RALEIGH – I don’t know that former UNC President Erskine Bowles is actively planning to enter the Democratic race for governor, but the events of the past few days certainly seem consistent with a Bowles candidacy.
For starters, the field is clearing. Among the other Insider prospects for governor, U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler has already bowed out, and there appears to be little public support for the likes of Bob Etheridge or Richard Moore. Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton has already gotten in, but not so far in that he couldn’t come back out and seek reelection to his current job if a higher-profile candidate – i.e. Bowles – entered the gubernatorial race.
As for the one Insider/Outsider crossover candidate I could think of, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, he has also bowed out of a 2012 run. Perhaps he thought he couldn’t win the primary, or perhaps key Democrats approached Foxx to dissuade him from crowding the field. Either way, I doubt Foxx was worried about going up against Dalton for the nomination. Something else, or someone else, influenced his decision.
That still leaves state Rep. Bill Faison and possibly Congressman Brad Miller as potential Outsider candidates. But with Shuler, Foxx, and other candidates with broader appeal on the sidelines, a race with Faison or Miller vs. an Insider would look a lot like the 2002 or 2004 Democratic primaries for U.S. Senate – contests that Bowles won.
Add to these factors the fact that much of the Democratic establishment of North Carolina is pleading for Bowles to run, believing him to be the only Democrat capable of denying Pat McCrory a victory in November, and you have the makings of an announcement.
But hold on a moment. There are still several arrows pointing in the other direction.
Democratic consultant Gary Pearce, who remains both insightful about North Carolina politics and close to de facto party leader Jim Hunt, continues to lobby publicly against a Bowles run.
There’s also the obvious fact that although Bowles won both the 2002 and 2004 Democratic nominations for U.S. Senate, he lost both general elections. Yes, these were GOP-trending election cycles in North Carolina, just as 2006 and 2008 were Democratic cycles. But that’s just the point – I suspect that 2012 won’t be much like 2008.
Bowles is, as he himself admits, a “terrible politician.” Would he be a better candidate for governor in 2012 than he was for Senate in 2002 and 2004? Yes, for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that the role of governor better suits his personality than the role of legislator. Still, all other things being equal, you’d rather run a candidate with a record of victory than a candidate with a record of losses.
Finally, I don’t think the liberal base of the Democratic Party will meekly accept a Bowles coronation. Many liberals believe him to be too fiscally conservative, too willing to compromise and work with a Republican legislature on issues of common interest. They want a Democratic governor who will fight the GOP tooth and nail.
Perhaps Bowles could charm these Democratic liberals, or at least overwhelm them and move on to a general-election strategy against McCrory. But things could get messy in the process.
I think Bowles would be the toughest opponent to McCrory among the prospective Democratic candidates. That doesn’t necessarily mean he will run, however. The endeavor remains a gamble. I’ll ask the same rhetoric question I did a few days ago: Does Erskine Bowles strike you as a gambling man?
Update: Bowles answered my rhetorical question Thursday morning: he is not running.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.