JOHN HOOD COLUMN: Ballot will feature many competitive races

RALEIGH — It goes without saying that North Carolina’s 16 electoral votes for president will, as usual, be heavily contested next year by the two major-party nominees, who are presumed to be Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Donald Trump.

John Hood

I’m not yet ready to accept that presumption, by the way. I think it’s possible, for example, that President Biden will decide late, perhaps even after the 2024 primaries and caucuses, not to run for reelection — citing health reasons — and to release his delegates to support another nominee at the Democratic National Convention in August.

But here’s what I know for sure: North Carolina won’t just be a prime battleground in the presidential campaign. Our ballot will feature competitive and consequential races for many statewide offices.

I’ve already written about the gubernatorial race. If it pits Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein against Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, I expect it to be the most expensive campaign for governor in state history. Even if we see a different matchup, the victor is unlikely to win by a large margin. We don’t see that anymore in North Carolina.

With Stein and Robinson giving up their current offices to run, the races for attorney general and lieutenant governor are attracting high-profile candidates. In the former, two sitting members of the U.S. House of Representatives — Democrat Jeff Jackson and Republican Dan Bishop, both media-savvy and former state senators from Mecklenburg County — seem destined to clash in spectacular fashion.

For lieutenant governor, the Democrats are almost assured to coalesce behind state Sen. Rachel Hunt, daughter of former Gov. Jim Hunt, while Republican primary voters will choose among such candidates as former state Sen. Deanna Ballard, current state Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page, former executive and congressional staffer Hal Weatherman and Moore County pastor Allen Marshburn.

At least three other seats on the Council of State — state treasurer, labor commissioner, and state auditor — will be open in 2024. The treasurer race will likely pit two additional Mecklenburg lawmakers against each other, Republican state Rep. John Bradford and Democratic state Rep. Wesley Harris.

Rep. Jon Hardister of Guilford County, Raleigh attorney Luke Farley and Union County activist Travis Wilson plan to seek the GOP nomination for labor commissioner. The winner may take on Democrat Braxton Winston, a Charlotte city councilman.

As for state auditor, potential Republican candidates include former Greensboro city councilman Jim Kee, former UNC-Chapel Hill board chairman Dave Boliek, former legislative staffer Jack Clark and party activists A.J. Daoud of Surry County and Charles Dingee of Wake County.

Though it won’t be an open seat, the race for state superintendent of public instruction will also be highly competitive. Incumbent Republican Catherine Truitt will probably face Democrat Mo Green, former superintendent of the Guilford County Schools.

And now, a confession: I have, arguably, buried the lede. Another critical statewide race next year will feature Allison Riggs, incumbent justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court, against Republican challenger Jefferson Griffin.

Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Riggs to the court only a couple of months ago, after Mike Morgan resigned to launch a gubernatorial campaign. While she’s a political newcomer, Griffin is an experienced campaigner, having won a statewide election to the court of appeals in 2020. If he wins, he’ll become the sixth Republican on a seven-member court. Democrats would have to win all three seats potentially up in 2028 in order to gain a majority.

Unless Republicans experience electoral catastrophe next year, they’ll continue to control the state legislature, very possibly with supermajorities. Democrats desperate to block or overturn Republican policies on education, voting procedures, criminal justice and other issues will have little recourse but to file constitutional challenges in state court.

Given the current composition of the state supreme court, their prospects for success are slim. This isn’t just a case of partisan affiliation working against them. The current GOP justices view novel interpretations of the state constitution with great skepticism. Jefferson Griffin will, too.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member.