RALEIGH — North Carolina Democrats say they've got the energy and voters on their side heading into the 2014 legislative elections because of what Republicans in charge of state government did in 2013.
Democrats say people are unhappy with GOP decisions to refuse teacher raises, reduce unemployment benefits and decline Medicaid expansion, all of which helped inspire the Moral Monday protest movement. The new voter ID law also angered Democrats.
"We are now well positioned to hold the Republicans accountable for the mess they've made in Raleigh, and to break up the Republicans' supermajority," House Minority Leader Larry Hall, D-Durham, said as he praised his party's lineup of legislative candidates.
All 170 legislative seats are up for re-election in November.
But barring a political tremor, it will be difficult for Democrats to slash the wide margins Republicans have earned over the past two elections. The victories gave the GOP sole control over the House and Senate for the first time in 140 years.
Even making small gains may be a challenge. The advantages Republicans have earned in redistricting, fundraising and incumbency aren't fading. And national GOP forces will potentially spend tens of millions of dollars to defeat Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, which could affect the legislative races further down the ballot. There's also frustration with President Barack Obama's health care law.
"At this point I don't see a significant number of seats changing partisan control in this election," said Joe Stewart with the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation, which tracks state politics for businesses. At first glance, "it's shaping up to be a Republican year," says Stewart, who previously worked for Democratic State Treasurer Richard Moore.
Republicans hold 77 of the 120 seats in the House and 33 of the 50 Senate seats — 38 seats more than when Democrats last controlled the legislature in 2010. Each chamber has enough Republicans to override a governor's veto if they stick together.
Voters should be concerned about such an overwhelming majority, said Rep. Ken Goodman, D-Richmond.
"It does not create good government," he said. "There is no give and take and good compromise."
Democrats would have to gain six seats in the House or four in the Senate to prevent Republican veto overrides.
Republicans contend they have passed good legislation that reduced tax rates and regulations while putting the state and businesses on firmer fiscal footing. They also vow to raise salaries for teachers when legislators reconvene in May.
"With a quickly improving economic situation and a national souring on the Democratic brand, the electorate's mood is trending towards the Republicans," state House Republican Caucus director Josh Thomas wrote in a memo to GOP leaders Friday.
The first step toward the Nov. 4 elections was completed with Friday's candidate filing deadline. Democrats are fielding at least one candidate in 38 Senate districts and 87 House districts, according to party officials. Those are roughly the same number of districts where Democrats fielded candidates in 2010 and 2012.
Republicans fielded candidates in several more districts than Democrats, according to State Board of Elections data. Republican candidates know "they can come and make a difference" if elected, said Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg, who led candidate recruitment.
The outcome of nearly one-third of the seats is essentially decided because only one major-party candidate filed for them. The number of unopposed candidates is higher compared to 2012, when new district boundaries attracted more candidates.
Legislators and campaign consultants for both parties highlight a handful of swing districts or districts that slightly favor the opposition as places where they're hopeful they can pick up seats. Democrats point to at least eight in the House and four in the Senate.
"We want to have candidates in every district, but really the most important thing is to have strong candidates in the competitive districts," said Senate Minority Whip Josh Stein, D-Wake. He said there's energy among "people who are really fed up with what the Republicans have done in North Carolina."
While opportunities for Senate Republican expansion are few, House Republicans point to fielding candidates in seven highly competitive seats held by Democrats.
Thomas wrote in his memo that the Moral Monday movement and unpopular policy positions by Democrats "will continue to push conservative Democrats into our camp and place our opponents at a significant disadvantage in some races," he wrote.
Republicans enter the 2014 election cycle with a money advantage. For example, Thomas calculated House Republican forces have $2.4 million, or three times what Democrats have. But former Gov. Jim Hunt, even today the state's most popular Democrat, is raising money to help his party's legislative candidates this year.