Party parity

 In 2014-11

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As I write, no one knows the outcome of the 2014 elections. For the purposes of this column, that’s fine. What I’m going to suggest is that, regardless of who wins the U.S. Senate race or has the better showing in legislative contests, the rise of the Republican Party has transformed state politics in ways previous generations of Tar Heels could scarcely have imagined.

To see that, you have to step back from current political battles to look at long-term trends in party competition and voting behavior. I’ve recently constructed a tool for tracking such trends, the North Carolina Election Index. Inspired by a national model devised by Sean Trende and David Byler, analysts for RealClearPolitics.com, the NCEI combines results for local, state and federal elections in North Carolina since 1950.

The concept behind the model is that in our republican form of government power isn’t concentrated in one institution or set of hands. At the state level, North Carolina’s governors have long been among the weakest in the country in formal authority — and remained so even after they acquired the power to serve more than one term (in 1977) and veto bills (in 1996). But that doesn’t make the General Assembly all-powerful. As recent cases involving education and taxes have shown, the N.C. Supreme Court can have tremendous influence on policy. So can the nine independently elected members of the Council of State: lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, agriculture commissioner, insurance commissioner, labor commissioner, superintendent of public instruction, state treasurer and state auditor.

Assessing the relative strength of the Democratic and Republican parties means looking at other levels of government, too. Obviously, the makeup of the state’s delegation to Congress is essential to evaluating party influence. But I would argue that the analysis also must take local governments into account. Not only do they make important decisions about a host of issues, but today’s local politicians often become tomorrow’s state or national ones.

For the NCEI, then, I rated the strength of the parties in eight categories: 1) percentage of the vote won in the most recent governor’s race, 2) percentage of Council of State seats held, 3) percentage of U.S. Senate seats held, 4) percentage of U.S. House seats held, 5) percentage of N.C. Senate seats held, 6) percentage of N.C. House seats held, 7) percentage of state Supreme Court seats held and 8) percentage of county commissions controlled. (I had to do some guesswork here for elections prior to 1968, as there aren’t good statewide data available). I weighted each number equally to produce the final index score.

Not surprisingly, the result looks pretty bleak for the GOP at the beginning of the series. In 1950, Democrats had a firm grasp on North Carolina politics with a NCEI score of 94%. There were no GOP members on the Council of State, Supreme Court or in the congressional delegation. Only a handful of Republicans held legislative offices or county commission seats, mostly in the western Piedmont and mountains.

Things began to change in 1952, when Lincolnton lawyer Charlie Jonas, who came to be called “Mr. Republican” for his party-building activities, won the U.S. House seat in the district around Charlotte. Democrats lost a few seats in the legislature, too, while Republican nominees began to win about a third of the vote for North Carolina governor — which sounds puny by today’s standards but was a major gain. Even so, by 1960 the Democrats’ NCEI score had only decreased to 90%.

The pace of change quickened during the 1960s as a second Republican (Jim Broyhill in 1962) and then a third (Jim Gardner in 1966) won congressional seats. Democrats also began to lose their overwhelming hold on the General Assembly, primarily legislative seats in or near growing metropolitan areas. By 1972, Republicans were ready for a dramatic breakout as Jim Holshouser became the modern party’s first governor and Jesse Helms became its first U.S. senator. Still, Democratic strength in other political contests kept their overall index score at 74%.

The next big drop in the majority party’s strength came in 1984, as Ronald Reagan’s re-election helped Helms win a third term, elect Jim Martin governor and make major gains in congressional, legislative and county offices. The Democrats’ NCEI score fell to 65%. It dropped again in 1994, to just 52%, as a backlash against Bill Clinton’s policies caused Democrats to lose their majorities in the congressional delegation and N.C. House for the first time in the 20th century.

Thanks largely to the inestimable political skills of Gov. Jim Hunt, the Democrats managed to keep their political strength above 50% for a few more cycles. But by 2002, Republicans had won both U.S. Senate seats, most congressional seats, a majority on the Supreme Court, two seats on the Council of State and near-parity in the legislature. The Democrats’ NCEI score fell to 46%. Except for a brief uptick in 2006, the party has since trailed the GOP, finishing the 2012 elections with a score of 44%.

What these trends show is not an overwhelmingly Democratic state becoming overwhelming Republican but a one-party state becoming competitive. It will remain so for many years to come — a salutary development, in my opinion. After all, who’s against competition?

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