North Carolina Republicans took great care two years ago to carve out a place for Chad Barefoot, then a promising young conservative with strong ties to the right-wing factions of the party.
That place was State Senate District 18.
But this fall, the district, which includes parts of Wake and all of Franklin County, could flip back to Democratic control.
Although well-funded, Barefoot is struggling to shake the pall of a deeply unpopular legislature and his own voting record. His opponent, Sarah Crawford, is a rising star in the Democratic Party, who is running a vigorous campaign.
While Crawford has lived in the district, most of her life, Barefoot, who was groomed by his former employer, State Rep. Paul Stam, has lived there—barely there, just a half-mile inside the line—only three years. Barefoot moved from Raleigh and Apex to northern Wake County, where, during redistricting, the area was redrawn by Republican legislators to favor conservative candidates.
Before the GOP anointed him, Barefoot spent a year working as a policy analyst for Stam, the House Majority Leader, and interned for Stam for two summers before that, earning himself the moniker "Son of Stam."
Both candidates are spending heavily this election cycle to win the seat. Crawford said she is budgeting $500,000 for her campaign, less than half of the $1.2 million Barefoot spent in his 2012 race against Democratic senator Doug Berger.
Barefoot did not respond to the INDY's repeated requests for comment for this story.
Barefoot's mother-in-law is ultra-conservative lobbyist Tami Fitzgerald, who led the charge for Amendment One, which made same-sex marriage unconstitutional in North Carolina. She played a significant role in winning Barefoot the 2012 nomination in the Republican primary.
But as a senator, Barefoot and his star have dimmed. In a survey conducted by the nonpartisan North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research, Barefoot was ranked the 37th most effective state senator—out of 49—in 2013. The ranking was determined by other senators, representatives, lobbyists and legislative press corps. Only three other Republican state Senators fared worse in the poll.
Barefoot has hewed to the ultra-conservative party line in Raleigh, to the detriment of his constituents. Berger (no relation to GOP Sen. Phil Berger) says he met with Barefoot after the 2012 election, and Barefoot asked him for his input on issues unique to Franklin County. Berger says he advised Barefoot to remember he was representing a rural district among urban lawmakers. Berger said he told Barefoot to make sure money that had been allocated to complete Highway 401 into Louisburg was secure and that the project remained on schedule.
"The expansion of 401 was the biggest economic project in Franklin County," Berger said. "It's a dangerous highway and the focal point of activism to get the flames going up for economic and safety purposes."
Yet, in 2013, Barefoot voted for Gov. McCrory's strategic mobility plan which changed the way road projects were funded, taking many of the already scheduled, partially funded road projects back to square one.
"The new formula favors urban centers," Crawford said. "401 will not be as highly prioritized as it would have and now it's on a long list of highway projects the Governor has just released (in his new transportation plan)."
Barefoot also voted against expanding Medicaid, a dire move for Franklin County's rural hospital, the Franklin Regional Medical Center, which depends on Medicaid money to help offset the cost of providing emergency care. Barefoot supported the legislature's coal ash bill, which environmentalists say is too lax and leaves open the possibility that taxpayers rather than Duke Energy shareholders will have to pay for coal ash cleanup. Most of Franklin County gets its water from Kerr Lake, which was threatened by the Dan River coal ash spill last winter.
And Barefoot voted for legislation that fast-tracked fracking. He is attacked specifically in "issue ads," paid for by the North Carolina Environmental Partnership, which ran from March through the summer. In the ads, Barefoot is identified as being part of the "Fracking Crew," along with Sens. Ron Rabin, R-Harnett and Wesley Meredith, R-Cumberland.
The state Senate Republican caucus used the ads to attack Crawford, who is married to the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters' director of governmental relations, Dan Crawford. The NCLCV is not part of the North Carolina Environmental Partnership. Nevertheless, the GOP caucus released a statement claiming Crawford is "aggressively fighting natural gas exploration in lockstep with the special interests that employ her husband."
Berger says it is "humorous and ironic" that Barefoot has chosen to attack Crawford's husband for being a lobbyist for clean air and water, given his own deep political ties to lobbyists and the bad policies they represent. "I know Barefoot has spent hours giving lobbyists attention as he served in the legislature," Berger said. "It's the infantilism of the politics he represents."
Crawford says she doesn't think her husband's work as an advocate for clean air and water is a bad special interest to have. "I will work to protect clean air and water because it's the right thing to do," she said.
Barefoot's connections to lobbyists don't end with his mother-in-law. His campaign treasurer is Amy Ballantine Ellis, the sister of Patrick J. Ballantine, a former state senator from Wilmington, and one-time candidate for governor.
Ballantine runs his own lobbying firm, Ballantine Company, Inc., whose clients include three tobacco companies and pro-charter schools, pro-voucher group Parents for Educational Freedom In North Carolina, Inc. Amy Ellis has also served as treasurer for the secretive super -PAC Justice for All NC—the group behind the smear campaign of N.C. Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson—and Vote For Marriage NC, a pro-Amendment One project of Tami Fitzgerald's N.C. Values Coalition.
At the end of the last campaign finance reporting period on June 30, Barefoot had $141,872 in cash on hand compared to Crawford's $131,062. The next reports aren't due until Oct. 27, which is eight days before the General Election. (Early voting runs from Oct. 23–Nov. 1.)
While Barefoot ran dozens of attack ads against Berger—criticizing his proposal to ban plastic bags in coastal Dare County for environmental reasons—the incumbent is taking a different approach this election.
"(Crawford) has no voting record he can attack," Berger said. "Barefoot minimizes mentioning he is a current senator. He's trying to make it seem like he's a new leader but people in the district have buyer's remorse."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Senate showdown."