The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Voter backlash to Trump and bathroom law has put conservative N.C. legislature in play

Democrat Julie von Haefen, center, who is running for the North Carolina House, talks with Stefan Franzen, left, and his daughter Kirsten Franzen while canvassing last week in Apex, N.C. (Madeline Gray for The Washington Post)

APEX, N.C. — The owner of a small vodka distillery near this traditionally Republican enclave in suburban Raleigh said he is so fed up with GOP leadership in the state capital that he took leave from his job to try to defeat a state senator.

A popular local weatherman in the state’s Appalachian Mountains with no experience in politics threw himself into a race to unseat a four-term GOP member of the state House.

And the daughter of a legendary former governor is taking her first crack at a run for office by challenging a Charlotte-area state House Republican with a promise to renew the legacy of her father, Jim Hunt, as a champion for education funding.

An unusual political battle is unfolding across North Carolina, where national and state Democrats have recruited an army of candidates and are spending millions of dollars on a campaign to loosen a years-long Republican grip on a state legislature that has turned an otherwise evenly split state into a bastion for some of the country’s most conservative measures. Among them: a limit on transgender access to bathrooms that was ultimately repealed under pressure from business leaders, congressional district maps that courts have ruled were designed to curtail the voting power of African Americans, and education spending levels that have sparked mass protests at the State Capitol.

“North Carolina has been a beacon in the South, and I had to try and stop this Republican leadership from tarnishing our brand,” said the leader of the campaign, Gov. Roy Cooper (D), who has watched the GOP’s legislative super­majority override his vetoes 20 times since he narrowly ousted a Republican incumbent two years ago.

The effort reflects a subplot of the Democratic Party’s broader push to engineer a “blue wave” across the country in the November midterms — tapping into voter anger over President Trump as well as Republican policies on school funding, taxes and health care to chip away at GOP dominance in state capitals.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee plans to spend $35 million on state legislative races across the country, twice as much as in 2016, with hopes of flipping 15 chambers nationwide, according to a spokeswoman. The group’s Republican counterpart expects to spend more — over $45 million, according to a spokesman.

In North Carolina, where Democrats have recruited candidates in all 170 legislative districts for the first time anyone can recall, the party’s contenders are knocking on doors and holding town halls to persuade voters that Republicans hold too much power in Raleigh. Many Republicans, meanwhile, seem to sense that they are vulnerable and are emphasizing centrist positions on school spending and health care. Both parties, and many outside groups, are planning to blitz the airwaves with ads for the next two months.

Democrats say they are encountering enthusiasm on front stoops and at volunteer recruitment events — a sign, they say, of a building voter backlash against GOP policies.

“Go! Go! Go knock!” retired pharmaceutical executive Arun Dhar exclaimed at his door on a recent weekday evening in Apex, shooing away Sam Searcy, the distillery owner turned Senate candidate, because Dhar and his wife, Sandosh, are certain Democratic votes. “You have my vote — you can rest assured of that. A lot of knocking is needed!”

Democrats hold just 45 of 120 seats in the North Carolina House and just 15 of 50 seats in the Senate. While they face steep odds in their quest to win the legislature outright, some Republicans here have begun to acknowledge their party appears increasingly likely to lose the veto-proof supermajorities that have been key to much of their success in thwarting Cooper. For that, Democrats must pick up just four seats in the House and six seats in the Senate. If they do, Cooper has promised to check the Republican agenda with his veto pen, try to expand Medicaid and try to establish a nonpartisan redistricting commission to put an end to gerrymandering.

“If you’re a Republican and you’re not nervous, you should be,” said Carter Wrenn, a longtime GOP operative in the state who made his name working for Jesse Helms, the late senator.

Even Art Pope, the wealthy GOP donor and former lawmaker who helped choreograph the Republican takeover in the state in 2010, conceded in a recent interview, “At this point in time, it looks favorable to the Democrats.”

The Democrats’ Break the Majority political committee has hired 70 full-time field organizers and has banked nearly $6 million — enough to put its spending on par with state Republicans for the first time in a decade.

