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This North Carolina Race Could End the GOP’s State Legislature Supermajority

A Republican won the state House seat from North Carolina’s District 24 in 2022. Democrats are hoping to take it back.

NC Legislature
Democrat Dante Pittman is looking to unseat Republican incumbent Ken Fontenot in the North Carolina state House. Makiya Seminera/AP

Democrats in North Carolina need to pick up just one seat in either chamber to break the veto-proof majority Republicans hold in the state legislature. House District 24, where Democrat Dante Pittman is looking to unseat Republican incumbent Ken Fontenot, is a top contender.

The rural eastern North Carolina district includes a piece of Nash County and the entire Wilson County, where more than 40% of residents are Black. Prior to 2022, when Fontenot flipped the seat, Democrats had consistently been elected to represent District 24. This year’s race will be a test of whether that win was due to a strong Republican candidate or apathy among Democratic voters — and whether Democrats can overcome either factor this time around.

“It wasn’t as if we saw a massive shift in how folks voted,” Pittman told NOTUS of the 2022 election. “It was that they just were not inspired to come out and vote. And that’s our job this year, is to make sure we don’t see that.”

Both candidates are running platforms centered around economic opportunity and education and trying to appeal to the Black voters who could swing the election.

Fontenot has a few advantages in the race. He’s an incumbent who has framed himself as bipartisan in the legislature — he has been the primary sponsor of 25 bills, 17 of which were bipartisan. He also touts bringing in $77 million in one-time appropriations to various organizations and nonprofits in the district, including liberal ones like the North Carolina Public School Forum.

His argument to voters is that Democrats have let them down.

Rep. Ken Fontenot (handout)
North Carolina state Rep. Ken Fontenot was elected in 2022. (Wilson County, Nash County) North Carolina General Assembly

“What’s happening in Wilson County is that the ruling party has become apathetic,” Fontenot told NOTUS. “People are dissatisfied that the neighborhoods are in disrepair, our school system is failing and our representatives aren’t making any change.”

Fontenot, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps for eight years, says his reputation as an involved community leader who was not concerned with partisanship led voters to him. As both a middle school teacher and a pastor in a local Baptist church, he’s built relationships with politically like-minded folks and others across the aisle.

“It’s not just his experience, but his credibility that drew people to him and will help him again come November,” a source in North Carolina House GOP leadership said. “A lot of people’s perceptions of politicians is that they don’t actually follow up. Ken does more in and for his community than probably anybody else in their district.”

In the 2022 election, Fontenot defeated his Democratic opponent by 8 points. He received more votes in the district than the then-Republican candidate for U.S. senator, even though more ballots were cast in the Senate race than in the local race.

Democrats, however, credit Fontenot’s win to a lack of turnout for state legislative races in 2022. And they think Pittman, who is a Wilson County native and, like Fontenot, is heavily involved in engaging with the community, could take him on.

Pittman has served in the U.S. Army National Guard since 2016 and spent time as a board member in several local agencies and organizations, including the Department of Social Services in Wilson County.

“Dante can speak to voters in a way that’s very unique and authentic because he lives and breathes the values of that community,” said Samantha Paisley, national press secretary at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “At the end of the day, that is what the Democratic Party needs to turn out votes in rural districts that are typically tougher territory for us.”

Dante Pittman is running for N.C. House District 24.
Dante Pittman is seeking to unseat Fontenot. Pittman for NC

North Carolina’s House Democratic Leader Rep. Robert Reives told NOTUS that races like Pittman at the bottom of the ticket will lead to wins for all Democrats.

“A lot of times when you talk to folks, the things that they dislike about either party are not things that they identify with their local representatives,” Reives said. “That’s why it’s so important to run people like Dante in all of the scenes and give them the opportunity to brand themselves and the party in a way that relates to those in their communities.”

Pittman is engaged in door-to-door outreach to the community and shows up at barbershops, salons and other venues to reach voters directly. He told NOTUS he knows the disillusionment is something the party will have to grapple with, especially because empty promises by Republican candidates are enough to spark the interest of otherwise loyal Democratic supporters.

“What’s a challenge for the Democratic Party is the newness of the Republican Party’s attempts to compete for Black voters,” Pittman said. “The Republican Party is not being ignored as much because of it.”

“I still argue there’s a reason that I am a Democrat and that our party is still one that makes a lot of sense for the Black community when you’re talking about making sure that there’s that opportunity to not just survive but to thrive,” he added.

Fontenot, who grew up in a Democratic household, is capitalizing on the sense of disillusion described by Black voters when it comes to the Democratic Party.

“People are sick of excuses as to why things are getting done, even in places where Democrats have a complete alignment in power all the way to the top,” Fontenot said. “Many Republicans are realizing, all you gotta do is promise what you’ll do and then do it.”

Calen Razor is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.