A swing state that’s ‘fluid all the way down the ballot’

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — What voters do here in Mecklenburg County and two and a half hours east in Raleigh’s Wake County will help shape the political landscape long past November.

With a potentially decisive role in the race for the White House between Donald Trump and Joe Biden (made all the more volatile by the president’s coronavirus diagnosis), a United States Senate bout pitting incumbent Thom Tillis against Democrat Cal Cunningham that could determine the balance of power in the upper chamber (made all the more volatile by Cunningham’s sexting scandal), and a prominent (if comparatively boring) gubernatorial contest as well, it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that North Carolina’s biggest urban center and its environs currently constitute the epicenter of the epicenter of American politics.

“Mecklenburg and Wake will determine the outcome of the presidential election,” said Jeff Jackson, a Democrat and a state senator who represents a largely affluent wedge of this city, “and will determine the majority of the U.S. Senate.”

Jackson cited even more specifically two state Senate districts — District 18, in the northeast Raleigh suburbs and exurbs, and also his own District 37. “Those two districts,” he said, “could elect a president and a majority in the U.S. Senate.”

It’s not hard to see why he would seek to position himself in the glare of hyper-potent political terrain — Jackson’s been talked about as a possible U.S. Senate candidate for years, and it will surprise next to nobody if he mounts a bid for the Richard Burr-vacated open seat in 2022.

He’s not wrong, though, to point to these two territories. They’re not necessarily swing districts — it’s just that they house and illuminate the reasons this is a swing state.

They’re both split roughly into partisan thirds — Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliateds. More important? In this rapidly growing state, thee are rapidly growing places. Since just 2018, according to David McLennan, a political scientist and pollster at Meredith College in Raleigh, some 25,000 people have moved into the 37th and almost 20,000 have moved into the 18th.

And the move-ins, coming from both the cities here as well as from elsewhere around the country, seeking a combination of better-paying jobs and a lower cost of living, overwhelmingly are college-educated with young families — precisely the kinds of voters the GOP has been bleeding over the course of the last few years thanks to the general comportment of Trump.

“Those two districts,” Western Carolina University political scientist Chris Cooper said, “tell us a great deal about the political implications of a changing North Carolina.”

Sarah Crawford, a 39-year-old mother of two school-aged daughters, ran in 2014 as a Democrat in District 18 — and lost. “Fast-forward six years, it’s not just that we have slightly different district lines — it’s that there’s been just a ton of growth and in particular in the Wake County portion of this district,” she said.

Talk to 10 random people inthe area, said Scott McKaig, who lost this year in the District 18 Republican primary, “I would hear two New Yorks, a Wisconsin, a Pittsburgh, two New Jerseys, and I might find one or two people who are from North Carolina originally. It’s just shocking how many people are not from here.” McKaig’s forecast: “It’s probably going to be a blue state — probably pretty soon.”

“And this district,” said Crawford, “is going to give us a good window into how the state might go.”

Aggregate polling shows Biden with a small (but widening) edge in a toss-up. Cunningham, meanwhile, has continued to post mostly leads over Tillis. Trump, Tillis and other GOP candidates, however, are hoping the issue of the Supreme Court opening wins back the votes of maybe wavering Republicans or women or more conservative unaffiliateds — while Democrats are banking on an uptick in enthusiasm within the more Biden-tepid portions of their own base.

“I guess the question is how much does the Supreme Court dominate between now and November,” said Ashton Clemmons, a Greensboro Democrat in the state house, “and how much does coronavirus? That, for me, will determine which way we go.” Less than a month out, due to the illness of the president and dozens around him, the answer to Clemmons’ question of late has been the latter.

Time is getting short — but somehow, though, there’s still a long way to go. “We’re not going to see the true impact of the SCOTUS fight … until you’re going through the hearings,” Raleigh-based Republican consultant Paul Shumaker said.

“The race here is very fluid,” he added. “I think it’s fluid all the way down the ballot.”

One overarching reason for that fluidity: As in many states, there’s never been an election quite like this, the pandemic having upended how candidates are running and how citizens are voting. But North Carolina makes for an especially eye-opening example: As of the end of September, more than a million voters in this state had requested absentee ballots — 17 times the number from four years ago — including 20 percent of all registered Democrats, nearly 15 percent of unaffiliateds and under 10 percent of Republicans.

What’s that mean for what North Carolina might do next month?

“It’s really hard to say,” said Crawford. “I don’t think we really know yet how Covid-19 has impacted the elections.”

Back in Charlotte, Jackson concurred. “None of us is doing anything other than dead reckoning our campaigns in the dark,” he said. “There’s not an X factor here. There’s an X and a Y and a Z. And when you add them all up, there are too many variables to predict anything.”

His opponent proffered at least one prediction. “I would love for there to be a definitive answer on November the 3rd,” said Sonja Nichols, the Republican candidate in District 37. But she considers that unlikely. “I don’t think there’s going to be. I just don’t.”

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