Rierson on the Right

Some liberal critics say North Carolina isn’t a democracy, but citizens across the state took a step toward proving them wrong this February when enough candidates filed to make every state legislative race competitive.

The Democratic Party has candidates running for every congressional, state house, and state senate seat, while Republicans left the primary field open in one district, but are expected to support an independent there. Democrats started the candidate-search battle when they announced a plan to break the Republican majority back in 2017, while Republicans appear to have gotten the ball rolling much later in the game.

The Democrats and Republicans are both showing that democracy is strongest when citizen participation is maximized. Holding contested elections statewide allows voters of all stripes to share their opinion and become part of their community’s voice. Many of these races will be uncompetitive, but providing electoral choice can reveal the unhappiness of significant minority communities within a district and challenge incumbents to earn votes.

As a Republican voter registered in very blue urban state house and senate districts, I look forward to expressing dissatisfaction with Democratic incumbents at the ballot box. My opinion won’t matter much in these races, but it lets my legislators know that the community they represent isn’t a monolith.

The success of the state’s legislative competitions will be determined by the politics of the observer. Democrats only need to pick up about five seats in each chamber to crack the Republican veto-proof majority. Both parties have the opportunity to prove that they can simultaneously address the needs of rural, suburban, and urban voters of different viewpoints.

In addition to voters, the state’s major political parties are signalling to other political audiences that North Carolina has vibrant competition. This cycle will be a test of legislative maps drawn by Republicans and edited by a court-appointed “special master” after they were deemed to diminish African-American representation.

Republicans want to show that the current legislative maps were drawn fairly. A strong field of candidates in 2018 may position the state party to host the 2020 Republican National Convention in Charlotte, as well. Democrats will seek to show party onlookers elsewhere that they are still competitive in the South and deserving of progressive attention and support.

There is an element of risk in the state parties competing in unfriendly territory, though. They must work within their campaign budgets and avoid spending too much money on far-shot candidates. It is difficult to recruit quality candidates when the chances of winning are slim, so it’s possible that the parties may have found a few wackjobs capable of damaging their brands.

If districts across the state have quality candidates competing with each other on the merits of their ideas, and citizens turn out to vote, 2018 may be a banner year for North Carolina democracy. Competitive elections will sharpen the spears of Democrats and Republicans alike.