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Friday Interview: Congressional Primaries

NC State's Professor Andy Taylor discusses the interesting races

In today’s Friday Interview the John Locke Foundation’s Donna Martinez discusses the interesting primary races among our state’s 13 congressional seats with NC State political science professor Andrew Taylor. The interview aired on Carolina Journal Radio (click here to find the station near you).

Martinez: It seems to me there are a lot of people who’ve filed. Does it seem that way to you?

Taylor: Yeah, there have been a lot people on the list there. How serious they are — I mean I’m sure personally they’re very serious about running for Congress, but how serious they are as candidates, how much chance they have of unseating incumbents — and all of the incumbents have filed to run again, so we don’t have any open seats — is another question. And obviously, we’ll have to see.

Martinez: The power of the incumbency, it is incredible. Why is that? Why is it so tough for someone to try to come in from the outside?

Taylor: I think there are two reasons. The first is that — and this is specifically the case in North Carolina and some other states — we see what often you call a partisan gerrymander. But in North Carolina and many other states we’ve seen what you might call a sweetheart gerrymander, or sometimes call an incumbent protection plan, where the state legislature, when redrawing the districts after the census, decides rather than to upset a lot of incumbents from both parties, to basically reinforce them and to draw districts to make them, regardless of whether they are Republican or Democrat, safer. The other reason is, the incumbents have tremendous resources. They have automatic access to the media. They tend to be able to raise more money from campaign contributions from political-action committees, because political-action committees think that they’re going to win. They have the resources of staff in the office. It’s very, very obviously therefore, very, very difficult to beat them.

Martinez: Do you have sense at this point, Professor Taylor, of what is going to turn this election? Is it going to be foreign affairs since we have the war on terrorism, the war in Iraq, or will it be domestic policy? Or is the economy doing well enough that people are maybe looking beyond our shores?

Taylor: Well, I think generally what tends to happen in midterm elections is that they are a referendum on the president, and to that extent, if there is going to be a national tide one way or the other, one would suspect, given President Bush’s relatively low approval ratings, that it would be in the favor of the Democrats. However, at the moment I don’t think that wind is going to be strong enough to topple many incumbents, because obviously countering that wind, pushing it in the other direction, is the incumbency advantage that we just talked about earlier. So it’s going to have to be tremendously strong in the Democratic direction to help them knock off some of these Republican incumbents in North Carolina, and at the moment I don’t really see that happening. There are potentially — in the 8th and 11th district — there are potentially problems for Republican incumbents there, but you know, on the surface it’s going to be very difficult for Democrats to unseat them.

Martinez: You know it is curious right now, I think, that President Bush and some of his policies, domestic and foreign, are being criticized by Republicans at the federal level. Is that going to end up backfiring in the ’06 election here?

Taylor: Well it’s an indicator. I don’t know whether it backfired, but it’s an indicator obviously of some of the pressure that Republican candidates — that they think this far out that it might not be a good year for Republicans after all. This is also sixth-year-itch elections. It’s the second midterm in this particular president’s tenure, and sixth-year-itch elections have been bad historically for the Republicans. 1958 for Eisenhower Republicans, it decimated. 1974, yes, and Ford was of course succeeding Nixon, but it was still in that two-term presidency. It was the Watergate year. And then 1986 under Reagan, the Republicans lost the Senate. So I think they are fearful of it. I don’t think it will mean that many of them will lose…within the Republican primary, but it does indicate that they fear for their seats in general.

Martinez: A huge group of people have filed, and in fact Professor Taylor, our primary is May 2. So there are some folks who have to win in the primary before they can actually get to the point where they can challenge the incumbent in the general election. In your view, what are the most interesting races for us to watch for the primary?

Taylor: Well, one of the interesting ones not to watch is in the 3rd district, where a lot of Republicans thought that Walter Jones was being sort of out of order for criticizing President Bush for a long time. He doesn’t have a Republican challenge in the primary, which is interesting.

Martinez: And he had called for a timetable for pulling our troops out of Iraq, and his district is heavily military-friendly. So folks thought that he had basically done himself in.

Taylor: Right — the national Republican party would be annoyed by that and try to encourage someone to run against him…I think some of the more interesting ones, although some of the other incumbents have primary challenges — notably Charlie Taylor in the 11th for Republican and David Price in the 4th for Democrat. I think those have relatively quick-started the campaign. I think perhaps the most interesting primary race will be to see who gets to challenge Taylor in the 11th and who gets to challenge Robin Hayes in the 8th. These are Democratic primaries and these two guys are the two people that the Democrats believe are the most vulnerable in North Carolina. I think emerging from those primaries will be Tim Dunn in the 8th district, an Iraq War veteran. (Editor’s Note: following the taping of this interview, Tim Dunn withdrew from the primary race). Democrats across the country have been running candidates, encouraging Iraq veterans to run as Democrats. And then Heath Shuler in the 11th, Heath Shuler —

Martinez: NFL quarterback, right?

Taylor: Exactly, and a former University of Tennessee quarterback as well. So he has some good name recognition as well. So Taylor and Hayes, I think, are probably the candidates who are going to be watching their opponents’ primaries the closest.

Martinez: That Hayes races should be rather interesting as well. As I recall, he got into some political hot water over his vote for CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement. He’s in a district that’s heavily textile and manufacturing, and had said, evidently, that he was opposing CAFTA. Then at the last minute, changed his vote and put that thing over.

Taylor: Yeah, and Charlie Taylor, of course, also voted for it and said he didn’t know whether he had voted for it. So both of those candidates, I think, feel some pressure. Hayes has always had problems on trade issues because he’s wanted — there has been pressure for him to vote, especially under President Bush’s tenure, to vote the way the president wants, but that’s generally being in free trade positions — got pressure from his constituents not to. But he’s survived two relatively, or at least on paper we thought they would be relatively tough challenges — from Democrats in 2002 and 2004. So we don’t know, you know, whether we should expect him to lose in 2006. He’s a survivor.

Martinez: And Professor, as we wind down here, let’s talk briefly about the race in District 13. We have one candidate, a Republican in the primary race who has somewhat of a reputation for being pretty outspoken. He is a black conservative. His name is Vernon Robinson. What do you make of that race?

Taylor: Yeah, Vernon Robinson ran in the 5th district, a Republican primary, a very contested primary, as our listeners might remember, in 2004 to replace Richard Burr. And Virginia Foxx of course won that, then went on to win the general. Robinson is now running in the 13th, which goes up against the 5th geographically. It touches the 5th. This is Brad Miller’s district. Brad Miller basically, many people think, drew it for himself in 2000, and so we’ll have to see. It will be very interesting. Vernon is a very controversial and interesting figure.