Keeping veto-proof majorities, NC Republicans at legislature turn to next speaker, McCrory

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RALEIGH, North Carolina — Several million dollars from independent groups on top of an expensive U.S. Senate race that negatively portrayed the GOP agenda in Raleigh helped Democrats knock off a few Republican incumbents at the General Assembly on Election Day.

But the victories didn't extend far enough to change the legislature's landscape for the next two-year session starting in January, with Republicans preserving their veto-proof majorities. It means legislative Republicans can still choose to ignore Democrats or even GOP Gov. Pat McCrory if they remain united.

Although a recent Elon University Poll found a 55 percent disapproval rating for the General Assembly among likely voters, Republican legislative leaders believe Tuesday's results show the public supports the rightward shift that began in 2011. They've reduced tax rates and regulations, created taxpayer-funded grants for low-income children to attend private schools and authorized voter ID.

"They realized that we weren't tearing down everything that North Carolina was and we are trying to put something out there that we think is better," said Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson.

Senate Republicans actually expanded their majority by one after defeating Sen. Gene McLaurin, D-Richmond. If a close race for a Wake County seat remains in the GOP column, they'll hold 34 of the 50 seats. In the House, Republicans lost four incumbents but flipped a Democratic seat open due to a retirement to keep 74 of the 120 seats.

Democrats blamed an unforeseen national wave favoring the GOP and gerrymandered legislative boundaries for failing to make up more ground.

"This week's victories were not as numerous as we had all hoped, but we learned from the experience and continue to work hard and push forward in 2015 and 2016," House Minority Leader Larry Hall, D-Durham, wrote supporters Friday.

Democratic donors poured money into independent groups that attacked GOP legislators on public school spending, fracking and coal ash cleanup costs. At least $2.8 million alone came from North Carolina Families First and N.C. Citizens for Protecting Our Schools, which targeted eight GOP incumbents, according to campaign finance reports.

"There was this idea that Raleigh has gone too far, too fast," said Rep.-elect Brian Turner, who narrowly defeated GOP incumbent Tim Moffitt in their Buncombe County district. Moffitt was a legislator targeted by the groups. Voters, Turner added, want a balance between "where Democrats took us in the last 140 years and where Republicans took us over the past four years."

The top-of-the-ballot U.S. Senate race also featured the legislature prominently, as Sen. Kay Hagan sought to turn her race against state House Speaker Thom Tillis into a referendum on the legislature he helped run for the past four years. Her critique seeped down into legislative elections statewide. But Tillis narrowly defeated Hagan.

The 2015-16 General Assembly session is expected to include more about teacher pay and overhauling Medicaid. First up, House Republicans will choose a successor to Tillis as speaker, likely later this month before the actual chamber vote Jan. 14.

The names mentioned most as candidates to be the next speaker are GOP Reps. Tim Moore of Kings Mountain, the House Rules Committee chairman; Leo Daughtry of Smithfield, a former majority and minority leader; and Mike Hager of Rutherfordton, the majority whip. Rep. Bryan Holloway, R-Stokes, a chief budget-writer, is a latecomer to the race. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, is assured of a third term in his chamber's top job.

Relations between the Senate and House frayed last summer during a weekslong budget standoff that included McCrory siding with the House on Medicaid and other issues. Apodaca said improved relations with the House are "really going to be incumbent upon whoever's the speaker."

McCrory dismissed the idea he would have preferred GOP majorities fall below veto-proof thresholds so he could wield more influence. The session will mark the second half of his term, with an eye toward a likely 2016 re-election bid.

"Whether I had a supermajority or majority, I still have to do my job as governor and lead, and I'm going to do just that," McCrory told reporters Thursday.

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