Wednesday, February 28, 2024

State incumbents hold onto their seats, Michael Lee helps cinch supermajority in Senate

The New Hanover County GOP had a packed house at its election party Tuesday night, hosted at Kickback Jack’s. (Carl Blankenship/Port City Daily)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Tuesday’s state contests were more predictable than usual in New Hanover County, with every incumbent easily winning reelection in a purple county.

Sen. Michael Lee (R-7) had his strongest win in years, clearing opponent Marcia Morgan with 51.22% of the vote to Morgan’s 48.78% after an extremely expensive race. Each candidate spent more than $1.5 million, mostly collected from the state parties. 

READ MORE: Election 2022 results: Republicans win big

Michael Lee and Marcia Morgan at the WHQR, Port City Daily and WECT town hall in October. (Port City Daily/Carl Blankenship)

Morgan filled in as a candidate at the last minute, after Democrats announced July 4 she would replace Jason Minnicozzi, who won the party’s primary but bowed out of the race. Minnicozzi cited lack of financing, yet also had been accused of predatory behavior that was making headlines.  

Morgan did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the election results.

Lee’s victory was a linchpin for securing a supermajority in the state Senate, but the Republicans failed to win enough seats to build a supermajority in the House.

Lee was first elected in 2014 after defeating Elizabeth Redenbaugh with 55.36% of the vote. Two years later he beat Andrew Barnhill by an even wider margin or 57.35%.

It got rocky for Lee in 2018, when he lost his seat to former Wilmington Mayor Harper Peterson by 0.27%. Lee won his spot back from Peterson in 2020 with a single-point lead.

“I have had a few close ones,” Lee told Port City Daily Monday night as he was leaving the Republican election party at Kickback Jack’s.

When early votes came in, he was almost seven percentage points behind Morgan, but he expected to make up ground.

“I feel like we’re going to do really well,” Lee said, adding his perspective came from interacting with voters at polling sites the same day.

Lee’s win moves the Republicans one step closer to unilateral power in state government. Republican leadership in the N.C. General Assembly indicated if both houses secured supermajorities in this election a law placing more restrictions on abortion was likely because the party would be able to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto power.

After votes came in on Tuesday it appeared the GOP fell short of forming a supermajority in the house by a single seat. Without a double supermajority, Cooper’s veto will stand. Vote totals will not be final until every local board of elections completes canvassing 10 days after the election.

Lee went on the record last month at a candidate forum co-hosted by PCD, WHQR and WECT, and said he would oppose a total abortion ban if it came to a vote in the Senate.

The Senator’s name is on 92 bills that have been introduced over the past two years, 18 of which became law. Notably, in 2021 he was a lead sponsor on the law that changed North Carolina’s Read to Achieve program. It was ratified with bipartisan support in April of last year and requires every public school district in the state to implement the “Science of Reading” in elementary schools.

The evidence-based teaching method gained notoriety after Mississippi used it to boost their public education reading scores by double digits. School districts have been training teachers in the method since the legislation passed.

At the candidate forum Lee noted he was on a committee that put forward “parents bill of rights” legislation that would allow parents to exercise more control over what their child is taught in schools, ban teaching about LGBT issues and thwart left-wing indoctrination conservatives allege is happening in public schools.

“I’m not saying every public school does it, I’m not saying every teacher does it,” Lee said at the forum. “I do think that most teachers don’t do it, but I have seen very specific evidence that came through to the general assembly that had things in it that most people would not want to see.”

The GOP has more routes to take power in the next two years. Cooper is term-limited. If the Republicans hold on to any majority in the legislature and get their governor candidate in office they would be able to pass any abortion restrictions, education or budget policy they see fit.

If a Democrat wins the governorship again but the GOP builds a supermajority in the House, it would have the same effect.

Deb Butler and John Hinnant at the WHQR, Port City Daily and WECT town hall in October. (Port City Daily/Carl Blankenship)

State Rep. Deb Butler (D-18), who easily won reelection against Republican challenger John Hinnant with 53.09% of the vote, said this election cycle worried her more than what is to come two years from now.

“In a midterm with a Democratic president, you expect the opposing party to fare well,” Butler said. “Truth is, they didn’t really fare as well as they predicted they would.”

