In southern Wake County, it’s easy to see the rural roots of North Carolina. Wide expanses of trees and fields are dotted with simple, one-story homes, churches, and schools. Cruising down Fayetteville Road, I see a lot of pickup trucks, along with a Trump 2024 flag.

North Carolina’s House District 37—which includes Fuquay-Varina and parts of Holly Springs and extends north to Lake Wheeler—is one of four swing districts in Wake County this year.

These are districts where the number of people expected to vote for a Republican is almost equal to the number expected to vote Democrat. The close divide between the two parties will likely result in some close races where the winner is determined by only a few thousand votes.

This could have significant impacts on the balance of power in the state legislature. Republicans are aiming to secure a supermajority in the General Assembly this year so they can override Democratic governor Roy Cooper’s veto. In order to attain a supermajority, the GOP needs to pick up two seats in the senate and three in the house, as well as hold on to the seats they already have. And with issues ranging from access to abortion to public school funding hanging in the balance, these are seats Democrats cannot afford to lose.

The swing districts

In Wake County, House Districts 35 and 37 are two of about 18 races in the state that are genuinely competitive, according to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. Wake County’s two senate swing districts—17 and 18—are even more important, given there are only about eight competitive senate districts statewide.

“The problem for Democrats in North Carolina is the way Democratic coalition is so heavily concentrated within the cities and with the Black vote in college towns,” says Mac McCorkle, a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

“These places in Wake County, [like] Wake Forest, these are swing districts where Democrats need to win, and if Republicans are making inroads, that’s a real problem for Democrats.”

House District 35, which includes Wake Forest and parts of northern Wake County, has become slightly more competitive this year thanks to the 2020 redistricting, says McCorkle. Democrat Terence Everitt, the incumbent, is facing a challenge from Republican Fred Von Canon.

Of course, we’re also keeping a close eye on House District 37, where Republican incumbent Erin Paré is defending her seat against Democratic challenger Christine Kelly. Paré won her seat in 2020 from Democrat Sydney Batch, with the help of unexpectedly high turnout from Republican voters.

The district, home to mostly white, middle-class families, farmers, and veterans, is the most conservative in Wake County. It’s also the only swing district in Wake to lean toward the GOP, with Republicans making up about 52 percent of the vote share, according to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. Wake County’s three other swing districts all lean Democratic.

“If Everitt loses, it’s gonna be a very bad night for Democrats, and Republicans probably would have gained a supermajority,” McCorkle says. “On the other hand, if Kelly wins in [District] 37 … it’s going to be a surprising good night for Democrats.”

As an incumbent, Paré will likely have an edge in the coming election, according to McCorkle. She may also have an advantage with Joe Biden as president, since midterms are historically unkind to the party that holds the White House.

A Democratic win in District 37 will likely depend on turnout, which could be driven by the issue of abortion rights. McCorkle cites the “Kansas Effect,” where Democratic voters turned out in record numbers to shoot down an abortion ban. Although the vote was expected to be close in the historically red state, Democrats secured existing abortion access in a landslide 59-41 vote.

Unaffiliated voters could also influence the election. Earlier this year, for the first time in history, the number of unaffiliated voters in North Carolina overtook the number of registered Democrats and Republicans. Wake County had one of the largest increases in unaffiliated voters, going from 159,810 in 2010 to 321,751 in 2022, a jump of more than 100 percent.

Unaffiliated voters aren’t necessarily the same thing as independent or undecided voters, says Asher Hildebrand, an associate professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

“There are a lot of voters who, for whatever reason, want to be unaffiliated, want to think of themselves as independent, but still very reliably vote for one party or the other,” he says. “That said, independents or unaffiliated voters are statistically more likely to split their tickets and be willing to vote for members of either party.”

Where most voters are likely to vote straight Democrat or Republican all the way down the ticket, independent voters are more likely to cross party lines if they know something particularly good or bad about a candidate, McCorkle says. Polarization is high, but so is the number of independent voters.

“When I see turnout projections as high as they are, that scrambles my confidence that the polling can really pick up all that’s going on,” McCorkle says. “I don’t know whether history is a good predictor. The game’s got to be played out.”

The economy

In District 37, the issues voters care about are the ones people are debating statewide: the economy, education, and abortion.

The higher prices of gas and groceries, brought on by inflation, is on the minds of a lot of voters, according to Hildebrand. The fact that Democrat Joe Biden is the president as the economy worsens has put Democrats in an unenviable position. Paré and other Republicans are attacking their opponents on the issue, saying Democrats support raising taxes and increasing spending.

Kelly, Paré’s opponent, says Republicans are “intentionally misdirecting voters with the long-used claim that Democrats will irresponsibly spend and tax at the expense of working families. It’s false.” If elected, Kelly promises to raise taxes on “corporate special interests and the ultra-wealthy,” who have enjoyed years of tax breaks thanks to Republicans.

