North Carolina's 2014 election season hosted a neck-and-neck Senate contest that featured record-shattering campaign spending. It was also just a warm-up for what's to come.
In 2016, a year when only a handful of states will have a competitive presidential, Senate, or gubernatorial election, North Carolina is on track to have all three. Its governor, Pat McCrory, starts his reelection campaign as the most vulnerable Republican incumbent on the gubernatorial map. The state's Senate seat, held by Republican Richard Burr, is among the few battlegrounds that will determine which party controls the Senate. And above all, North Carolina—which narrowly backed President Obama in 2008 and gave Mitt Romney a small victory in 2012—is poised for its third consecutive turn as a presidential battleground.
The convergence of all three has the state's political strategists in both parties already strategizing how it will affect their own campaigns—and beating their chest that no other state in the country is as big a battleground in 2016. "It is the only state in nation, to my math, that is a guaranteed presidential battleground that has a top gubernatorial race and potentially a top Senate race," said Morgan Jackson, a Raleigh-based Democratic strategist. "And it makes North Carolina ground zero for the 2016 cycle."
Jackson isn't quite right: New Hampshire, which has a governor's election every two years, might yet have a competitive Senate and governor's race if Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan decides to run against Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte. But it's a telling indicator for the excitement of North Carolina's political strategists that many of the men and women running campaigns in 2016 started preparing for races before the 2014 contests even ended.
In September, for instance, Burr dispelled rumors that he would retire and announced he would run for reelection. A month later, the Natural Resources Defense Council ran issue-based TV ads targeting not then-GOP Senate candidate Thom Tillis, but rather Gov. McCrory. Behind the scenes, the action was even busier. According to strategists in both parties, operatives tied to the state's biggest prospective campaigns were quietly organizing super PACs and other independent efforts to prepare.
The planning occurred amid the state's most expensive-ever Senate race, a $100-million contest in which Tillis defeated Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan by fewer than two percentage points. Some strategists speculate that the governor's race alone—which many expect will be a matchup between McCrory and Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper—will cost as much as $100 million.
"It's hard to believe what we just went through with the Senate race would duplicated or exceeded, but in all probability, it will be," said Carter Wrenn, a longtime GOP strategist in North Carolina. "Who knows what could happen in two years, when we have three major races?"
While the governor's race is largely in place, as of yet it's still unclear who will challenge Burr.
North Carolina Democratic operatives say there are two potential candidates everyone else in the prospective field will watch to see what they do first: Anthony Foxx, the former Charlotte mayor and current Transportation secretary, and Hagan, who narrowly lost her bid for a second term in the Senate in November.
"Those are the top two candidates—period," Jackson said. "Everyone else is a few notches down."
Foxx, who is African-American, would be the first choice of many North Carolina Democrats, who say he would form a "dream ticket" with Hillary Clinton (a woman) and Cooper (a conservative Democrat) that would appeal to all corners of the party's coalition. But many Democrats dismiss the possibility that the former mayor, who arrived in Washington just last year, would return to North Carolina in 2016 to challenge Burr, and the Republican senator himself has said Foxx promised he wouldn't run against him.
If he doesn't, Democrats would likely turn to Hagan. Whether she would run again is unclear—one source close to the senator, who would like to see her run in 2016, told National Journal that "she is focused on finishing out her term and has not given any thought to what the future might hold." But her name recognition and fundraising prowess would guarantee the party a credible nominee despite her recent defeat.
If neither Foxx nor Hagan runs, Democrats don't have an obvious candidate to take their place. State Treasurer Janet Cowell, outgoing Rep. Mike McIntyre, and Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines might have the profile of effective candidates, Democrats say, but it's unclear if any of them would be interested in running.