The Associated Press is reporting 176 Democrats to 203 GOP members make up the U.S. House so far in election 2022 tallies; 218 are needed to gain control. Democrats are showing a one-seat gain so far in the U.S. Senate race with 46 to Republicans’ 48; 51 takes the majority.

She also pushed back on Hinnant’s attack ads, which characterized her as overly emotional and unstable. Butler called them sexist and pointed to an opinion piece published in the Charlotte Observer. Basically, it explains Hinnant’s advertisements took Butler’s actions out of context when she shouted in protest, “I will not yield,” in response to a surprise vote to override Cooper’s veto of the 2019 state budget. Democrats were absent from the legislature that day because they were told the House would not be voting..

“I do believe the voters in my district rejected it because they know who I am — and I did not get into the ditch with him,” she said.

The presidential election in 2024, Butler said, will poise Democrats to gain some ground. For now, her priority is clean air and clean water, specifically getting polluters, such as Chemours, to pay for cleanup efforts, like the contamination in the Cape Fear River — something she surmises Republicans can get onboard with.

Butler’s district has historically favored Democrats by six points, yet her challenger, also at the GOP party on election night, said he was feeling cautiously optimistic before the final counts were tallied. Hinnant told PCD he thought the race would be “razor thin.”

Hinnant said he personally knocked on 1,600 doors and his volunteers visited 12,000 homes as part of an intense ground game.

Still, he said his campaign was worth the effort and time. He recounted meeting one voter, a woman in her 80s, who knew him because she went to school with his father. 

“I met people who grew up with my mother. I met people who knew my sisters and went to school with me. It’s been really enriching,” Hinnant said. “Politics is not for everybody, but for me, I had a wonderful experience.”

Ted Davis and Amy DeLoach at the WHQR, Port City Daily and WECT town hall in October. (Port City Daily/Carl Blankenship)

The closest race in New Hanover was in District 20 between incumbent Ted Davis (R) and Amy Block DeLoach (D). Davis beat DeLoach by three percentage points.

“I knew it could be a close election because the district had become so much more competitive,” Davis said.

When Davis took office, District 20 occupied the northeast portion of New Hanover, but after the 2022 maps were redrawn and approved in court earlier in the year, his district picked up territory directly to the west in Wilmington.

He told PCD he was hoping the unaffiliated vote would swing more Republican after early voting, but that did not happen. During the absentee and early voting window, Davis had 10,045 votes compared to DeLoach’s 11,452.  Day-of voting took him over the finish line by a little more than 1,000 votes, clocking in 8,850 to DeLoach’s 6,349.

Davis echoed support for pollution protection, noting he is also interested in limiting PFAS contained in fire foam. According to the CDC, cancer — linked to high PFAS exposure in some studies — is the leading cause of death for active firefighters. He introduced a bill to the House in the spring to hold polluters, namely Chemours, financially responsible for contaminating the drinking water in the Cape Fear River. It stalled in this year’s short session, but he said during the candidate forum in October he will continue pursuing it.

He also wants to push for permanent funding for an opioid abuse prevention program in Wilmington. The city launched an opioid addiction “quick response team” in 2018 with $500,000, half of which was provided by the legislature via a bill sponsored by Davis, Butler and former Rep. Holly Grange.  New Hanover County’s overdose rate is 39.7% per 100,000 residents, higher than the state average of 28.4% per 100,000.

DeLoach, while disappointed in her loss, congratulated her opponent.

“I am happy to do anything to help him,” she said.

DeLoach added her campaign was on the right side of history, but this was the will of the voters.

“I’ll tell you the truth: I don’t know what else I could have done,” DeLoach said. “We met our fundraising goal; we met our door-knocking goal. We did fall a little short of our phone-banking goal, but I’m not sure that was enough to lose the race. I think it just wasn’t my term.”

As of the third quarter, DeLoach had raised $295,400 to Davis’ $373,000, though she had spent more, ending the quarter with $56,500 on hand to Davis’ $148,800.

Two races with territory in New Hanover County, both with Republican incumbents, were unopposed. Bill Rabon is returning as an N.C. Senator for District 8 and Charlie Miller is going back to the House for District 19.

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