The economy is especially important to David Smith, a Republican who cast his vote in Fuquay-Varina on Friday.

“I’d say I’m more of a fiscal conservative, neutral on social stuff,” Smith says. “The economy is one of my main concerns, the reckless spending.”

Smith’s wife, Sharon, is also worried about how money is being spent. She’s a retired teacher, and she’s concerned that the school board is wasting money, she says.

“The teacher pay is there, but I think there’s a lot of waste. [Administrators] don’t ask teachers what should be in a school building before they build a school building,” Sharon says. “I’ve opened Mills Park Middle School before, it was brand new. We had a list 10 pages long, just from career and technical education, of things that should have been done.”

Sharon is also worried about how the board will spend the COVID relief funds it received after the pandemic.

“A lot of that money they got from COVID, they have to spend it by a certain time, so there’s limits on what they can even do,” she says. “You don’t have time to make a long-term game plan.”


On education, Sharon’s main worry is the learning loss students suffered during the coronavirus pandemic. A recent report from the state Department of Public Instruction shows students are behind in almost every subject, especially math and science.

It’s a practical concern everyone acknowledges, although Democrats and Republicans disagree on what to do about it. One of the linchpins of Kelly’s campaign is her promise to support fully funding public education through the Leandro plan, an issue which the NC Court of Appeals just ruled should go back to the General Assembly. Kelly talks about closing not only the learning gap but also gaps in social and emotional support.

“We need a nurse in every school. We need access to health services, and the ratio of 1:2,500 students is just not feasible,” Kelly says. “We know that, emotionally, kids are trying to figure out how to catch up with the isolation of COVID. We know that [the mortality rate for] suicide is now higher than car accidents. It’s a huge problem.”

Paré, on the other hand, has embraced a very different strategy. Her comments on education focus mainly on inflammatory campaign issues like “critical race theory” and “age-innapropriate classroom materials” that include LGBTQ themes and characters. Paré is a devout supporter of the right-wing parental rights movement, which has made discussions of race in classrooms taboo and attempted to remove inclusive books from library shelves.

Unfortunately, this fear-based rhetoric is connecting with some voters. Douglas Hall, 67, says one of the things that brought him out to vote is the “gender issue in schools,” suggesting teachers may be influencing young children to identify as transgender.

“[It’s] the idea that we have books that are available in the libraries at young-level schools that discuss sex. [Children] just don’t need that. That’s up to the parents to teach,” Hall says.

“Then to make such an issue out of what their gender should or shouldn’t be at a young age when they’re confused to begin with. They’re more apt to think, ‘Oh, well, maybe I’m this or that,’ and they’re just not ready to make those decisions at that age.”


Hall is also worried about increases in crime, which Republicans have blamed on Democrats supportive of the “Defund the Police” movement. One tactic Republicans are using is a tried and true focus on crime and immigration, Hildebrand says. Thinly veiled racist tactics help scare voters and motivate the Republican base.

“There’s a reason that they’re tried and true, because they’ve used them in the past and they’ve been effective in the past,” Hildebrand says.

On gun safety, Kelly and Paré are once again on opposite sides of the spectrum. Where Kelly, supported by Moms Demand Action, has worked to ban the open carry of guns in public parks and government buildings, Paré has voted at least once to repeal the requirement to obtain a permit for pistols.

Ultimately, even though Hall is frustrated with the political divide and partisanship, he’s voting a straight Republican ticket “to make sure there’s all the strength possible in the Republican party to oust this [Cooper] administration,” he says.


Likewise, Democrats are expected to turn out in strong numbers to prevent the Republicans from gaining a supermajority. Their number one worry? “The abortion situation,” says Diane Luparello, 74. “If you don’t have a vagina, you should not tell somebody what to do with theirs.”

Luparello was in her forties when abortion was legalized in 1973 through Roe v. Wade. When she heard about the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn that right earlier this year, “my stomach sank,” she says.

Although abortion is still legal in North Carolina, Republicans have been clear about their intent to change that if they win a supermajority. Paré, like many of her Republican colleagues, is a supportive of an almost-total abortion ban. In response to a question from The News & Observer, Paré says, “Abortion should be banned starting at some point during the first trimester.”

Kelly, on the other hand, says she will defend abortion rights, describing it as part of a comprehensive health-care plan. Kelly has been endorsed by Pro-Choice North Carolina and Vote Pro-Choice, something Paré has characterized as a negative. Luparello’s feelings are clear, however.

“In my opinion, [the Supreme Court decision] was a giant step backwards,” Luparello says. “I went to high school with a girl who died from a botched, back-street abortion. If abortion had been legal at that time, she would still be alive.”

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