Tom Campbell: Voters widened gaps, restored sense of fairness

Tom Campbell

Tom Campbell



Saturday, November 10, 2018

The 2018 midterm was one of the most interesting elections held in our state.

While there wasn’t the “blue wave” many had predicted, this was a change election. It will be a few days before the vote and the impact is solidified but here are immediate impressions.

The electorate was energized. When 2.1 million cast ballots in early voting, we projected turnout was likely to reach record highs. More than 48 percent voted in this “blue moon” election, far in excess of the average 42-44 percent of previous midterms.

What motivated them? Democrats were eager to capture seats in Congress and the legislature. Republicans were no doubt energized by the president’s messaging. Both factions showed up in large numbers and we are eager to learn the final age, sex, race, geographic and political data.

One theme that jumps out clearly is of North Carolinians’ sense of fairness.

Legislative leaders had placed six constitutional amendments on the ballot. Voters approved four but defeated two — the proposals to take away appointive power from the governor in vacant judicial seats and also changes to appointments of the state board of elections.

Some might believe their defeat due to their lengthiness on the ballot and the fact their intent was not clearly evident. I think not. I believe voters are more astute than perhaps they are given credit for and saw these two for what they were — an attempt by our legislative branch to minimize the power of our governor and upset the balance of power. They thought them unfair, unnecessary and too partisan and they lost by wide margins.

Voters also responded to legislative attempts to rig judicial elections. When lawmakers, believing we weren’t electing enough Republican judges, required the political party affiliation be printed beside each judicial candidate’s name, then canceled the primary elections for all judges, they not only outsmarted themselves, but they again violated our citizens’ sense of fairness. Not only did our state elect another Democrat to the Supreme Court (now a 5-2 Democratic split) but they also elected three Democrats to the Court of Appeals.

Recently we have witnessed power politics being played out in Raleigh. The legislature would pass a bill, the governor would often veto it and the legislature, with veto-proof majorities in both houses, would override the veto. Republicans held free reign to do pretty much as they wanted. Not only did voters think this scenario unfair, they took steps to fix the constant partisanship by overcoming the veto-proof majorities in both the House and, at this moment, in the Senate.

Out of our sense of fairness, voters decided to level the playing field. Now Gov. Roy Cooper is a legitimate player in governing our state and even though Republicans retained majority control of both houses, our lawmakers are going to have to deal with him for the next two years.

We will be watching to see what legislative leadership learned from these outcomes.

The other big change was the widening of political gaps, geographic gaps and gaps between the sexes. Let’s start with the geographic partisan gap.

Three Wake County Republican legislators lost House seats, one Republican senator was seriously threatened, and a longtime popular Republican sheriff was defeated. Wake is becoming bluer and bluer with each vote. So are Mecklenburg, Guilford and other urban counties.

Rural counties are conversely turning an increasing shade of Republican red. But it is the urban and exurban counties that are rapidly gaining population, while rural areas are losing it almost as rapidly. Long gone are the days when political power was held by rural counties east of I-95. About 20 urban or exurban counties can determine statewide elections and, as this partisan urban-rural gap grows wider, we have to ponder its impact in the near term.

Can Republicans devise strategies to capture the votes of the younger, better educated, higher income populous in urban counties? If so, what does this mean for their traditional base of support? If not, does this signal that very soon we will see another big power party shift like the one in 2010 that turned the state over to Republicans?

The urban-rural gap was not the only widening one we saw. The sex gap grew larger. 2018 was the year of the woman, who now constitute 53 percent of registered voters. Women turned out and spoke out. We may not know the exact percentages, but women turned out in large numbers and voted heavily for Democrats — especially college educated white women.

White men voted just a strongly for Republicans, but the schism became truly evident. White men may not want to acknowledge it, but this was the year when it became clear they are losing political influence. How will they react? Either they dig in and hold out as long as possible or they face the inevitable, form coalitions and narrow the gender gap.

In conclusion, neither Democrats nor Republicans can shout with glee over the outcomes. Both parties gained, but neither scored knock-outs. Instead of bringing our state closer together, we saw the gaps growing larger, setting the stage for the 2020 elections, which started Wednesday.

Tom Campbell is former assistant state treasurer and creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly television discussion of NC issues on UNC-TV.