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Wake Democrats target Republican control of the House 

Not often in his first term has Gov. Pat McCrory stood up to his own party. But on three occasions since the Republicans took power in the General Assembly in 2013—far-right bills to drug-test people applying for welfare benefits, grant magistrates the "religious freedom" not to perform single-sex weddings and essentially criminalize workplace whistleblowers at the behest of Big Agriculture—the governor inked up his stamp and issued vetoes.

All were promptly overridden. Republicans in both legislative chambers hold the supermajorities—60 percent plus one—they need to render the governor's veto pen irrelevant.

In 2016, while it's unlikely that state Democrats will reclaim the House or Senate, they do have a chance to win back some power. They only need to flip four seats in the House to be able to uphold a veto—which will become key if either of the Democratic candidates for governor, Roy Cooper or Ken Spaulding, wins next year.

Wake County, where five Republican-held House seats are likely to be competitive, will be a key battleground.

"We don't have to get all of these seats from Wake, but because I like to win, I'm aiming to make sure we get at least four of them," says Brian Fitzsimmons, the chairman of the Wake County Democratic Party. "There are other opportunities across the state, but Wake is obviously going to be a big part of this strategy."

In 2014—a very good Republican year—Republicans won House districts 35, 36, 40 and 49 by relatively narrow margins. In addition, Rep. Paul Stam, R-Apex, who ran unopposed in District 37 last year, is not seeking reelection.

In District 49, Democrat Kim Hanchette lost to Rep. Gary Pendleton by just 1,300 votes. Cynthia Ball, the Democrat running against Pendleton in 2016, has already started campaigning.

"I will knock on every door to speak to every constituent that I can," she says. "I'm not going to try to appeal to just Democrats. Obviously registered Democrats are more likely to agree with me, but I want to reach out to all people and let them know I want to listen."

With a presidential election in 2016—which typically boosts turnout—Wake County's significant growth and changing demographics, and the Legislature's polarizing behavior, Democrats are targeting the 30 percent of county voters who are unaffiliated.

"For Democrats to win in Wake County and statewide, we have to carry out what we call the three Ms," says Jay Chaudhuri, a candidate for Senate District 16. (Incumbent Democrat Josh Stein is running for attorney general.) "That's mobilizing and messaging voters and raising money."

Another piece of the Democrats' strategy in Wake, Fitzsimmons says, is finding highly qualified female candidates. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, women comprised 22 percent of Tar Heel lawmakers in 2015. That's lower than the national average, a similarly meager 24 percent.

"It goes without saying that we need more representation at all levels of government by women, and we need to hear women's viewpoints more strongly," says Susan Evans, a Wake school board member and candidate for Senate District 17, another Democratic target. "Women tend to have their finger on the pulse with family and health issues, and women bring a sense of intuitiveness to their leadership that I think we need more of."

Evans and Ball could both be formidable candidates, as might former county commissioner Lindy Brown, a progressive African-American running in House District 37—Stam's seat.

"For however many cycles Stam was there, he entrenched himself in the district pretty hard," Fitzsimmons says. "But now we have a stronger opportunity than we've ever had in the past."

Taking four House seats won't be easy. Well-funded incumbents are seldom easy to beat, especially when district lines have been gerrymandered to secure their victory. Political observers say all five districts lean slightly Republican, and coming into the third election cycle under the redrawn districts, Democrats have had limited success flipping seats in Wake.

The Republicans won't take the assault lying down, either: "Our strategy," Wake GOP chairman John Walter Bryant told the INDY in an email Monday, "is to continue to recruit and encourage the most qualified candidates to offer to serve in our General Assembly as well as all other elective offices, whether they are elected locally or statewide."

Still, despite the Democrats' fund-raising and other structural disadvantages, success isn't outside the realm of possibility, especially if they can reach enough of the county's new voters.

"It would be nice to see a Legislature that looked like the state of North Carolina," says Ball. "But we have districts drawn that are going to make it more difficult for certain kinds of people to get elected. The Legislature should represent our population in all aspects. I just don't think it has been listening."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Counting to four"

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