NEW HANOVER COUNTY—Two years after being unseated by a razor-thin margin, Michael Lee has earned the most votes so far in the race for N.C. State Senate District 9 — which largely comprises New Hanover County — capping a contentious, familiar campaign against the incumbent Democrat Harper Peterson.
Lee previously served two terms in the N.C. General Assembly and filled a vacancy left by Thom Goolsby, but lost his 2018 re-election campaign to Peterson by 231 votes — that election was close enough for a recount, but Lee ultimately conceded. This time around, there’s a 1.1% difference separating the two, just 0.1% shy of the state threshold for requesting a recount. Absentee ballots have still yet to be tallied in full; the canvass will determine official results.
Two years ago was an election Democrats considered crucial in breaking the GOP’s veto-override ability in the Senate. Tuesday, Lee flipped the seat for the GOP by an unofficial margin of 1,468, complicating the Democratic Party’s plan to expand its Senate caucus in the general assembly.
“Make no mistake, this is not a landslide by obviously any margin, but we’re excited about the margin and the win, and I think that has a lot to do with us being able to get the message out,” Lee said.
As in 2018, the two campaigns were locked in a fervent advertising duel in the weeks leading up to Election Day. Citing newspaper articles from the early 2000s, Lee ran ads accusing Peterson of misogyny and racism, which Peterson denies, while Peterson countered with commercials that suggested Lee was tied up in special interests.
The cornerstone of Lee’s campaign, he said, rests in a passion for educational reform. He wants more fluidity in the ways school systems are able to make use of resources, and vouches for local schools to have more independence from the centralized powers in Raleigh.
Lee said he believes his campaign was successful for at least two crucial reasons: Peterson’s failure to pass any legislation during the past two years, and Peterson’s vote against a state budget that Lee said would have bought additional dollars into New Hanover County.
Peterson previously said Republican legislators viewed him as “untouchable,” due to his 2018 victory playing a pivotal role in breaking the ability of the GOP to override a veto from Gov. Roy Cooper.
Though campaigns of both candidates largely focused on attacking the opponent, both Peterson and Lee have professed to align on multiple issues. Each vowed to support an independent redistricting process if elected — regardless of how the partisan composition of the state legislature ends up. In this census year, the host of state senators and representatives who won elections will help guide the redrawing of N.C.’s legislative maps — which have garnered consistent allegations of racially-motivated gerrymandering since the maps were last redrawn in 2010.
A judicial ruling regarding N.C. state legislature districts led to an outcome that political scientists said would actually benefit Peterson — a zone of downtown Wilmington was included in District 9 for the first time in 2020, whereas a large swath of the county’s rural region was relocated to District 8. Despite the additional hurdle, Lee defeated Peterson by a margin of more than six times the number of votes that decided the 2018 contest.
Both candidates vouched for harsh sanctions on companies like DuPont and Chemours, which are wrapped up in lawsuits over allegations of contributing substantial pollution to local waterways.
State-level party organizations heavily supported both candidates, and funneled money into their respective campaigns to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Both candidates accumulated more than a $900,000 war chest over the course of the election cycle. Peterson amassed more funds from political party committees, while Lee held the narrow edge in contributions from individuals.
Preliminary reports suggest the partisan makeup of both chambers in the N.C. legislature will stay steady, with Republicans maintaining majorities in both the House and Senate.
Update: This article initially stated Lee defeated Peterson. It has been updated to more precisely reflect the status of the vote count, which is still subject to change as absentee ballots arrive through Nov. 12.
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