The 2020 general election was historic in many ways, and it’s not fully over yet. As we await final certification of results as well as the outcomes of Georgia’s two runoff Senate races, we’re taking a look at the results thus far, implications for North Carolina and the state of play as we know it today.
2020 has been a year for the history books in a variety of ways, and the general election proved no different. Voter turnout across the country reached a 50-year high and so far more than 148 million votes have been tallied. Here in North Carolina unusually high early voting and absentee numbers accounted for more than 60 percent of all ballots cast, and by Nov. 1 early turnout had nearly eclipsed total 2016 turnout. Driving the surge in absentee votes was the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that hung as a backdrop throughout campaign season and remained a key voter issue through Election Day. Record spending accompanied campaigns’ efforts to connect with voters on key issues, and North Carolina’s Senate race between incumbent Thom Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham proved to be the most expensive Senate race of all time. This race was flagged as key in determining which party controlled the U.S. Senate, although the verdict is still out pending the results of two Jan. 5 runoff elections in Georgia where voters will determine whether or not to reelect their GOP incumbents. Georgia has rocked the political universe in more ways than one this election as it elected a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in over 20 years. With the projected Biden/Harris win America also sees its first female Vice President (as well as its first “second gentleman”) among a number of other increasingly diverse election night victors.
No ‘blue wave’
Despite the Democratic victory at the top of the ticket, the “blue wave” expected by some never quite materialized and trickled out down ballot. At the federal level the U.S. House of Representatives maintained its Democratic majority but lost a number of seats, unable to pick up vulnerable GOP seats as they had hoped. A record number of Republican women will serve in Congress as a result of the GOP’s edging in on the Democrat’s majority grip, and the lower chamber’s partisan breakdown sits at 218-201 until additional races are decided. In the U.S. Senate the margins are much closer with the GOP maintaining a razor thin majority pending the outcome of Georgia’s run-off elections.
North Carolina’s state legislature results seemed to mirror those of its federal counterparts: the N.C. House of Representatives picked up several GOP seats while the N.C. Senate lost one but maintained its majority. Both the state House and the state Senate maintain Republican control with partisan breakdowns of 69-51 and 28-22, respectively.
While the legislature remains under Republican control, N.C.’s other state offices are more of a mixed bag. North Carolinians voted to reelect Democratic incumbent Gov. Roy Cooper, and Democratic incumbent Attorney General Josh Stein appears poised to beat GOP challenger Jim O’Neill. They also elected GOP newcomer Mark Robinson as Lieutenant Governor, making him the first African American to hold the office, as well as a 6-4 mix of Republicans and Democrats to various Council of State positions. A number of different contests remain too close to officially call and some, like the neck and neck race for Chief Justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, will likely end up in a recount.
The partisan mix of North Carolina’s elected officials is not unlike election results in 2016 when we saw a Republican president, Republican U.S. senator, Democratic governor, Republican lieutenant governor and Democratic state attorney general all win on the same ballot. These voting patterns show what could be described as sophistication amongst N.C. voters, and at the very least indicates that some ticket-splitters do, in fact, remain. Either way, it sets the state up for another interesting legislative session.
2021 and beyond
North Carolina is set up for yet another couple years of divided government and a dynamic we’ve grown familiar with: Democratic governor, Republican-led legislature. In the 2019-20 legislative session, however, these partisan dynamics had major consequences when the General Assembly’s refusal to pass Medicaid expansion legislation resulted in the Governor’s veto of the state budget. It’s unclear whether this issue will be a similar sticking point as we embark on the 2021-22 legislative session and related budget cycle, and despite gaining some GOP members the legislature still will not have a party-line path to veto overrides.
Despite partisan division across government, we’ve seen firsthand how N.C.’s elected officials can work together quickly and effectively, including in their immediate and impactful response at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. While partisan politics is not going away, we know that, regardless of partisan makeup, coalition-building and common sense solutions will always offer a path forward in tackling major legislative issues.