March 13, 2014
RALEIGH — If North Carolina Democrats were to gain some legislative seats this year, state and national pundits would probably spill gobs of ink — or at least fill gobs of pixels — with elaborate explanations of how the party began to recover its footing in a state it once dominated.
Based on North Carolina’s modern political history, however, what would really be surprising is if Republicans didn’t lose seats in 2014. Since Republican Jim Holshouser’s breakout victory in the 1972 gubernatorial race, which signaled the arrival of true two-party competition, every newly elected governor has seen his or her party lose legislative seats in the next midterm election.
Holshouser’s party suffered the worst backslide of all. Republicans went from winning legislative 50 seats in 1972 to holding only 10 seats after the party’s 1974 debacle, including just one of North Carolina’s 50 state Senate seats. It took many years for the Republicans to become consequential in the General Assembly again.
In 1976, Jim Hunt reclaimed the Governor’s Office for the Democrats. Two years later, Republicans doubled their legislative delegation to 20 seats. In 1984 Jim Martin reclaimed the Governor’s Office for the Republicans. Although the GOP then lost legislative ground in 1986, a massive statewide effort by Martin and his campaign team held the loss to only two seats each in the House and Senate.
Gov. Jim Hunt returned to office in 1992. The next midterm, the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, produced a net gain of 39 GOP seats — enough to capture a majority of the state House and come within two seats of capturing the state Senate. The pattern continued into the 21st century, as Democratic Gov. Mike Easley saw his party lose nine seats in 2002 and Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue saw her party lose 27 seats in 2010, including control of both chambers.
So on the six occasions in which new North Carolina governors have been elected since 1972, their parties have lost an average of 33 legislative seats in the next midterm election. That doesn’t mean that the governors in question were fully or even mostly responsible for the outcomes. In 1974, for example, Republicans took a bath nationwide in the wake of the Watergate scandal. In 1994, Republicans surged nationwide in response to President Clinton’s various miscues, including the creation of an unpopular health care plan. Sixteen years later, history repeated itself in GOP advances in the aftermath of Obamacare’s unpopular passage in 2009-10.
Right now, however, it doesn’t look like North Carolina Democrats will get much benefit from national trends. If anything, the 2014 cycle promises to be at least a mildly Republican one across the country, with a reasonable chance that the GOP will finally win back a majority in the U.S. Senate (after blowing its opportunities in 2010 and 2012 because of disastrous candidate recruitment). In North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory’s average job-approval ratings are upside down at 41 percent/44 percent. But President Obama and Sen. Hagan are in worse shape: at 43 percent/52 percent and 37 percent/47 percent, respectively.
To be frank about it, no one — not even the most optimistic liberal operative in the state — believes that the Democrats are about to reclaim dozens of legislative seats. I don’t disagree with the conventional wisdom that blames redistricting and the GOP’s fundraising edge for much of the Democrats’ plight. Still, it’s worth noting that despite running in Democratic-gerrymandered districts and facing massive fundraising disadvantages, Republicans managed to win sizable gains against Democratic governors in 1978 and 2002 — and truly enormous gains in 1994 and 2010.
Midterm blowouts have precedent. I just don’t think anything like that will happen in 2014. Instead, I think we’re about to see something of a replay of the 1986 cycle: perhaps a loss of a few seats here or there, in districts where Republicans did better than expected in 2012.
Such a result would be underwhelming by historical standards. If it happens, I’ll be interested to see how the result gets spun — er, reported.