Fayetteville Democrat Pat Timmons-Goodson seemed to have a shot at unseating U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson.
She raised more money than the four-term Republican incumbent two quarters in a row. She caught the attention of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican group, which became so concerned it ran attack ads against her and poured more than $2 million into Hudson’s campaign in late October. Politico even changed the race rating to “toss-up” on election eve.
But on Election Day, that momentum wasn’t enough to overcome the gravitational pull that kept the 8th Congressional District, which stretches from Charlotte’s eastern suburbs through Cumberland County, in Republican hands — even in a redrawn district that gave a Democrat the best chance in years.
Hudson defeated Timmons-Goodson 53.3% to 46.6%, according to the state Board of Elections.
A big factor in this race and many around the state: polarization in a presidential year.
“The age of the ticket-splitters is over,” said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies. Of the voters his group surveyed on election night, 91% said they voted a straight party-line ticket — an “extraordinary number” that “reinforces how polarized we are,” Newhouse said.
This all-or-nothing style of partisan voting means down-ballot races generally follow the trend at the top of the ticket. For a candidate like Joe Biden, who underperformed in North Carolina, this left short coattails for Democrats at all levels, from local races to congressional contests. Although the state race has not been called by the Associated Press, the News & Observer has projected that President Donald Trump will still lead Biden after the remaining ballots are counted.
Biden fared better than many down-ballot Democrats, keeping his opponent’s lead to less than 2%.
“The big story of the night was Biden ended up running ahead of a lot of the Democratic candidates for Congress,” said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political newsletter that predicts U.S. election outcomes.
To win, Timmons-Goodson needed at least 60% of the Cumberland County vote, Coleman predicted back in October. She also needed to keep Hudson within 10 percentage points in Cabarrus County — his home turf.
She failed to hit those thresholds even though she outperformed Biden in Cumberland.
In the final week before Election Day, it looked like Timons-Goodson could defeat Hudson. The newly drawn district reunited Cumberland County, magnifying the power of its heavily Democratic electorate, and gave Hudson a substantial chunk of new turf where he had to introduce himself.
Combined with a strong hometown candidate in Timmons-Goodson, the new map fostered the most competitive race of Hudson’s career. The 8th District battle also was widely considered the state’s most competitive congressional contest. An October poll from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee even showed Timmons-Goodson ahead of Hudson by 3 points.
But ousting an incumbent is always a challenge. In late October, Hudson flooded the airwaves with a misleading ad attacking Timmons-Goodson’s judicial record and branding her “soft on crime.” The attacks went largely unanswered. The Democrat did not respond with a rebuttal ad — a move that might have blunted some of the impact.
While the influx of money and negative ads might have boosted Hudson’s winning margin by a few points, Coleman said they weren’t the main reason for Timmons-Goodson’s loss. Her race was an uphill climb from the start, he said, and the outcome reflected the statewide struggle of most Democrats.
On Election Day, Timmons-Goodson and Democrats statewide suffered from unexpectedly massive Republican turnout and a propensity for straight-ticket voting.
Coleman predicted the next few election cycles won’t be any easier for Democrats. The Republican-controlled legislature will lead the redistricting process, and gerrymandering is especially likely given the 2019 Supreme Court ruling that kicked gerrymandering cases back to the state courts.
“I would say congressional elections are going to be probably an uphill climb for Democrats, at least probably for much of this decade,” he said. “That’s just a reality.”