If President Obama is hoping to pull off a repeat performance of his surprise 2008 win in North Carolina, he’ll have to supply the star power all on his own. Well-known Democrats have taken themselves out of running for the governor’s spot one by one, while Republicans have already settled on a strong contender who’s easily besting his challengers in polls.
In late January, incumbent Gov. Bev Perdue—staring down approval ratings mired in the 30s and losing by wide margins in hypothetical match-ups with former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, the presumptive Republican nominee whom she narrowly defeated in 2008—announced she would not seek reelection. The Democrat's 11th-hour decision has shaken up the dynamics in a state that the Obama campaign has signaled would be essential to its reelection efforts this year.
North Carolina, whose unemployment rate stands at an above-average 9.9 percent, was always going to be a heavy lift for the Obama campaign. Moreover, presidential races always have a bigger influence on statewide races than the other way around.
“In a state that’s going to be contested, it’s the presidential race that is driving voter attention, that is driving almost everything,” said North Carolina State University political scientist Steve Greene.
But it appears this year, the president will be getting especially little help from down the ballot.
Perdue’s retirement may have been considered a blessing—her brand is considered toxic in the state after a series of well-publicized gaffes and a scandal that led to the indictment of three former campaign aides.
“I think ultimately it’s probably better for us to start with a clean start and a fresh face,” said longtime Democratic strategist Gary Pearce.
The only problem is, nearly all of the state’s Democratic superstars have said “thanks, but no thanks” to putting up a fight in a tough election year.
Erskine Bowles, a business-friendly moderate who served as chief of staff in Bill Clinton's White House and cochair of Obama’s bipartisan deficit reduction commission, declined to give it a go—arguably the biggest disappointment for Democrats. Bowles, who also served as president of the University of North Carolina system, had wide name recognition and would have been a formidable fundraiser. He was running head-to-head with McCrory in polls.
State Attorney General Roy Cooper, another well-reputed, high-powered Democrat, said he doesn’t have any plans of running. As of last week, add Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., the former NFL quarterback who is retiring from Congress rather than run in a new Republican-leaning district, to the "no" list. Any of these well-known figures in the North Carolina political establishment might have made Obama’s challenge just a bit easier.
Who does that leave? Former Rep. Bob Etheridge, who lost to Republican Renee Ellmers in 2010 and attracted the worst kind of attention when a YouTube video showing him in a heated confrontation with a college student hit the Internet, is currently the strongest contender. Lt. Gov. Walt Dalton has officially tossed his hat into the ring, along with state Rep. Bill Faison.
Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, who isn't up for re-election until 2014, also doesn't appear like she would be much of a help—her approval rating was 38 percent in a poll last month.
Greene said he doesn’t sense all that much excitement about the Democratic field as it stands, although it may get more crowded yet. State Sen. Dan Blue, who was the first African American to be speaker of the state House of Representatives, is considering a run, as is Rep. Brad Miller, who also recently announced his retirement from Congress. State Treasurer Richard Moore, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2008, is considering his options, too.
More troublesome than the enthusiasm gap may be that the timing of Perdue’s announcement gives Democrats scant time to assemble and, more importantly, gives the eventual nominee even less time to organize and raise money. Perdue already had $2 million in her campaign war chest when she decided to back out. McCrory, meanwhile, is the only serious candidate for the Republican nomination.
“There’s far from a consensus within the Democratic Party who they actually would rally around right now,” said Brian Nick, a consultant for the McCrory campaign. “Pat’s got a good infrastructure and he’s got a fully operational campaign, and it seems it’ll be some months before the Democrats will have the same.”
Nevertheless, the GOP in North Carolina is not discounting a tough race. The Democrats are bringing the nominating convention to Charlotte this summer, and the Obama campaign has indicated that they’re willing to devote considerable resources to keeping the Tar Heel State in their column. That means a robust get-out-the-vote operation that will surely benefit Democrats.
“North Carolina will certainly be a competitive state,” said Wayne King, vice chairman of the North Carolina GOP. “[The Democrats] are going to spend a lot of money in North Carolina, and we certainly don’t believe that it’s going to be a cakewalk for us.”
Pearce, for one, is thrilled that Obama has made North Carolina part of his winning strategy.
“I love it! Sure,” the Democratic strategist said when asked about the wisdom of the approach. “If he wins North Carolina, then there’s no way a Republican gets elected president. If they can’t carry North Carolina, they can’t get to the White House.”