Nov 7, 2022 - News

Gov. Cooper's big gamble in a key state Senate race

A donkey kicking back and hitting another donkey while getting kicked in the head by a donkey

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

North Carolina Democrats have spent well over $1 million to save a single state Senate seat and avoid a potentially embarrassing defeat for the party and Gov. Roy Cooper.

  • Party leaders' fixation on District 19, which has been held by a Democrat for four years, raises questions about whether the money could’ve been better used in other battlegrounds in a year when they’re scratching to hold some semblance of power in the GOP-dominated legislature.

Catch up quick: Cooper made an unprecedented move during the May primary by endorsing challenger Val Applewhite over two-term incumbent Democrat Kirk deViere in the Fayetteville-based district. Applewhite won, and Republicans pounced.

  • Applewhite faces Republican Wesley Meredith, who represented the district from 2011 until deViere beat him in 2018.
  • "Frankly, we would not be contesting this race if [Applewhite] were not the Democratic nominee," Republican operative Nathan Babcock told Axios.

Why it matters: Cooper's early involvement in the race could jeopardize his ability to block Republicans from winning a veto-proof supermajority that would allow them to ramrod laws past him in the final two years of his term.

State of play: Republicans need to win just two seats in the state Senate and three in the House to pass legislation beginning next year without the support of a single legislative Democrat or Cooper.

  • Applewhite's district, which includes most of Cumberland County, is among the five Senate races that could help them do that, operatives in both parties tell Axios.
  • Democrats need to defend this district, or two others, to block Republicans from a supermajority.

The other side: With a Democrat in the White House, this year is expected to be favorable to Republicans, regardless of the individual candidates in lower-profile races, said Democratic operative and top Cooper advisor Morgan Jackson. He insisted the governor's decision to endorse Applewhite in the primary will not change the final outcome.

  • "If we lose the Cumberland County seat, that tells you it's been a washout of an election; we're likely going to lose a lot of seats," Jackson said.

The district favored President Joe Biden with 54% of the vote in 2020 — nearly 10 points more than Trump received and five points more than Biden received statewide that year.

  • That spread shows that unless Republicans perform much stronger than expected, Democrats are favored to win the seat.
  • "We feel confident we're going to win it," Jackson said.

The big picture: The money the Democratic Party has funneled into Applewhite's race on par with the party's funding for more vulnerable Democrats.

By the numbers: The party has put nearly equal amounts into Applewhite's race and two others that could be easier gets for Republicans, candidate campaign finance reports as of Sunday show. It's spent more than $1.5 million on Applewhite's race, and almost $1.6 million on Democrat Sen. Sydney Batch, whose southern Wake County district elected Biden by about 5 points.

  • It's also put nearly $1.6 million toward Democrat Marcia Morgan's campaign. Morgan is in a race to defeat incumbent Republican Sen. Michael Lee in a New Hanover County district that voted for Biden by a mere .17%. Republicans need to hold onto Lee's seat — deemed by operatives as the most competitive in the state — if they want to win a supermajority.
  • Democrats only spent more in Democrat Mary Wills Bode's race in northern Wake and Granville counties, at nearly $2 million. Bode isn't the incumbent, but the seat has been previously held by Democrats, and the district went for Biden by less than four points.

Go deeper: Roy Cooper’s Wager


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