DULIK: Tar Heel State a Partisan Enigma
Published: Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, October 2, 2012 20:10
North Carolina might be America’s unlikeliest swing state. When Barack Obama captured its 15 electoral votes by the thinnest of margins (0.32 percent) in 2008, much of the political world was left stunned. Long the wheelhouse of conservatives like Senators Jesse Helms and Liddy Dole, the Tar Heel State emerged as a serious political tossup, and will only grow in this role in the coming years.
The quirkiness of North Carolina politics can be attributed to two factors, one historical and the other rooted in demographics. Throughout the 20th century, North Carolina shared the frequently befuddling political traits of its neighbors across Appalachia and Dixie: at the state and local level, the Democratic Party reigned, thanks to longstanding loyalties to the party and its provincial functionaries, while at the federal level voters aligned with the GOP. For an outsider, this can be incomprehensible, but in a state like North Carolina, it just makes sense — the Democrats are the party of your granddaddy and make fine, conservative community leaders in city hall or at the statehouse in Raleigh, while nationally, the Republicans better address the values and priorities of many North Carolinians. This has created an unpredictability in North Carolina politics.
A second trend is further enhancing this idiosyncratic political character. Growth in minority communities — particularly among Hispanics — and their political participation, coupled with an influx of young, educated professionals in areas like the Research Triangle (the metro area of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill) and Charlotte have led to a recalibration of the state’s demographics in a way favors the Democratic Party. And lo, a swing state is born.
North Carolina’s rich cultural diversity translates into a competitive political geography. Along the coast, retirees vote strongly Republican. The state’s southeast corner has one of the densest military populations in the country, with Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune hosting thousands of service members, veterans and their families. In this area, national security and defense issues are key. The Research Triangle hosts world-class universities and is home to the highest concentration of graduate degree holders in America. This booming central part of the state is the engine of Democratic success.
Charlotte, the state’s largest city, is an emerging regional economic hub. While the Democrats held their convention there last month, the city and its suburbs feature a robust Republican presence. Moving west high into the Blue Ridge Mountains, the state’s politics take a sharp turn to the right. With the exception of cities like Asheville, Greensboro and Winston-Salem, western North Carolina is a conservative counterbalance to the Research Triangle. This checkerboard partisan terrain produces truly exciting statewide results.
At the presidential level, the state will be up for grabs on Election Day. A RealClearPolitics average of statewide polling suggests a statistical tie, although many observers believe the state will ultimately return narrowly to its ancestral GOP fold this time around. It will likely not be an electoral linchpin; if Obama carries the Tar Heel State a second time, you can safely assume he already accrued enough electoral votes to put him over the top.
More interesting to me are the battles going on for the governor’s mansion and various congressional seats. North Carolina has elected just two Republican governors since 1900. The Democrats’ dominance in Raleigh continued in 2008, when Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue won the tightest gubernatorial race in the country. As governor, Perdue has been a failure. Her unpopularity was so staggering that she was dissuaded from seeking another term.
Instead, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton picks up the Democrats’ mantle. He is the decided underdog this time around, but I have been genuinely impressed by his competent, earnest messaging. His emphasis on education resonates well in a state that has always given educational issues unique prominence in its political discourse. However, his ties to Perdue mean he will likely fall short in this campaign.
His Republican opponent is equally impressive. Former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory was narrowly edged out by Perdue in the 2008 race, but probably will have the last laugh — he is well poised to become the state’s next governor. McCrory was a remarkably successful pro-business mayor whose detailed economic development plans are a sight for sore eyes in a state suffering from 9.7 percent unemployment, the fifth highest in the country. An articulate, intelligent and pragmatic candidate, McCrory would make an outstanding governor.
No other state’s congressional delegation will undergo as violent a partisan upheaval as North Carolina’s on Nov. 6. That’s thanks to the fact that a GOP-dominated state legislature has drawn new districts highly favorably to its candidates. As such, a whopping gain of four Republican seats is quite plausible. In a twist of fate, Rep. Brad Miller, who as a state senator drew himself a picture perfect congressional seat a decade ago, has chosen to retire, as his seat was dismantled and turned solidly Republican. Former U.S. Attorney George Holding, who prosecuted the case against Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), will grab the seat back. Another retirement from conservative Democrat Heath Shuler in the state’s western corner effectively cedes that district to Republican Mark Meadows this time around.
Two Democratic incumbents are seeking reelection on newly hostile turf. Rep. Larry Kissell’s district in the exurbs of Charlotte will almost certainly flip Republican, to Richard Hudson, a former Capitol Hill aide tight with Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). In the military-laden southeast, Rep. Mike McIntyre is fighting valiantly to portray himself as being to the right of Rick Santorum. I don’t blame him — his new district swung hard to the right. If voters look past party affiliation, McIntyre stands a fighting chance; after all, he is a good candidate who has represented his constituents well. If they don’t, Republican State Senator David Rouzer will replace him.