CHARLOTTE, NC (Jim Morrill/The Charlotte Observer) - From Ballantyne to Davidson and a lot of Charlotte neighborhoods in between, Mecklenburg voters can expect to see more competitive legislative races in 2018 than they have in years.
And potentially more decisive.
Races formally kick off Monday with the opening of candidate filing. Throughout the state, candidates will file for everything from Congress to county commissioner.
A lot of focus will be on the General Assembly, where Democrats are trying to break GOP "super-majorities." They need a net gain of four seats in the House and six in the Senate to erase the majorities with which Republicans can override any vetoes by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Some Democrats are aiming higher.
"The road to the majority for Democrats runs through Mecklenburg County," said Morgan Jackson, a Democratic consultant from Raleigh.
After a series of court decisions – including one last week by the U.S. Supreme Court – legislative candidates are running in new districts, most drawn last year by GOP lawmakers.
Republicans acknowledge that the new lines will make for more competitive races.
"We believe that taken as a whole, these maps are considerably more favorable to the Democrats than what we ran on last time and what we should be running on," said Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state GOP. "The Mecklenburg seats will continue to be competitive and challenging for us."
Three Mecklenburg Republicans – Sen. Jeff Tarte of Cornelius and Reps. Andy Dulin and Scott Stone of Charlotte – are now running for re-election in districts carried by Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Dulin and Stone represent south Charlotte districts. Democrat Brandon Lofton plans to challenge Dulin while Democrat Ayoub Ouederni wants to run against Stone.
Tarte's Senate district, which used to wrap the eastern side of the county, now extends down the western side from north Mecklenburg to Pineville.
Jonathan Kappler, who tracks legislative races as executive director of the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation, said suburban precincts are changing in Mecklenburg just as they are in Wake County.
"Those areas are becoming less Republican," he said. "The challenge is Mecklenburg County is increasingly Democratic overall. So it is getting harder and harder to cobble together enough precincts for a reliably Republican legislative district."
Kappler said Democrats are likely to target districts where Cooper got at least 44 percent of the vote against Republican Pat McCrory in 2016. That would be every district in Mecklenburg.
Democrats believe they have history on their side. The president's party generally loses seats in an off-year election. Add to that Democrats energized after a year of Donald Trump in the White House.
"This is a year when the sheer demographics is not going to tell the whole story," said Dan McCorkle, a Democratic consultant from Charlotte. "Democrats since Trump got in are very focused, and you're seeing this across the country. We're very motivated and we're very mobilized."
But Republican consultant Larry Shaheen, who works for Tarte, said history also is on his side. Midterm elections historically draw a smaller turnout than presidential elections.
"This is a midterm; at the end of the day it's an older, far more conservative electorate," he said.
Tarte will face Democrat Natasha Marcus, a former lawyer from Davidson. She said she wants to help break the Republican super-majority and add to the 13 women in the Senate. Shaheen said Tarte will run on his record.
"No one is disputing that this is going to be more difficult than the previous races," Shaheen said. "But if anyone is ready for this kind of a race, it's Jeff Tarte."
Jackson said Democrats also may target Republican Rep. Bill Brawley and Sen. Dan Bishop. Brawley represents a fairly reliable GOP district in eastern Mecklenburg. Bishop's district, which had been comprised of southeast Charlotte, now swings into Matthews and Mint Hill.
Democrat Chad Stachowicz plans to file in the Senate district. So does Republican Beth Monaghan, a former business owner who sees herself as a collaborative problem solver. Bishop said he'll run "on a record of accomplishment" that includes tax cuts and reduced regulation.
Several other incumbents, including Democratic Reps. Becky Carney and Rodney Moore, appear likely to draw primary opponents. So does Democratic Sen. Joel Ford.
Democrat Mujtaba Mohammed, a public interest attorney, has announced a challenge. So has Charlotte City Council member LaWana Mayfield, though she doesn't live in Ford's redrawn District 38. She has said she'd consider moving in order to run.