RALEIGH – If the Democratic field for governor remains the current three-man race, North Carolina seems likely to elect Pat McCrory as the first Republican governor since 1993.
I mean no disrespect to Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, state Rep. Bill Faison, and Bob Etheridge, the former congressman and state school superintendent. But if they are the only Democrats who seek the nomination, the party will not have fielded its strongest potential candidates. Right now, it seems to me that there is room in the race for both Richard Moore, the former state treasurer, and state Sen. Dan Blue, the former speaker of the North Carolina House.
The Democratic firm Public Policy Polling is out with a first look at the nomination fight, and at first glance it might seem that Etheridge is at least as good a bet as Moore or Blue. PPP ran several scenarios by likely North Carolina primary voters, and Etheridge was the consistent leader:
• If Dan Blue got in, the preferences were 24 percent for Etheridge, 20 percent for Dalton, 11 percent for Blue, and four percent for Faison.
• If Richard Moore got in, the preferences were 24 percent Etheridge, 21 percent Dalton, eight percent Moore, and five percent Faison.
• PPP also tested scenarios for U.S. Reps. Mike McIntyre of the 7th District and Brad Miller of the 13th. Etheridge retained his quarter of the primary vote, Dalton retained his fifth, and Faison stayed in the single digits, with Miller testing somewhat higher (11 percent) than McIntyre (seven percent).
But to my mind, these figures demonstrate only that Etheridge and Dalton, who have already announced, are credible candidates. A huge number of Democratic primary voters remain unattached, and neither Moore nor Blue has received the boomlet of media attention that would follow an announcement. This is, in short, a wide-open primary race (as PPP’s Tom Jensen was quick to point out, in fairness).
Here’s why I think that it would make sense for Moore and Blue to enter the race.
Moore has been elected twice statewide, and previously served in the cabinet of longtime Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt as well as in the legislature. He is well connected among the moderates who used to make up the business establishment of the Democratic Party. So is Dalton, but Moore likely has a greater ability to raise money (and some money of his own to spend, after several years in the private sector). He is also a more talented communicator on TV and the stump.
Blue lost his only attempt at a statewide run, the 2002 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, but brings other advantages to the race. As the only black lawmaker ever to lead a chamber of the North Carolina legislature, he is an experienced and inspiring leader – and one likely to complement and benefit from the presence of Barack Obama on the ballot. The notion that North Carolina voters would be unwilling to vote for two African-Americans at the same time belongs somewhere back in the 1960s, not in a discussion of today’s political realities. Blue, who currently chairs of the board of trustees at Duke University, also enjoys good relationships across the aisle and with potential donors.
If Moore, Blue, or both men announce for governor, Democrats are going to be a lot more excited about the race than they are at the moment. Etheridge has a long career of political success, but for most of it he never faced a well-funded, aggressive Republican challenger. His old 2nd congressional district was drawn to protect him from such a challenge, for example, which it did until Renee Ellmers and the Republican wave of 2010 came along. His immediate stumbles out of the gate last week did not strengthen Etheridge’s image as an effective leader for Democrats in 2012.
Dalton is less risky but also less interesting. And Faison is just not a popular person in Democratic circles right now, unfairly so in my view but that’s the reality.
So if Democrats want to compete with McCrory, they should hope their gubernatorial field gets Moore Blue.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.