Since Democratic Governor Roy Cooper took office in 2017, he’s faced veto-proof supermajorities in both legislative chambers. Democrats’ best chance to break that is with a pickup of four seats in the House this November, and two Western North Carolina races will prove pivotal in that effort.
Two competitive state House races in Haywood County could have a major impact on the state’s next legislative session. To explain why, here’s Western Carolina University poli sci and public affairs department head Chris Cooper with a little “Schoolhouse Rock” on how a bill becomes law in North Carolina. “Essentially a legislator, a member of the General Assembly brings it up, it gets routed to a committee, once it gets voted out of the committee it goes to the floor, it goes to the other chamber, then it lands on the governor’s desk,” Cooper said. “From there, the governor’s got some options before him.”
If the governor signs it, it becomes law. If not, it goes back to the General Assembly, which can override the governor’s veto with 72 votes in the House. Right now, Republicans have 75. But all 120 N.C. House seats are up for election this year, and while many of them won’t change parties, some of them will. If Democrats can win four more than Republicans, Gov. Cooper’s veto power will actually be worth something.
“If Gov. Cooper does not get some help in Raleigh, he’s not going to be able to be effective,” said Myrna Campbell, former aide to Congressman Heath Schuler and chair of the Haywood County Democratic Party since 2015. Haywood is split and has two representatives, both Republicans – Swain County’s Mike Clampitt and Yancey County’s Michele Presnell.
Presnell’s seeking her fourth term and will face Haywood Democrat Rhonda Schandevel, who she defeated in 2016 by 10 points in a district where Roy Cooper lost by 17 and Hillary Clinton lost by 32. “I’m very optimistic,” Campbell said. “Rhonda, she’s actually been working, she took a few months off after the election but she’s been working since then and she’s had a steady presence in all three counties.”
The other race is Western North Carolina’s longest-running feud, where Clampitt will yet again square off against a man Chris Cooper says is a very familiar foe. “It’s a bit of a Groundhog Day,” Cooper said. “It’s really the fourth Groundhog Day we’ve had. Joe Sam held that seat, Mike Clampitt ran against him and lost. He ran against him and lost. He then ran against him and won, barely in 2016, and so now Joe Sam Queen is running as the challenger and Mike Clampitt is running is the incumbent. It’s the same characters with slightly different roles this round.”
Clampitt won in 2016 by just 277 votes in one of the closest races in the entire state. This year, his opponent Queen holds sizeable leads in cash on hand and total raised for the cycle. Presnell and Schandevel both have less cash on hand compared to 2016, but this time, Schandevel’s raised almost four times as much as Presnell. “Money’s going to matter but these are relatively inexpensive races,” said Cooper. “So if you sort of compare the 118 and the 119 to the rest of the state, you can win these races with a lot less money. Joe Sam Queen has a pretty big fundraising advantage over Mike Clampitt, but to be fair he had a pretty big fund raising advantage over Mike Clampitt last time, and Clampitt barely pulled it out.”
Money may matter, but what may matter more this year is the man in the White House and the “R” next to his name. Over the past two years, President Donald Trump has energized voters on both sides of the aisle, and if history’s any guide, he’ll again have an impact on races across the country, as well as in the Republican effort to retain supermajorities in North Carolina. “In the mid-term of a first term of a presidential term, we would expect the opposing party to do better,” said Cooper. “In other words, we would expect – all else being equal – Democrats to do a little bit better this time than the Republicans, just like Republicans did a little bit better than the Democrats last time, all else being equal.”
That edge alone may not be enough to push Rhonda Schandevel over the top in the 118th District, but it could make or break Joe Sam Queen. “So what that means is, in a close race like the 119 in particular, you might give the edge a little bit to Joe Sam Queen over Mike Clampitt, given the national environment,” Cooper said.
Early voting in North Carolina begins Wednesday, Oct. 17, in advance of the General Election on Tuesday, Nov. 6.