Why you should care

Because a run of blue victories here could set the pace for the nation.

As Democrats dream of a congressional takeover this November, you often hear about swing districts everywhere from the Northeast to Orange County, California, to South Florida. But the true test of a blue election wave could come in North Carolina, where as many as five seats previously considered safely Republican are now in play.

An exclusive OZY election model in partnership with Republican data and technology firm 0ptimus finds that two of the most dramatic House seat shifts in the past two weeks have been in North Carolina. The 7th Congressional District, led by second-term incumbent Republican Rep. David Rouzer and stretching from Wilmington to the outer southern suburbs of Raleigh, saw its GOP win probability drop from 97 percent to 64.1 percent. And in the 2nd Congressional District, a mostly suburban Raleigh district helmed by Rep. George Holding, the GOP win probability also plummeted, from 91.97 percent to 65.37 percent. Those numbers are likely to come down even further after a new bad poll for Holding is factored in.

Both were considered safe Republican seats before Democratic internal polls, recently released to the public, showed them in dogfights. The 2nd District poll had Holding down 1 percentage point to Democrat Linda Coleman, while 7th District results had Rouzer down 4 points to Democrat Kyle Horton. Of course, partisan polls deserve skepticism. “Internal polls can be biased to tell a point of view, whereas public pollsters are more reliable in their impartiality,” says Alex Alduncin, a data scientist at 0ptimus.

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Democrat Linda Coleman speaks while launching her campaign for North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District in January.

Source Alan Campbell/AP

Still, some bottom-line trends signify that Democratic progress is real. Both districts draw heavily from suburban areas that have leaked support for Republicans since the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Population change has rewritten many North Carolina districts in makeup if not boundaries, with the Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte regions booming with business and transplants who may be less conservative than their predecessors.

In both districts, male Republican incumbents are being challenged by Democratic women — an area of emphasis for the OZY/0ptimus model. Hanging over it all is Trump, whose national favorability has declined in recent weeks, particularly with swing voters. A recent CNN poll had Trump’s approval among independents down to a low of 31 percent in September. “These undecided voters are telling you how they are going to vote” by their Trump disapproval, says Morgan Jackson, co-founder of Democratic consulting firm Nexus Strategies.

[Redistricting] wasn’t too cute. It was too greedy.

Morgan Jackson, North Carolina Democratic consultant

In Holding’s district, Trump’s favorability was just 40 percent … with 54 percent disapproving of the president, according to a SurveyUSA district poll paid for by the conservative Civitas Institute. The survey, released Monday, also found Democrat Coleman leading Holding, 44 percent to 43 percent. “Midterms are about anger and failed expectations,” says Paul Shumaker, a longtime veteran of North Carolina GOP politics and founder of Capitol Communications who has worked for Holding in the past.

The results exacerbate national trends showing Democrats with an 8.8-point national political environment advantage, according to the OZY/0ptimus election model. The Charlotte-area 9th District, where Republican incumbent Robert Pittenger lost a primary to former Baptist preacher Mark Harris in May, was already vulnerable for Democrats to take for the first time in 58 years, as was the 13th District, where freshman Rep. Ted Budd is facing heat from challenger Kathy Manning. Even the 8th District, where incumbent Richard Hudson raced to re-election two years ago by more than 17 percentage points, could be vulnerable if the Republican outlook gets worse. Jackson says Democrats could take over five seats in North Carolina as long as their double-digit advantage in generic ballot tests holds: “If the wave comes, it pulls them in.”

Part of the reason so many seats are up for grabs? Gerrymandered districts in North Carolina, which have been ruled unconstitutional by federal courts multiple times but will not be redrawn before Election Day, spread the Republican vote thin on the way to a 10-3 congressional seat advantage in a purple state. There is a historical precedent: In 1992, it was the Democrats who seemingly rigged their districts … only to watch as the 1994 election swept them out. “If you look at the history of the state, no party has drawn lines and has been able to maintain that through a decade,” Shumaker says. “Given the rise of the unaffiliated [voters who don’t register by party], that volatility is as great if not greater than 1994.” In a wave year, gerrymandered Republican seats, seemingly safe, could prove to be too tricky for their own good. “It wasn’t too cute. It was too greedy,” Jackson argues.

But there is still plenty of time for political conditions to change. As Hurricane Florence bears down on Wilmington — home to the 7th District — the entire state is bracing for severe damage. The responses from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Trump will have political ramifications. Shumaker says former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s response to Hurricane Matthew in 2016 helped conservatives in the eastern part of the state, even though McCrory ended up losing a nail-biter to Cooper. “These storms have potential to change voting patterns,” Shumaker says of a state in flux. “I think the die has yet to be cast.”

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