Cooper only lost by a couple of points in 2016. With a big swing of his popularity (not to mention at the presidential level), that type of magnitude is quite realistic.

Sore losers

There is just no denying that North Carolina is continuing on the same trajectory Virginia is on: an urbanizing population with suburban voters who are trending steadily towards Democrats, as well as demographic trends of a younger and more racially diverse population that finds the GOP’s increasingly blunt racial and nativist appeals repugnant. Both states’ Republican parties have resorted to gutter tactics like racial gerrymandering and plain voter suppression to win elections. But now, even these strategies are cracking under the sheer number of voters arrayed against them.

The problem is that power, once entrenched and defended by extralegal means, is difficult to dislodge. The NC GOP tried very hard to fix a Republican majority on the state Supreme Court, and could easily have been successful. If they had been, there would be no new legislative maps and this entire issue would be moot. Democrats would be locked out of any realistic path to winning power, despite winning a majority of the statewide vote. Absent federal action (like, say, a RICO suit), North Carolina Republicans could – and have, for the last near-decade – entrench themselves into white minority rule, utterly unaccountable to voters.

This is why the stakes for this fall’s election are so incredibly high. We have exactly one shot at pointing North Carolina in another direction before the 2021 redistricting occurs. If David Lewis is given another chance at drawing legislative districts, we’re in for another decade of court fights, mass protests and smug minority Republican rule. If you can, please help us fight back.

The Long Leaf Pine Slate is dedicated to breaking the Republican majority in the North Carolina General Assembly. Learn more about us at LongLeafPineslate.org and follow us on Twitter at @ForwardCarolina.

DemCast is an advocacy-based 501(c)4 nonprofit. We have made the decision to build a media site free of outside influence. There are no ads. We do not get paid for clicks. If you appreciate our content, please consider a small monthly donation.

Director of Product at Salesforce. Husband and dad, author and blogger. Don't skip leg day. Esse quam videri. Creator of http://LongLeafPineSlate.org

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