While the U.S. Senate and governor's races may be fought with air strikes—using television ads and other media appearances—the fight for the legislature is happening on the ground.
That's especially true in western Wake County, which has more state House districts in play than any part of the Triangle.
Ed Ridpath, a 48-year-old IBM employee and candidate for N.C. House District 37, may be the hardest-working man in state politics. He's been going door-to-door to introduce himself to voters each weekend, almost since the day he lost the same race in 2006. He estimates he's reached more than 10,000 voters, with help from his campaign manager and volunteers.
Ridpath is trying to unseat House Minority Leader Paul "Skip" Stam, a four-term Republican. A real estate lawyer who made his name in the legislature opposing abortion rights, Stam has raised more than $80,000 this election cycle as of June 30, much of it from political action committees. Meanwhile, Ridpath has raised less than $50,000, mostly from individuals.
It's a tough fight for the Democrat, but Ridpath felt encouraged by the showing he made two years ago, when he won 43 percent of the vote in his first run for public office, and by the growing trend of House districts in western Wake that were once red turning blue.
"Because I'm not the minority leader of the state," Ridpath said, "I'm not heading off to Charlotte for a fundraiser. I'm actually focused on this community and neighbors here. And I prove it by being at people's doorsteps."
When Ridpath knocks on doors, he talks about "roads and schools, the fundamentals of government." You won't see the word "Democrat" in big letters on his campaign materials. He presents himself as a social and fiscal moderate with no political aspirations beyond serving in the state House.
The Ridpath family's red Pontiac minivan has survived seven years of school-age kids, but it's taking a beating on the campaign trail. On a typical Saturday, he left his home in Fuquay-Varina and drove across U.S. 401, past a recently built shopping center, toward southern Apex. There's been a tremendous amount of new construction since he moved here 10 years ago. Fields of soybeans and corn are interrupted by brand new developments of jumbo-sized houses.
"I think the word 'exurb' was probably made for this place," he said.
These farm roads weren't built for commuter traffic. Ridpath would like to see better transportation options—a bus line would be a reasonable start—and more aggressive efforts to secure public open space to preserve the area's rural character.
Ridpath is focusing on unaffiliated voters and those registered Democrats who vote only in general elections. He checked a list of addresses and drove to a quiet street. As he approached the first house, he noted the Obama placard in the front window. "That's a good sign," he said.
In front of the house, a man was working on a car while women stood in the driveway, one holding a baby. Ridpath made his pitch as he handed them brochures.
One of the women looked at the picture on the brochure and glanced back at him. "Oh," she said. "You're the candidate!"
"I know it's a little old-fashioned, going door-to-door," he said with a smile, "but it helps me get to know you, and I represent us better when I get to Raleigh."
Back when the Democratically controlled legislature redrew its districts in 2002 and 2003, most of those that included Raleigh were expected to remain solidly blue, while those outside in the more rural part of the county—especially in suburban and rural western Wake—were considered Republican territory.
"The ring of fire," Ridpath calls it.
But western Wake County's changed quite a bit since then. Fuquay-Varina's population has nearly doubled since 2000. Apex has grown 72 percent. Many of these newcomers are transplants from the Northeast and Midwest who are turned off by the social conservatism of North Carolina's Republicans and open to moderate Democrats.
Ridpath grew up in Minnesota and remembers helping his mother campaign for local office as a Republican. "I tell people, you take a Minnesota Republican and a North Carolina Democrat and there's really not a lot of light between them."
He served on a nuclear submarine in the U.S. Navy, then moved to South Carolina before settling here. He said he'd always been a "staunchly independent" voter, but he didn't like watching his local state House seat go unchallenged by Democrats in 2004—a Libertarian candidate pulled in 15 percent of the vote. So he said he tried to recruit a Democrat to run in 2006 and ended up being recruited himself.
That same year, Democrat Ty Harrell beat incumbent Republican J. Russell Capps by 3 percent of the vote, turning the Cary and Morrisville District 41 blue. And Greer Beaty came within 335 votes—1 percent of the total—of ousting Republican Rep. Nelson Dollar in the Cary and Apex District 36.
Ridpath said those incumbents are vulnerable because "it's very clear that the representation we currently have hasn't been standing up for us on the local issues."
The I-540 Outer Beltline is a sensitive topic here. "It's been built for free in the northern part of the county, and we've been waiting patiently for our part," Ridpath said. "Now we're expected to pay a toll and continue to pay higher taxes."
Ridpath criticizes Stam's preoccupation with the land transfer tax. In 2007, the legislature authorized local governments to bring a referendum to voters on whether to impose a 0.4 percent tax on real estate transactions. Stam opposed it, and this year he tried to get the option repealed. He also sent a guest editorial to newspapers in counties that had put the option on the ballot. He went so far as to spend $67 of his campaign money to take out an ad opposing the tax in the Tyrrell County weekly, Scuppernong Reminder.
"He's fought so hard against that, almost to the exclusion of anything else," Ridpath said. "I think that's focusing on the wrong things."
On social issues, Ridpath said Stam is far to the right, the only state House representative to vote against a bill that would have increased the penalties for cross-burning, wearing a hood and displaying nooses for racial intimidation.
Meanwhile, Stam recused himself from voting on the House's $21.3 billion budget proposal because his family owns land near the proposed Triangle Expressway, which was included in the bill. "As a legislator, the big vote that you make is the budget," Ridpath said.
Stam denied that he's neglected his district. Though he declined an interview with the Independent, he said in an e-mail, "I am all over the district." He attached a list of legislation he had sponsored during the 2007-2008 session, pointing out that "the larger majority of my bills are bipartisan in reality and not only in form." The list includes a local bill pertaining to road construction in Apex, the authorization of housing funds to help people with developmental disabilities, and various ethics measures. "You can readily compare this record with Mr. Ridpath's and determine which candidate actually changes things in Raleigh."
If change is the goal of this election, Republicans will tell you that electing more Democrats to the legislature is not the way to achieve it.
"If people want change in North Carolina," said Rep. Nelson Dollar, "they need to vote for Republicans, because the Democrats have had exclusive control of state government essentially for the last 10 years." He cites the mental health crisis, overcrowded schools, an increasing high school dropout rate and mismanagement at the Department of Transportation that resulted in a botched paving job on I-40 as evidence of the need for new leadership.
A professional campaign consultant, Dollar has run the political efforts of many Republicans across the state. But, he said, "I have a very strong record of working across the aisle to make change." He points to legislation, co-sponsored with solidly progressive Rep. Paul Luebke, to stop involuntarily annexation, his support for a high-risk health insurance pool and a bill to modernize the handling and storage of chemical waste following a high-profile chemical fire at a plant in Apex.
But Al Swanstrom, a Democrat challenging Dollar this year, said Dollar has impeded the Wake delegation's efforts to improve transportation options and has opposed the construction of new schools, touting vouchers as the solution to the county's school overcrowding. Dollar has vowed to oppose any new taxes, which Swanstrom said is "not responsible."
Swanstrom is a retired IBM executive and political newcomer who's also running a door-to-door campaign as a political moderate. "I got into politics because I saw some things that as a businessman didn't make any sense to me," Swanstrom said. "While I'm a fiscal conservative, I'm the sort of conservative that wants to get a good return on every dollar we invest, but I'm not against getting some incremental revenue if it gets a very strong return."
This election may tell us whether the Republicans will have to change their policies, if they hope to persuade voters they are the party of change.