Five Black incumbent legislators lost elections in eastern North Carolina districts last week, contributing to an overall decline in Black representation from rural counties with significant African-American populations.
Two of the incumbent House candidates who were defeated last week, Democratic Reps. Howard Hunter III of Hertford County and James D. Gailliard of Nash County, said new district lines, a barrage of negative ads and mailers, and lower turnout among Democrats contributed to their losses.
“Everyone was surprised, but folks didn’t get out the vote,” said Hunter, whose district includes areas his father represented for 18 years as a member of the House.
States redrew boundaries for legislative and congressional districts after the 2020 census to account for population changes. The General Assembly had to draw legislative districts twice before they passed muster with the state Supreme Court. The court rejected the first set of maps as unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders.
Gaillard said his colleagues from the eastern counties were talking about the challenges they would face winning reelection when they saw the new district maps.
“We felt, the Black representatives, when the maps were redrawn they were going to put all of us at risk,” Gailliard said. “We were right.”
Parts of eastern North Carolina are in the state’s ‘Black Belt,’ places where enslaved Africans and their descendants worked fertile soil. Bertie, Hertford, Edgecombe, Northampton and Halifax counties have majority Black populations. Three others have populations that are 40% to 50% Black. Some of these counties have had Black House members and senators representing them in Raleigh for decades.
Nearly all the Republican candidates who defeated Black eastern North Carolina Democratic legislators are white.
“We still take rural African-American voters for granted,” Gailliard said. The state Democratic Party doesn’t spend as much time and effort on voter-turnout in rural areas as it does in cities.
“Many of us running say, ‘Go into Scotland Neck, Pinetops, Battleboro. It’s going to make a difference.’”
State Democratic Party spokeswoman Julia Walker did not respond to a phone call or text message Monday seeking a response.
The state House has six Black representatives from eastern counties. Next year, there will be just three. Two – one Democrat and one Republican – will be new members.
Sailor Jones, associate director of Common Cause North Carolina, said the results are a consequence of years of gerrymandering. “We’re seeing the results of imperfect maps,” he said.
Rep. Raymond Smith, a Goldsboro Democrat, was an early redistricting victim. Smith was drawn into a district with Rep. John Bell, the Goldsboro Republican who is House Majority Leader. Smith decided to try for a Senate seat but lost in the primary. Bell ran unopposed in the general election.
Rep. Linda Cooper-Suggs, a Wilson Democrat, lost to Republican Ken Fontenot. Fontenot came close to winning the seat in 2018 as an unaffiliated candidate when he challenged Cooper-Suggs’s predecessor, Jean Farmer-Butterfield. Fontenot is pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Wilson and in a 2018 Facebook post referred to himself as “an African American leader.”
Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer said in an email that the legislative districts’ “past political behavior was a major factor in determining the winners and losers in this year’s midterms.” Factors such as campaign resources and strategy, as well as candidate quality, accounted for a small percentage of the result.
The three eastern House districts that Republicans flipped — home to incumbents Hunter, Gailliard and Cooper-Suggs — leaned Democratic but were competitive, Bitzer wrote. Republican candidates overperformed to win them.
Democratic Rep. Shelly Willingham of Rocky Mount won reelection. Gloristine Brown, the mayor of the Pitt County town of Bethel, won in a House district that includes the northern half of Pitt County.
The Republicans’ goal was to win supermajorities in the House and Senate, which would enable the party to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes without any help from Democratic legislators. Republicans appear to fallen one seat short in the House.
Senate losses also dilute Black representation
The number of Black senators representing eastern districts will be reduced from three to one next year.
Incumbent Toby Fitch, a Democrat who has served more than four years in the Senate and more than 18 years in the House, lost to Republican former senator Buck Newton. New election district lines put Fitch in a district that went for former President Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020, and where Republican candidates won nearly 52% of the vote in statewide races in those years.
Republican Sen. Bobby Hanig won a redrawn district extending from Tyrrell to Warren that’s largely made up of counties along the Virginia border in the northeast. Hanig defeated Democratic primary winner Valerie Jordan. Ernestine Bazemore is the sitting senator.
Democratic Rep. Kandie Smith of Pitt County switched chambers to run for a Senate seat. Sen. Don Davis gave up his Senate seat to run for Congress. Smith will be eastern North Carolina’s sole Black senator.
Thomas Eamon, a political scientist at East Carolina University, said Republican victories in the eastern counties were more about partisanship than candidates’ race.
But Gaillard said race was a factor too. “This is not just party. Some of it is race as well,” he said. “I think African-American candidates really struggle to get across the finish line in rural communities.”
Gaillard said negative mail connecting him to high crime, high gas prices, President Joe Biden, and immigration started landing in voters’ mailboxes in August.
“They were hitting fast and furious,” he said.
GOP candidates outraised and outspent Democrats
Gailliard said his campaign couldn’t afford to respond. He had raised about $73,000 through June, with about $8,600 coming from political parties. Campaign finance reports show that North Carolina Democrats contributed about $67,000 by early November.
Gailliard’s successful Republican opponent Allen Chesser raised about $344,000 through mid-October with about $260,000 of that coming from the state Republican Party and the GOP House caucus.
Bill Ward, the Republican who defeated Hunter, outraised the Democrat with the help of the House GOP caucus fund, which gave Ward $466,000 for the campaign. As of mid-October, Ward had raised about $28,000 in individual contributions. He reported spending about $345,000 on television ads.
One ad featured a Maserati-driving “Hungry Howie Hunter,” who sponsored a bill to raise legislators’ travel allowance for trips to and from Raleigh. The bill never made it out of committee.
Hunter had raised about $300,000 for his campaign by mid-October, including about $216,000 in state Democratic party funds. Hunter said he didn’t have TV ads. Campaign reports show he paid for a billboard.
Democrats in North Carolina underperformed compared to other states, Gailliard said. North Carolina Democrats lost up and down the ballot, including all appellate court races.
“It wasn’t just in the east,” he said. “We just have a lot of work to do as Dems.”