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Key Takeaways From the 2020 Election: North Carolina

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  • November 04, 2020

North Carolina once again lived up to its reputation as arguably the most competitive state in American politics. Gov. Roy Cooper (D) cruised to a relatively easy reelection but Tar Heel voters also elected a Republican, Mark Robinson, as the state’s first African American lieutenant governor. Because Republicans in control of the state legislature still cannot easily override Gov. Cooper’s vetoes, the legislative and executive branches will have to compromise in order to pass meaningful legislation in 2021.

Voter turnout so far is 74.5%, which sets an all-time record for North Carolina. Add to that the 117,000 absentee ballots that remain out and the percentage will certainly increase over the coming days.

Democrats went into 2020 with their sights set on capturing control of at least one chamber of the state legislature. Most pundits expected them to achieve that goal but severely underestimated the GOP. Republicans maintained their majorities in the state House and Senate following Tuesday's elections, although they failed to restore the veto-proof majorities they held for most of the last decade.

If remaining absentee ballots don’t change the outcome of any races, Democrats will have a net gain of one Senate seat — leaving the chamber with 28 Republicans and 22 Democrats. And Republicans will add four seats to their House majority, leaving that chamber with 69 Republicans and 51 Democrats.

Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R) will continue to lead his chamber. He has put together a focused and disciplined GOP caucus that often goes head to head with Gov. Cooper on major policy issues. Speaker Tim Moore (R) surprised many by increasing the Republican majority in the House. He manages a caucus with a wide range of perspectives and has appeared more willing to strike a deal with the governor.

The fact is that divided power will continue in Raleigh with Gov. Cooper and legislative leaders seeking that elusive common ground. Many of the governor’s central campaign issues, such as Medicaid expansion, will face a difficult path forward in the state Senate. However, on this particular issue, the House has shown a willingness to explore it and even floated a smaller version of expansion in the last session. The legislature will certainly continue to focus on lowering taxes and reforming the state’s regulatory system. Both of those issues will face pushback from the governor, which may keep the legislature from being overly ambitious.

Gov. Cooper, Speaker Moore, and Senator Berger all struck conciliatory tones in their acceptance speeches to supporters last night. They all recognize that it will take a concerted effort to maintain North Carolina’s status as a place to do business.

Cooperation will also be the name of the game with the Council of State, as Republicans emerged from the election with a 6-4 majority there. In addition to the governor and lieutenant governor, this body consists of the constitutional officers elected statewide. The incumbent Council of State members who appear to have successfully defended their seats are Attorney General Josh Stein (D), Auditor Beth Wood (D), Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey (R), Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (D), Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler (R), and State Treasurer Dale Folwell (R). Republicans appear to have won both open seats with the likely election of Catherine Truitt (R) as superintendent of public instruction and former Rep. Josh Dobson (R) as the new labor commissioner.

Republicans also cut into the Democratic majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court. Democrats currently enjoy a 6-1 advantage on the state’s top appellate court. The race for chief justice between incumbent Chief Justice Cheri Beasley (D) and Senior Associate Justice Paul Newby (R) is a statistical tie with Newby currently ahead by 3,700 votes. That race will certainly be impacted by the outstanding absentee ballots and may even fall into the range for a statewide recount.

In the race to fill the state Supreme Court seat held by Justice Newby, Court of Appeals Judge Phil Berger Jr. (R) has a 74,000-vote lead over fellow Court of Appeals Judge Lucy Inman (D). Former State Senator Tamara Barringer (R) leads incumbent Associate Justice Mark Davis (D) by a margin of 130,685 votes. Both of those races appear safe for the Republican candidates.

So, depending upon the outcome of the chief justice contest, Democrats will have either a 5-2 or 4-3 majority for the next two years.

The state’s intermediate appellate court, the North Carolina Court of Appeals, consists of 15 judges who sit on three-judge panels to hear cases. Five of the seats were in play yesterday, and in all five, the Republican candidate appears to have won. Judge Chris Dillon (R) won reelection to the court and will be joined by April Wood (R), Fred Gore (R), Jeff Carpenter (R), and Jefferson Griffin (R).

For more information, please contact me or your regular Parker Poe contact.