RALEIGH — Democrat Walter Dalton and Republican Pat McCrory sparred Wednesday night in the final debate of the 2012 race for North Carolina governor. While the event contained some interesting exchanges, I doubt it changed the trajectory of the contest.
In other words, it is very likely at this writing that McCrory will win the gubernatorial election, the first Republican candidate to do so since Jim Martin won his reelection bid in 1988. What still remains unclear at this point is whether the magnitude of McCrory’s victory will be record-setting.
North Carolina has elected two previous Republican governors in the modern age: Jim Holshouser in 1972 and Jim Martin in 1984 and 1988. Holshouser, who had served as minority leader in the North Carolina House of Representatives, was just 38 years old when President Richard Nixon’s smashing victory in North Carolina helped him snag 51 percent of the vote for governor.
Jim Martin, by the way, was also a beneficiary of the Nixon surge in 1972. He had spent six years on the Mecklenburg County Commission, including a stint as chairman, before running for Congress in North Carolina’s 9th District that year. Although the district was already Republican-leaning, it certainly didn’t hurt to have a strong presidential campaign at the top of the ticket.
The same dynamic worked for Martin when he sought the governorship in 1984. Ronald Reagan was running for reelection, and ended up winning nearly 62 percent of the vote in North Carolina. Martin also skillfully outmaneuvered Democratic nominee Rufus Edmisten during the general election, but surely the Reagan tailwind helped propel him to a comfortable 54 percent of the vote for governor.
Gov. Martin improved his vote total a bit in his 1988 reelection bid against Lt. Gov. Bob Jordan. Although Vice President George H.W. Bush was in the process of winning his first and only term as president, the campaign unfolded somewhat like a bid for a Reagan-Bush third term. Once again, Martin also outmaneuvered his opponent in the race, citing accomplishments in job creation and transportation during a time in which North Carolinians generally felt good about the direction their state was going.
Martin won 55.1 percent of the vote in 1988. Not only was this the highest share ever achieved by any Republican candidate for governor, it is also better than any North Carolina Republican has ever performed in a high-profile statewide election. U.S. Sen. Richard Burr came as close as anyone in his 2010 reelection bid, when he won 54.8 percent of the vote against Democrat Elaine Marshall. U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms also came close in 1978, when he won 54.5 percent of the vote. Helms’ other vote shares were 54 percent in 1972, 52 percent in 1984, and 53 percent in both of his races against former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt (1990 and 1996). Elizabeth Dole won 54 percent in her 2002 Senate race.
On the other hand, many North Carolina Democrats have broken the 55 percent mark in statewide races, including Gov. Mike Easley in 2004 and Gov. Jim Hunt in 1976, 1980, and 1996. Until the 1970s, North Carolina was a strongly Democratic state that usually gave its votes overwhelmingly to Democratic candidates in statewide contests while electing some Republicans to congressional and other offices. Then, after Gov. Martin’s 1988 reelection, North Carolina Democrats built an impressive firewall – thanks in large part to Jim Hunt’s formal and informal leadership of the party, I would argue – that kept Republican victories in presidential and congressional races from generating commensurate strength in state politics.
With the Republican wave election of 2010, however, North Carolina appears to have entered a different period. Obviously we don’t know how long the GOP’s current ascendancy will last. But one question will be answered in just a few days: whether Pat McCrory will match Jim Martin’s initial 54 percent win for governor in 1984, or even his 55 percent margin in 1988.
As I write, McCrory leads Dalton by an average of nearly 14 points, 51 percent to 37 percent. Some interpret this statistic as predicting a final vote share of 55 percent or more. But the undecided vote may not break evenly, and a few percentage points will likely go to Libertarian Barbara Howe.
So I wouldn’t be planning revisions in the record books just yet.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and author of Our Best Foot Forward: An Investment Plan for North Carolina’s Economic Recovery.