Welcome to the final episode of Carolina Democracy for the 2022 election cycle. Today, we recap some of the results of the 2022 elections nationally and across North Carolina.
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JD Wooten: Hey everyone, I’m JD Wooten, and welcome to our last episode of Carolina Democracy for the 2022 election cycle. Doing this podcast for the last year has been great fun, and we managed to never miss a week, but now it’s time for a little break. I look forward to coming back sometime early next year refreshed and ready to hit the ground running. In the meantime, we’ll evaluate what seemed to work well, what didn’t, and what we can do better to add value next year and next cycle. If you have particular topics or ideas you think we should consider for future episodes, don’t hesitate to drop me an email at email@example.com.
Now, before we get to any reflections on the outcomes of the 2022 elections, first and foremost, to every candidate who put their name on the ballot to run – thank you. Whether you were a multi-term incumbent or a complete political newcomer or something in between, thank you. Also, a huge thank you to the volunteers, donors, and everyone else who took the time to show up and help advance democracy. And of course, thank you to everyone who voted too. It looks like we were just shy of 51% voter turnout in North Carolina, so just showing up to vote basically put you in the top half of North Carolinians for engagement in our democracy.
Now, as for voting turnout, like I said, we saw just under 51% turnout across the state. For comparison purposes with the last 3 midterm elections, 2010 and 2014 both saw about 44% voter turnout in North Carolina, and 2018 saw about 53%. This year, we saw about 2 million North Carolinians take advantage of in person early voting, another 165,000 or so use mail-in voting, and then we had about 1.6 million voters cast a ballot on election day, bringing this year’s turnout to about 50.5% statewide. Not great, but not terrible either. For our big three Democratic counties – Guilford, Mecklenburg, and Wake, Wake showed up the most with about 55% turnout. Meanwhile, Guilford lagged statewide turnout just a bit at right around 49% and Mecklenburg really stalled out at less than 45% turnout.
Let’s look at some of the good news first. Nationally, Democrats had a decent showing, especially when factoring in the expectations for a red wave. Instead, it was a red ripple at best and Democrats look poised to gain a seat in the U.S. Senate to give them the outright majority rather than losing seats and thus the majority altogether. As of this recording on Monday night 6 days after the election, several U.S. House races are too close to call yet and control of the House is still undecided. While it looks like Republicans will take control of the House when all is said and done, still not knowing that for sure almost a week later is a disaster for national Republicans and a strong repudiation to their brand and lack of vision. I think it also speaks to the rejection of Trumpism in a lot of places that quite frankly just wanted less crazy. That might be a future topic for an episode.
Here in North Carolina, we saw a small bit of that in the race between Democrat Wiley Nickel and Trump-backed Republican Bo Hines for the North Carolina 13th Congressional district. While most Republicans did well across North Carolina, Bo Hines was inextricably tied to Trump and Wiley never let the voters forget it. That was the only competitive Congressional race here in North Carolina, and Wiley beat Bo handily.
Unfortunately, other Democrats across North Carolina did not fare as well. Cheri Beasley lost by a margin of less than 4%, although that’s not exactly close in an otherwise pretty evenly divided state. Still, all the external factors like it being the first midterm of Democratic President, inflation being high, gas prices being up, and so forth could have easily made Ted Budd’s lead much larger had it not been for a smart and well-run campaign from Justice Beasley and her team. And while Justice Beasley outraised Ted Budd almost 3 to 1, the outside money just dwarfed the respective campaigns’ actual spending. Justice Beasley spent over $30 million in her race, while another $23 million went to support her or oppose Budd from outside groups. By contrast, Budd only spent about $12 million from his race, but another $70 million went to support him or opposing Beasley. So we saw less than $55 million on the Beasley side, and over $80 million on the Budd side. The amount of outside money spent exclusively to attacking Cheri Beasley was nearly $50 million alone. Given that gap in funding and the overall national environment being more favorable to Republicans anyways, it’s kind of a miracle that Justice Beasley kept the race so close. At the end of the day, the national party and national groups were fighting elsewhere and not in North Carolina, and it showed on election day.
Sadly, that also had a tremendous impact down ballot as well. Republicans swept the state-wide judicial races for the second cycle in a row and will now hold a 5-2 majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court. I wouldn’t be surprised if the new conservative majority, much like the majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, says stare decisis be damned and overturns all of the important decisions from the last few years that were great for democracy, like holding the state constitution prohibits extreme partisan gerrymandering, or that an unconstitutionally elected General Assembly can’t amend the constitution to entrench their power. It probably means the recent Leandro ruling, which we haven’t even talked about yet and which ordered the General Assembly to fund public education, won’t actually happen. We’ll wait to see what happens on some of those cases before we get too far down the doomsday predictions, but beware of what may very well be coming in the courts.
