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This Week in Statehouse Action: Carolina (and beyond) In My Mind edition
Election Day is just over two weeks away!
[pauses to mildly hyperventilate]
With that EDay countdown rocketing towards single digits, I’m sliding into your inbox to talk (mostly) about the state that’s arguably at the center of the down ballot political universe right now.
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And that’s not to give any of the states I mentioned in this space last week short shrift–Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania are all home to incredibly essential state legislative contests on Nov. 8.
But today, I posit a different state as a nexus of essential down-ticket action this year:
Last week I dug into the importance of Democrats preventing GOP lawmakers from winning veto-proof majorities in the North Carolina House and Senate.
Remember, Republicans need to flip only four House seats and two Senate seats to win veto-proof supermajorities in those chambers.
But what would veto-proof GOP statehouse majorities in the Tar Heel State actually mean for North Carolinians?
So glad you asked!
If Republicans flip enough seats to override the vetoes of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper,
Abortion restrictions would tighten.
Larger tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the wealthy and starve education and other government services become a near certainty.
Medicaid expansion—a real possibility for the first time in a decade but still meeting some GOP resistance—would go from probably being just a matter of time to being in real doubt.
Previously proposed bills that restrict how teachers can talk about race, sexuality, and gender almost certainly would become law, as would a requirement that teachers tell parents if a student questions their sexual identity.
North Carolina would become less safe under looser gun laws.
How do we know this?
Because these are all things Gov. Cooper either vetoed this year or that Republicans didn’t bother to pass because they knew he would.
In his time as governor, Cooper has wielded the veto 75 times–far more than any other North Carolina governor.
In his first two years in office, Republican supermajorities overturned 23 of his 28 vetoes.
Among other things, they made judicial races partisan again in North Carolina, cut business regulations, passed state budgets, and approved tax cuts over Cooper’s objections.
Democrats broke those GOP supermajorities in the 2018 elections.
None of Cooper’s vetoes have been overturned since that legislature was seated.
And this is super in the weeds (which is really saying something in this space, I know), but if you’re looking for key veto-proof-proofing North Carolina seats to watch on election night, I’d point you to House Districts 35, 40, 63, and 73 and Senate Districts 7, 17, and 19.
Unlike targeted races I’d typically list as ones to watch, most of these are Democratic holds–which, like, makes sense, since Republicans have to make net gains in both chambers to secure those veto-proof numbers.
But enough of all that.
I made you a promise last week, and that promise involved a totally different North Carolina elected office:
The state Supreme Court.
Court battles over redistricting, abortion, workplace protections, and beyond in recent years have increasingly drawn attention to these positions.
Republicans are well aware of the importance of state Supreme Courts.
A spokesperson for the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) even laid it out for everyone: “We figured out when it comes to redistricting, it’s no longer enough to control state legislative chambers.”
And the RSLC is very much putting its money where its mouth is:
Earlier this year, the committee pledged to spend $5 million on these races, and it wouldn’t be at all shocking to learn after all the post-election campaign finance report dust settles that the amount invested in these contests ends up being much higher.
Fully thirty states are holding elections for their respective Supreme Courts this year, and in terms of judicial contests, North Carolina in no way has a monopoly on important races.
In Michigan, progressives want to keep that Court’s one-seat Democratic majority that they won just two years ago (these races are ostensibly nonpartisan, but candidates are nominated by the parties, so …), but Republicans (especially our pals over at the RSLC, largely via a dark money group called the Judicial Crisis Network) would like very much to flip this Court back to GOP control.
Two incumbent justices, Democrat Richard Bernstein and Republican Brian Zahra, are on the ballot, along with Democratic state Rep. Kyra Bolden, Republican lawyer Paul Hudson, and a Libertarian candidate.
Fun fact! If Bolden is able to unseat Zahra, she’ll be Michigan’s first Black woman state Supreme Court justice.
In Ohio, where the GOP-controlled legislature straight-up ignored their Supreme Court’s multiple rulings earlier this year striking down their new district maps as unconstitutional gerrymanders so they could run in the districts they wanted to, three of that Court’s Republican justices (Rs currently have 4-3 majority) are on the ballot.
Fun fact! Thanks to a law Republicans passed last year, this election will be the first where Ohio Supreme Court candidates run with their party ID listed on the ballot.
You might be surprised to learn that another pitched state Supreme Court battle is happening in Montana.
This race is actually nonpartisan, but Republicans both in and outside of the state are spending heavily to replace incumbent Justice Ingrid Gustafson with GOP attorney James Brown (no, seriously), who vocally supports overturning existing precedent in Montana that abortion rights are protected by the state constitution.
It’s easy for outside observers to write Montana off as a red state that’s been red and will probably always be red, the Treasure State’s brand of conservatism has historically been a little more nuanced.
I mean, even I sometimes forget that Republicans hadn’t had the governorship there in 16 years before Gianforte won and the GOP swept all statewide offices in 2020.
