These are not happy times for North Carolina’s Republican Party, which had hoped to use security, scandal and shifting demographics to leverage a takeover of the state House and Senate. Witness the lackluster case party Chair Ferrell Blount made recently in an interview with the Asheville Citizen-Times.

The state, he said, needs a Republican House speaker “every once in a while” to keep the Democrats honest. That’s not exactly a take-no-prisoners attitude. But despite more scandal headlines sure to come, Blount is probably being realistic to downplay expectations: Very few seats in the General Assembly are in play. That said, here’s the first installment of races to watch in 2006.

GOP vs. GOP (House 10)

The most interesting race to watch right now is the last primary to be decided–a rematch in Kinston between Rep. Stephen LaRoque, who incurred the wrath of Art Pope and others for backing former House Speaker Richard Morgan, and Pope-backed Willie Ray Starling. LaRoque’s lawyers won a new election earlier this month after citing a host of voting problems in the May 2 primary, including voters turned away and calibration problems with those pesky touch-screen machines.

LaRoque, still smarting over what he called a smear campaign to paint him as un-Christian, says the gloves are coming off. Expect this one to be fought mainly in the many fine houses of worship in Wayne and Lenoir counties. The new primary is scheduled for Sept. 12.

Boseman vs. Roseman (Senate 9)

If you’re a paranoid homophobe, you have to admit that Wilmington Democrat Julia Boseman has been a terrific disappointment. Instead of leading the charge for the breakdown of all social mores, Boseman, who as an openly gay candidate suffered through one of the nastiest campaigns of 2004, has proved herself to be, well, a state senator. This session, the former New Brunswick County commissioner led the fight on a number of key bills including improvements to the state’s film industry incentives, a Pledge of Allegiance measure and, most notably, a bill to eliminate the infamous kindergarten eye-exam requirement. Though her version of that bill didn’t pass, the effort put a lot of daylight between her and Speaker Jim Black.

But Boseman is in a district that leans Republican. It was former Senate Minority Leader Patrick Ballantine’s seat before he resigned to run for governor in 2004. This year, GOP efforts to take back the seat took a spill when the party’s candidate dropped out of the race after it was revealed he was being investigated by the SBI for taking indecent liberties with a child. The investigation resulted in no charges.

Recently, the New Hanover GOP, in a tight vote, put forward Wilmington dentist Al Roseman as its new candidate. Roseman says he will stick to the issues, but, like last time, expect a host of GOP surrogates to paint Boseman as a threat to western civilization as well as a tax-and-spend liberal.

If they try to link her to Black, though, she’ll have a pretty good counter. Her opponent serves as vice-chair of the N.C. Dental PAC–a group that has contributed handsomely to a number of Democrats, including Boseman herself and–you guessed it–Jim Black.

The Wild, Wild West
(Senate 47 and 120, House 119)

Though 11th District Rep. Charles Taylor’s latest ad derides his opponent, former NFL quarterback Heath Schuler, as a “rookie,” the congressman is in trouble and knows it. Schuler, better known in Western North Carolina for his glory days at the University of Tennessee, is a lot more than a tall fellow with a nice smile. His fundraising is solid, and he’s drawing Democratic heavy-hitters, like former Gov. Jim Hunt, to his rallies. The last thing Taylor needs right now is an invigorated Democratic faithful. This dynamic will also play a key role in two critical state Senate races and a handful of House contests in the western part of the state.

In Senate 47 (Avery, Haywood, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell and Yancey counties), Keith Presnell will once again face Democrat Joe Sam Queen, who was a one-term senator in 2004 when Presnell beat him by about 3,600 votes.

Democrats, on the other hand, will be trying to hang on to nearby District 50 (Cherokee, Clay, Jackson, Macon, Swain and Transylvania counties), which was won by Sen. John Snow by less than 300 votes. In 2004, with a Libertarian also on the ballot, Snow defeated an eight-term Republican incumbent. There’s no Libertarian on the ballot this time as Snow faces former Texas GOP activist Ken McKim, who reminds that he will defend, among other things, Christmas.

On the House side, the main beneficiary to Schuler’s bid is Phil Haire, who in 2004 won a district that includes Jackson, Macon, Haywood and Swain counties by a little more than 1,000 votes.

Stay tuned in the weeks ahead for more on the races to watch.