RALEIGH — One of the more interesting outcomes of Tuesday’s election in North Carolina was the contrast between Pat McCrory’s 12-point blowout victory for governor and the much closer races for Council of State. Every Council of State incumbent seeking re-election won, and every contested race involving an incumbent — the five won by Democrats and the two by Republicans — was decided by about the same margin, roughly 53.5 percent to 46.5 percent. (Incumbent Attorney General Roy Cooper was unopposed.)
To be sure, McCrory never really stopped running for governor after his narrow 2008 loss to Bev Perdue. And Perdue did her fellow Democrats no favor by deciding not to seek a second term in late January, much too late for viable successors to raise money and introduce themselves fully to voters statewide.
There’s no guarantee McCrory will be a successful governor. But he was a successful candidate, and potential politicians and their supporters could learn a lot from the race he ran, and contrast it with a handful of unsuccessful contests in the Tar Heel State and around the nation.
The former Charlotte mayor had a war chest full of campaign funds, and as much time as he wanted to spend selling himself to voters and building an organization during this election cycle. Those were necessary conditions for the victory.
But McCrory also offered voters an appealing résumé combining public service and business experience, along with an optimistic vision for the state. He was an attractive candidate with ideas that met the times, showing that it takes more than money or organization to win an election. You need a sensible, relevant message and an effective messenger.
Democrat Elaine Marshall, who won her fifth consecutive term Tuesday as secretary of state, provides an example of a public official who both has found her niche and proven unable to break out of it. She defeated Ed Goodwin, 53.8 percent to 46.2 percent, collecting 2.3 million votes. Yet two years ago, she was trounced by incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, losing 55-43.
Burr had the power of incumbency and plenty of money during a wave election for the GOP. But for some reason, Marshall’s folksy, populist personality — which appeals to voters in her capacity as secretary of state — did not translate well in another statewide contest for a different type of public office.
Sometimes, a candidate focuses on issues that aren’t relevant to the office he’s seeking. Outgoing state Rep. Glen Bradley, R-Franklin, tried to bring the Ron Paul agenda to the General Assembly, supporting bills that would ban the enforcement of some federal regulations governing commercial activities that took place within North Carolina’s borders, and expressing support for a state-based currency. The GOP’s nominee for state treasurer, Steve Royal, expressed some sympathies for a “regional” currency backed by North Carolina and several neighboring states.
These ideas are interesting, and might be defensible, but they were not high on the list of priorities for voters looking for effective representation in Raleigh from Bradley or competent investment management from Royal. Bradley’s House district was redrawn dramatically, so he chose to run for a Senate seat and finished a distant third in a three-way primary. Royal lost to incumbent Treasurer Janet Cowell.
At the federal level, Republicans in recent years have lost several winnable Senate races when they fielded flawed candidates. Missouri U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, had approval ratings in the 40s and was considered the most vulnerable incumbent seeking re-election this year. She’s been fiercely loyal to President Obama, who’s unpopular in Missouri.
Her opponent, six-term Republican U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, looked like an easy winner until he made an incomprehensible remark about pregnancy and rape and refused to leave the race at a time state Republicans could have chosen a successor. McCaskill won, 55-39, in a state Obama lost by 10 points. Akin could cruise to re-election in a suburban St. Louis district. His weaknesses were not obvious until he ran in unfamiliar territory.
Meantime, Indiana U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, a Republican, also was done in by an awkwardly worded statement about pregnancies caused by rape. Mourdock won statewide races for treasurer in 2006 and 2010 and defeated six-term U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar in this year’s primary, running with the backing of Tea Party and other grass-roots groups. Mitt Romney won Indiana by 10.5 percentage points, and yet Mourdock lost to Democrat Joe Donnelly by 5.5 percent.
Christine O’Donnell (Delaware), Sharron Angle (Nevada), and Linda McMahon (Connecticut … twice) are other recent Republican Senate losers who could not prevail against vulnerable Democrats.
Liberals might say these unsuccessful candidates shared one characteristic: They were backed by the Tea Party and the conservative grass roots. True enough. But so were several rising stars in the GOP who’ve won over the past two cycles: Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Jeff Flake of Arizona come to mind. These candidates were Tea Party darlings, too. They also are smart and prepared, and they advocated effectively for liberty and opportunity. They were ready for prime time in ways their defeated colleagues were not.
Many conservatives may be dispirited about Tuesday’s federal election results. But amid the losses there’s a path to victory in future races: You can advance the principles of freedom and self-government if you recruit the right candidates and give them the proper support.
Rick Henderson is managing editor of Carolina Journal.