But with abortion rights effectively enshrined Montana’s 50-year-old constitution, non-activist jurists like Gustafson are no longer tolerated by that state’s increasingly conservative Republicans.
Challenger Brown isn’t fighting for this seat on his own; like in pretty much all of the races in this list, RSLC is playing big here.
But considering that the Montana Supreme Court recently blocked three anti-abortion laws unanimously, replacing Gustafson with Brown won’t automatically produce the pro-GOP, anti-reproductive freedom court Republicans are hoping for.
But here, like pretty much everywhere else, Republicans are playing the long game when it comes to down-ticket races.
This year, they oust Gustafson.
In two years, they replace one or two other moderate justices with conservative ideologues.
Two years later, another justice or two gets replaced.
Thing is, Montana Republicans might not even have to wait that long to push their state drastically rightward.
If Republicans pick up just two more seats (in either chamber!), they’ll have the legislative supermajority (100 out of 150 total House + Senate seats) necessary to amend the state’s constitution.
If 100 Republicans were to approve an amendment eroding or eliminating the constitutional privacy provisions that protect abortion rights, the amendment would then go before Montana voters for their approval.
Et voila! Another state legislature to watch on election night!
And now, with great gratitude for your patience, we’ll return to arguably the most important state Supreme Court races in the country this year: North Carolina’s.
Since Democrats took the majority on the state’s highest court six years ago, the North Carolina Supreme Court has been a massive pain in the ass of the legislature's GOP majority.
Two of the court’s seven seats are on the ballot this November.
If Republicans win either of them, the GOP will win control the court and will be the final say on myriad issues including abortion rights, gerrymandering, and voting rights, and much more.
Way back in 2020, campaigns and outside organizations spent more than $10 million on the three state Supreme Court seats on the ballot that year.
Even with one fewer race this year, I’d be low-key shocked if spending on these two contests doesn’t top that number.
And when it comes to the actual impact of these races … well, let’s just take a quick look at what the North Carolina Supreme Court has accomplished with its Democratic majority.
The court struck down life sentences for crimes committed by juveniles, putting a constitutional limit on prison sentences for minors charged as adults.
Before this ruling, children faced the possibility of life behind bars in North Carolina.
In 2020, the justices drastically limited the impact of a bill that repealed the state’s landmark Racial Justice Act (RJA)—a law that allowed people on death row to be re-sentenced if racial bias infected the process–by invalidating a provision of the repeal bill that would’ve sent four people back to death row after their sentences had been commuted to life imprisonment.
The court also cracked down on racism in jury selection after decades of inaction and evidence showing that prosecutors routinely struck Black people from jury pools.
They have (so far) blocked a 2018 voter ID law that could disenfranchise Black and other voters from marginalized communities.
And they’ve struck down multiple of the GOP’s illegally gerrymandered congressional and legislative district maps.
And all this is on top of the Democratic majority stopping several attempts by Republicans to usurp the Democratic governor’s power and take over the state’s elections administration.
Yet all of the North Carolina Supreme Court’s progress in protecting voting rights, fair representation, individual rights, and criminal justice reform could come to a tire-shredding halt next year if voters elect a Republican to either one of these seats, which would establish a new GOP majority.
And every single vote in these races count, as demonstrated by (now-U.S. Senate candidate) then-Justice Cheri Beasley’s 401-vote loss in 2020 (out nearly 5.4 million cast!).
So buckle up: No matter which candidates win these state Supreme Court contests, they’ll likely be incredibly close—and could even end up in recount territory.
Yup, after all this hand-wringing, it’s super possible we won’t know who has the majority on the Court on election night.
But that’s okay! As an erudite consumer of this missive, I know you know that it’s normal and fine for close races to not be called on election night.
In fact, states have anywhere from a couple of days until fully weeks after the election to certify their results.
And in most places, the recount process can’t begin until the election results are officially certified, which means that we might not actually know the outcome of not only close judicial contests, but also dozens of state legislative races–and in some states, maybe even majority control of a chamber–until, like, December.
Buckle up, folks. Even with just more than two weeks left until Election Day, the election itself could be far from over.
Thank you for being here for this little detour (mostly, anyway) from state legislative races and politics.
But these waaaaaaay down-ticket contests–including (but not limited to) state judges, secretaries of state, and attorneys general, in addition to state legislators–are just too important to not talk about.
I know I gripe a lot in this space about Democrats dithering with top-ticket shiny objects while Republicans clearly understand the value of investing all the way down the ballot, but even as these lesser-known contests begin to get more media attention, progressive investment has yet to follow it in a meaningful way (MISS ME WITH YOUR THREE-WEEK-OUT DROP OF $20 MILLION, WHERE WERE YOU IN JULY WHEN THIS WOULD HAVE ACTUALLY MATTERED??).
So I super appreciate your patience with me as I work through some ~~feelings~~ in addition to (hopefully!) providing you with useful information about this crucial level of the ballot.
And I super appreciate you.
It might feel like a tall order right now, but take care of yourself, yeah?
We need you.
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