Josh Bergeron: Competitive legislative race still favors Republican

Published 12:01 am Sunday, September 27, 2020

The widest and most competitive slate of local races for office usually comes in the midterms — even years between presidential elections.

And while this year hasn’t bucked the trend, it’s possible that local ballots could feature one of the most competitive races for state legislature Rowan County in years.

That race features Rep. Harry Warren, a Republican and five-term legislator, as well as Al Heggins, a Democrat who previously served as Salisbury mayor and is the city’s current mayor pro tem. They’re competing for the 76th District seat.

Because of gerrymandering and court-ordered redistricting, Warren’s races for legislature have involved varying district lines. So, he’s appeared on the ballots of and represented most Rowan County voters at one time or another. Now, his district covers parts of Salisbury and much of the county east of I-85. Previously as the 77th District’s representative, he represented much of Salisbury, part of southern and all of western Rowan County. He and Heggins are competing for a district that’s more consolidated around the city of Salisbury, but stretches to China Grove, Granite Quarry, Faith, Spencer and East Spencer as well as typically Republican, unincorporated areas.

Registration statistics and past results are key in estimating possibilities for a final result. Republicans last year said they didn’t consider racial or partisan data, but I can certainly do that, with data easily available on the Rowan County and North Carolina boards of elections websites.

Voter registration data show a relatively optimistic picture for Heggins and Democrats in the race. With roughly 56,417 voters registered in the 76th District, the voter registration breakdown is as follows:

• 18,062 Democrats, or 32% of voters in the district.

• 20,599 Republicans, or 36.5%.

• 17,421 unaffiliated voters, or 30.88%.

It’s misguided to look at those numbers and say the district is “purple” or giving the GOP and Democrats roughly an even chance of winning the district. Unaffiliated voters are not registered to a party, but they are not necessarily persuadable.

Consider the 2016 presidential election in precincts now included in the district. There were 22,407 votes for Donald Trump and 14,644 votes for Hillary Clinton — a margin of nearly 7,800 voters.

Republican Pat McCrory in 2016 won by a smaller margin in the district, but there were factors working against the former governor of his own doing — a reason why Trump won the presidential race in the state and Democrat Roy Cooper won the gubernatorial race.

A key data point in 2016 could be whether voters now in the district picked a Republican or Democrat in that year’s legislative races, but none of Rowan County’s legislators faced Democratic opposition that year.

Partisan data doesn’t preclude Heggins from winning the race, but it means she’ll need to appeal to moderate and Republican-leaning voters. She’ll also need to make the case that Warren’s record in Raleigh is one that’s left Rowan County and North Carolina worse off. Deserved or not, she’ll also have to battle negative perceptions of her own.

While it’s not a presidential year, the 2014 U.S. Senate race may be the biggest reason for optimism for Heggins. Then, 12,591 voters who are now in the district chose Republican Thom Tillis as compared to 10,036 for Democrat Kay Hagan.

Warren has an advantage and needs to appeal to Republicans and Republican-leaning voters as well as keep the race close in Salisbury and Spencer. He may be able to run on his record alone and secure enough votes for another term.

Local legislative races have not been close in recent years, with Republicans winning by double-digit percentages or, in several cases, not even facing competition. This year, Warren’s margin of victory could be just several points, but there’s a slim possibility of Warren entering in a similar manner to how he entered the legislature — beating an incumbent and being a critical cog in flipping party control of the legislature.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post.