Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — It’s a truism of Tar Heel politics: Few North Carolinians outside the Raleigh Beltline keep tabs on the goings-on in the General Assembly. Half of voters don’t know which party controls the legislative process, and most can’t name the speaker of the House. And don’t even bother asking what president pro tem of the Senate means.
But voters also are ignorant of the Council of State, a nine-member executive governing body that includes the lieutenant governor, attorney general, and state treasurer. Even though these executive-level officers direct policy and regulation in a number of areas, polling indicates that half to three-fourths of voters don’t know who holds these posts.
Candidates don’t share that apathy, though. Contenders for the nine elected offices already are lining up to lock horns in 2012, and several races are ripe for competition.
The filing deadline for next year’s primary is in late February, but two dozen candidates have expressed interest in running for office. Only three offices — those of attorney general, treasurer, and state auditor — didn’t have at least two announced candidates by late December.
Two Republicans and seven Democrats make up the current Council of State. Aside from the lieutenant governor, who is limited to two consecutive terms, the remaining members of the council may be elected for an unlimited number of terms.
Some council members take a more prominent role in the public’s eye than others. For instance, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall — a Democrat and candidate for U.S. Senate in 2010 — has aligned herself with the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Others take a more quiet approach. Despite a high-profile battle with Gov. Bev Perdue over who heads the Department of Public Instruction, state schools superintendent June Atkinson seldom engages in political back-and-forth with Republicans, and she’s garnered criticism from fellow Democrats for it.
Political observers say that 2012 will be rife with anti-incumbency sentiment, feeding the entry of challengers.
“There’s no love lost for incumbents so far, and if I were a current office holder, I’d be running scared, if I was running at all,” said Michael Bitzer, associate professor of politics and history at Catawba College in Salisbury.
Jonathan Kappler, research director at the pro-business N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation, said that the trickle-down impact of up-ballot races, such as for governor and president, is worth watching.
“Because most of the members of the Council of State are not well known by the public, general political dynamics and party affiliation can play a heightened role in voters’ selections in these races,” Kappler said. “This will be especially true in 2012, when North Carolina will undoubtedly be one of the most critical states in the presidential contest and feature one of the hottest gubernatorial races.”
One prominent factor in Council of State races is the straight-party vote. On the North Carolina ballot, voters may select “straight party” for Republican, Democratic, or Libertarian candidates for all state-level offices. Votes for president and vice president aren’t included.
In 2008, nearly 2.2 million voters opted for the straight ticket out of 4.3 million ballots cast.
“What we know from exit polls in North Carolina is that self-identified Democrats or Republicans will cast their vote 90 percent of the time for their party,” Bitzer said, “so we would expect those voters to take the ‘easy way’ out of the voting booth and vote straight ticket.”
Council of State races might fly under the radar of most voters, but that doesn’t mean the matchups aren’t competitive. In 2008, seven of the nine offices were won with less than 55 percent of the vote, and four of the nine were won with 52 percent or less.
The election for commissioner of labor was the closest in 2008. Incumbent Republican Cherie Berry bested Democratic challenger Mary Fant Donnan by 49,653 votes out of over 4 million cast.
Les Merritt, also a Republican, barely won election as auditor in 2004. Out of 3.3 million votes cast, Merritt won over Democrat Ralph Campbell by 28,715 votes. Merritt lost to Democrat Beth Wood in 2008.
Also in 2004, Republican Steve Troxler secured his first term as agriculture commissioner by a whisker, winning by 2,287 votes out of 3.3 million cast. Troxler won re-election handily in 2008.
The contest for superintendent of public instruction also was a squeaker in 2004. Atkinson beat Republican Bill Fletcher by 8,535 out of 3.3 million votes cast. The schools superintendent race was the only council contest that didn’t have an incumbent. (For more information on the superintendent’s race in 2012, click here).
One hurdle for Council of State candidates is gaining name recognition. Polling data show that even long-term incumbents face an uphill climb in gaining voters’ attention.
A Civitas Institute survey in October showed that three-fourths of likely voters in 2012 had never heard of Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin, Treasurer Janet Cowell, or Wood. All three are Democrats.
The same survey showed that Attorney General Roy Cooper and Marshall, both Democrats, are the two most popular council members. Nineteen percent had a “somewhat” favorable view of Cooper, compared to 6 percent who had a “somewhat” or “very” unfavorable opinion (45 percent never had heard of him). Marshall’s favorability-unfavorability divide was 18 percent compared to 9 percent (40 percent never had heard of her).
“At this point, all eyes are on the gubernatorial rematch,” Bitzer said, “and I'm afraid, with the presidential battle shaping up in this state as well, most of the attention will be focused on those two races in the state — and to the detriment of lower-ballot offices, like the Council of State positions.”
David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.