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In 2022 Midterms, as NC Goes, So Goes the United States, Duke Experts Say

In an election that will shape American democracy, N.C. is a bellwether state

US electoral map

The results of Tuesday’s midterm elections could do much more than put new people in office. They could also significantly alter the future of democracy – or even destroy it, say Duke experts.

“If election-denying candidates are elected in enough key states, it could quite literally determine the fate of American democracy,” says Asher Hildebrand, an associate professor of the practice at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy

“Nationally, a Republican congressional majority would all but ensure partisan gridlock for the remainder of President Biden’s first term. But the more lasting implications of the election might be found in races for governor and secretary of state around the country, where many Republican candidates have endorsed Donald Trump’s ‘Big Lie’ and threaten to overturn the will of the people in the 2024 election.”

North Carolina will play a major role in the outcome with the race to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican. Hildebrand notes the race between Democrat Cheri Beasley and Republican Ted Budd is extremely close.

Democratic candidates have won only one Senate race in the last two decades and only four in the last half century in North Carolina, says Pope “Mac” McCorkle, a professor of the practice at the Sanford School of Public Policy. McCorkle was an issues consultant to political candidates, state governments and others for more than 25 years.

“To break the party's losing streak in Senate races, Cheri Beasley will need very strong turnout from Democratic voters in the state's major cities.

“Republicans can probably bet again on high levels of support among white voters in rural and small-town North Carolina. But Ted Budd will also need to keep Republican victory margins above 20 points in most of the 28 ‘fringe’ metropolitan -- or ‘countrypolitan’ -- counties next to the state's urban Democratic strongholds.”

McCorkle notes these so-called growing “countrypolitan” counties like Johnston in the Raleigh area and Union in the Charlotte area should be good weathervanes.

“If Cheri Beasley can lead a trimming of usual Republican margins in such places, Democrats could have an unexpectedly good election night and a new demographic reality could be emerging in North Carolina politics.”  

Hildebrand says that while this year’s congressional map leaves little suspense in most U.S. House districts, the newly drawn 13th District is home to one of the closest races in the country and will be a national bellwether.

“Since 2018, divided control of government has facilitated bipartisan progress in key areas and spared North Carolina from some of the partisan excesses seen in other states,” says Hildebrand, who served for nearly 15 years in congressional offices and on political campaigns, and was chief of staff to U.S. Representative David Price (D-NC).

“A return to Republican ‘super-majorities’ in the legislature and majorities in the state’s highest courts would spell doom for Gov. Cooper’s legislative agenda and augur a new era of extreme conservative policies in areas ranging from abortion access to voting rights.”

Again, the U.S. Senate race here will determine how many statewide races turn out, McCorkle says.

“What happens at the top of the ticket in North Carolina has increasingly shaped the vote in all statewide races. The partisan split in congressional and state legislative races has also tracked how candidates at the top of the ticket do in those districts. In other words, the basic voting pattern in recent North Carolina election cycles has been partisan polarization all the way down the ballot.”

The biggest possibility of an ideological wild card factor is among registered unaffiliated voters -- which at 36% now represents a bigger bloc of voters than registered Democrats or Republicans, McCorkle says. 

“So an outside possibility exists that split-ticket voting among a crucial segment of unaffiliated and other independent-minded voters could lead to a scrambled mix of wins and losses between Democrats and Republicans in competitive races up and down the ballot. Such paradoxical election results could confront both parties with a complicated and interesting new political day.”