Another point on the Courts is that best I can tell, the combined spending from the candidates and outside groups on competing sides was roughly equal. The Democratic candidates significantly outraised the Republican candidates, and then outside groups closed the gap. As a result, the total votes for the judicial candidates basically mirrored what happened in the U.S. Senate race, with the Republican judicial candidates getting quite a few more votes than Ted Budd and the Democratic judicial candidates getting slightly more votes than Cheri Beasley. There were third-party candidates in the Senate race and not in the judicial race, so it’s not an exact comparison, but I think the relative closeness of it all more or less confirms that what happened in the U.S. Senate race just tracked down to the other state-wide races as well. I’ve heard some conservative and especially Republican operatives suggest the judicial race outcomes were a repudiation of an activist court, but I don’t buy it and the data doesn’t support it. The simplest explanation is almost always the correct one, and here the vote totals for state-wide Republicans and state-wide Democrats were all fairly consistent. Plus, the spending on the judicial races was dwarfed by the spending on the Senate race, so they’re not even in the same universe for getting voters’ attention. If Chief Justice Beasley had won, I think we’d have seen Justice Ervin and Judge Inman win as well, along with the Court of Appeals judges. If the Budd-Beasley race had been significantly closer, perhaps just a few thousand votes difference, then we’d have a different conversation and there might have been different results depending on the individual judicial candidate. But in this case, I think it just came down to the down ballot effects from the top of the ticket.
Now moving down to our state legislative races, unfortunately Republicans took a supermajority in the State Senate and effectively took a supermajority in the State House. Now, before I get into some real talk that might disappoint or frustrate everyone, let me first say that overall, we saw an amazing group of candidates on the Democratic side that put up solid fundraising efforts and disciplined communications strategies. Its tough to know what to make of field efforts in a lot of these races when you’re not on the ground with them, but if their social media postings are even marginally reflective of reality, a lot of Democratic candidates also got in their steps so to speak out in their communities. There were a few exceptions across the state for sure, but with 170 districts, there always will be. There are some places where we came up short, like Ricky Hurtado, where I don’t need to see any data to know Ricky put it all on the table and did everything possible to protect that seat. I’ve watched him run up close and personal when we were on the ballot together. If he couldn’t hold on to that district, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone else who could. There are other district where I have my doubts, but I’ll wait for more data before passing judgment. And there were certainly a few bright spots, like the sizeable margins that Sydney Batch and Mary Wills Bode managed to garner in state senate districts what many, myself included, assumed would be much closer. Again, I’ll wait for more detailed information to come in to do any deeper dive on strengths and weaknesses of particular districts or races because I’d rather do it with data in hand to back it up rather than just guessing.
Finally, I know a lot of headlines and even some self-congratulatory email subject lines are saying Democrats prevented a supermajority by one seat in the State House, but I’ll believe it when I see them actually come together and sustain a veto. All that has to happen is one Democratic member to be out sick, to be running late to session, or to unexpectedly take a walk after having been bought off by Republicans to get a pet project done in their district for a veto to get overridden. We’ve seen it before and we may very well see it again. And on the issue of abortion, which is obviously an issue at the forefront of people’s minds right now, at least one Democratic member is pro-life and has voted on abortion restrictions in the past. While I like that Republicans don’t have an automatic supermajority on paper, I’m not sure what we got is really any different. Sorry to be a pessimist, but I don’t see any reason to sugar coat this or hide the ball. There’s a very real risk Republicans now functionally have a supermajority in both chambers, and I don’t want you to be surprised by anything next spring. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I have my doubts. We’ll see what happens when voting, vetoing, and more voting start happening next session.
All in all, it was a rough night for North Carolina Democrats. There’s a lot of work to be done in the next two years to try to break the supermajorities in the State Senate and State House, and it’s going to feel a little like déjà vu in the run up to 2018. Unfortunately, we’ll also be fighting for the state-wide races too because breaking the supermajority will be meaningless if we lose the governor’s mansion. And sadly, it will be several more cycles down the road before we even have the opportunity to fight for the majority on the Supreme Court again, barring unexpected retirements or resignations.
My advice for now is to get some rest, enjoy the holidays, and then figure out what you can do and give to help fight in 2024. Maybe it’s more of what you did in 2022, and that’s great. Maybe there’s something more or different you can do, and that’s great too. Perhaps it’s even your turn to put your name on the ballot and give running for office a try. If you’re even considering it, shoot me an email and I’d be happy to have a candid conversation about what being a candidate is like and to connect you to other former candidates who can do the same. We always need good candidates to run, and we also need a lot of dedicated volunteers to support their races. There’s something for everyone when it comes to joining in the work of upholding a democracy.
And on a personal note, thank you to everyone who tuned in this year to listen to this podcast. I wasn’t sure what to expect when we launched in January, but the reception has been amazing and I always appreciate hearing from listeners. I look forward to seeing what else we can do next year and beyond because together, we can achieve a better North Carolina for everyone.