Indivisible, a grass-roots organization that formed after Trump’s election, has launched a “Flip NC” campaign targeting 20 seats in the state House and 10 in the Senate. Former president Barack Obama has backed four state House candidates, with more endorsements expected this fall, and former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr.’s group, the ­National Democratic Redistricting Committee, has contributed $250,000 to the effort. NextGen America, the organization of liberal funder Tom Steyer that focuses on registering young voters, expects to spend $1 million in the state by Election Day.

Some state-level Republicans have been invoking rhetoric in recent weeks that suggests a keen awareness of the challenges ahead this fall.

In the Charlotte area, Republican state Sen. Jeff Tarte will debut a TV spot this week in which a Democratic colleague talks up Tarte’s history of working across party lines. “I served with Jeff, and together we worked to improve public education for all our children,” Sen. Joel Ford says.

State Rep. Nelson Dollar, a powerful Republican budget writer and redistricting chairman who has been an architect of some of the party’s policy priorities, touts his role in boosting teacher pay. In an interview with The Washington Post, Dollar also said he would vote to let North Carolina expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act — something he has opposed since Republicans took over in 2010.

Dollar, 57, who lives in Cary, a moderate suburb of Raleigh, is facing a challenge from a high-profile opponent, Julie von Haefen, a Democrat and past president of the Wake County PTA who has led the charge against the legislature for what she describes as inadequate public-school funding and an unfunded mandate, since adjusted, to reduce class size that prompted local rebellions across the state.

“That law threw all the schools in Wake County into what we call class-size chaos,” said von Haefen, 47. “It was going to require many school districts to fire our art, music, PE and other special teachers. And it would have required Wake County to build 15 schools in one year, which is absolutely impossible.”

Dollar takes credit for brokering a compromise on class size, but von Haefen likes to point out he was also responsible for the original law.

Republican leaders, meanwhile, seem less concerned about moderating their message. Some Republicans here, particularly those running in competitive races, privately cringed earlier this year when their party’s top two legislative leaders mocked Cooper’s political weakness while speaking to reporters in May about their proposed ballot amendments to undercut his appointment powers.

Asked about plans to curtail more of the governor’s power, Senate leader Phil Berger quipped, “Does he still have any?”

House Speaker Tim Moore added, “If you have any suggestions, let us know.”

Moore’s office did not respond to an inquiry from The Post. Through his staff, Berger declined requests for an interview.

For Democrats to succeed this year, they will need voters like Marla Sloane, 60, a registered Republican who runs an Internet business selling novelty items from her home. Sloane showed up last week at a meet-and-greet for Searcy, the Democrat running for Senate.

I don’t hear any state Republicans saying, ‘We’re standing up against Trump,’ ” said Sloane, who voted for GOP presidential nominees John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 but did not vote for Trump. “I think this is a very scary time in America where we’re trying to make sense out of crazy. And I don’t see anyone standing up at the state level saying, ‘This isn’t right.’ ”

Searcy’s opponent, incumbent Republican Tamara Barringer, won her seat two years ago by just 1,042 votes. Her campaign, in part, was at odds with her party — she promised to repeal the bathroom bill, which she had voted for earlier that year.

Barringer, seeking her fourth term, said she has always run in competitive races and has always been willing to buck her party to represent a district that is now roughly evenly split among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters. She said she changed her mind about the bathroom bill because “I was wrong. If I don’t get it right, I will do my darnedest to go back and fix it.”

Searcy, 41, has been canvassing neighborhoods here nearly every night. Despite the area’s tendency to elect Republicans, he has been unabashedly introducing himself to potential swing voters as a “Democrat running for state Senate.” As he greets voters, he promises to boost school and health-care funding and put an end to partisan redistricting — and he tries to brand Barringer as part of her overreaching party.

“Voters in this district are pretty upset about steps this legislature has taken,” Searcy said in an interview. “This really is the GOP.”