Want to Flip a District? Run a Woman.

Ask an old-guard Democrat what kind of candidate is the safest bet to flip a competitive seat in the North Carolina General Assembly, and you’ll get a pretty predictable answer: A white man. But the 2018 numbers tell a very different story.

Of the 35 Democratic candidates who ran in NC’s most competitive GOP-held legislative districts, 13 are women and 22 are men (across 23 NC House and 12 NC Senate races). Compared with 2016 results, the women outperformed Hillary Clinton by an incredible 10.8 points! In contrast, the men beat Hillary Clinton’s margin by an average of only 4.8 points. That’s a pretty stark contrast: Women overperformed Clinton by 6 points more than men! All 13 female candidates beat Clinton’s margin in their districts, while only 17 of the 22 male candidates did. The results are not quite as striking compared with Governor Cooper, yet the trend holds: women surpassed Governor Cooper’s margins in their districts by about 3 points more than men.

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The same pattern holds in our analysis of how a generic Democratic candidate would have performed in each competitive district (see “About this analysis” – below). Based on that analysis, 12 of the 13 women overperformed, while only 11 of the 22 men did. On average, the women running in these races overperformed expectations by 4 points more than the men.

Aimy Steele, Democratic candidate for NC-H82

Aimy Steele, Democratic candidate for NC-H82

Similarly, the establishment contends that being a person of color is a liability in competitive districts, especially in majority-white, suburban/exurban areas. But again, the numbers tell a very different story. Of the 6 Black candidates who ran in the most competitive GOP-held districts, only 1 underperformed. Both Sydney Batch and Brandon Lofton won in heavily white areas. Aimy Steele (NC-H82, Concord area) performed particularly well, beating Governor Cooper’s margin in her district by 7 points and Hillary Clinton’s by 12 points.

Candidate Recruitment

Democrats in the NC House did a far better job recruiting a diverse slate of candidates this election cycle, and it paid off. Democrats significantly outperformed expectations – by about 5 to 6 points – in the most competitive NC House districts, picking up 10 seats and positioning Dems for even greater gains in the NC House in 2020.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side in the NC Senate, white men ran in 10 out of the 12 most competitive GOP-held districts. The only woman running for one of these competitive NC Senate seats – Natasha Marcus (NC-S41, suburban Charlotte) – overperformed by more than any of the 11 men. And nearly all of the NC Senate candidates running in competitive districts underperformed Democratic NC House candidates in the same precincts (see “About this analysis” below).

Implications for 2020

While the NC House was an easier target for breaking the supermajority in 2018, both chambers required a similar swing to break the majority. By fielding a stronger, more diverse slate of candidates in 2018, Democrats in the NC House were able to move the needle to a greater degree and are now better positioned to break the majority in 2020. While it certainly remains possible to break the majority in the NC Senate in 2020, its recruiting arm will need to match the NC House to compete at the same level.

About this Analysis

(1)   Expected performance for a generic Democratic candidate in each district is based on a predictive model that weights Cooper’s margin about three times as much as Clinton’s, adding 3.3 points for the Democratic candidate due to the blue wave in 2018 and factoring in a 2.6-point incumbency effect. This model is conservative; we ran this analysis a number of ways, and the superior performance of female candidates only becomes more pronounced when Clinton is weighted more heavily.

(2)   This analysis includes only truly competitive GOP-held districts; easy Democratic pick ups that resulted from new maps were not included.

NC House races represented: 1, 2, 9, 19, 20, 22, 35, 36, 37, 51, 59, 62, 63, 64, 74, 75, 82, 83, 93, 98,103, 104, 105, 119

NC Senate races represented: 1, 7, 9, 11, 13, 17, 18, 19, 24, 27, 39, 41

(3)   We also compared NC House and NC Senate candidates’ performance in the precincts in which their districts overlapped (excluding any split precincts). This allows an apples-to-apples comparison of votes cast by the same voters – made possible this year because there were Democratic candidates running in every district. In some districts, a surprisingly large number of voters split their ballots – casting a vote for a Democratic candidate for NC House and a Republican candidate for NC Senate (or vice versa).

Again, the results reveal the strength of female candidates in the most competitive GOP-held districts. The 13 women highlighted above outperformed the Democratic candidate in the other chambers by an average of 2.6 points. Meanwhile, the 22 Democratic men in these races underperformed their counterparts in the other chamber by 1.1 point.

Note: Some counties have not yet tracked early votes back to precincts; in these cases only election-day votes were analyzed.

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