UPDATED, 12:25 P.M.
RALEIGH — In a surprise move that’s shaking up the political landscape in North Carolina, Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue won’t seek a second term in office.
“We live in highly partisan times, where some people seem more worried about scoring political points than working together to address the real challenges our state faces,” the governor said in a statement (PDF) released today at noon. “And it is clear to me that my race for re-election will only further politicize the fight to adequately fund our schools. A re-election campaign in this already divisive environment will make it more difficult to find any bipartisan solutions.”
Perdue, the state’s first female governor, has been ranked as one of the weakest incumbent governors this year, and faced an uphill re-election fight against Republican Pat McCrory, the former mayor of Charlotte.
Even so, the news Thursday morning came as a surprise to political observers, who predicted an acrimonious primary battle among Democrats to find a replacement.
“My initial reaction is surprise, even though I knew she had a very difficult task ahead of her to win re-election,” said David McLennan, a political science professor at William Peace College in Raleigh. “It’s surprising because it’s so late in the process. There were discussions all fall about her filing to seek re-election.”
Michael Bitzer, associate professor of politics and history at Catawba College in Salisbury, said that Perdue’s decision reflects the hand she was dealt this year.
“This was a true realization of what an uphill battle she was going to have,” he said. “The chance of her winning was shrinking considerably, even in a competitive environment.”
Primary free for all
Pundits already have floated a number of candidates as replacements for Perdue, most with statewide name recognition, such as Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton. The lieutenant governor’s post is seen as a stepping-stone to the governor’s office.
One name that has cropped up routinely is N.C. Rep. Bill Faison, a Democrat from Orange County, who has been critical of Perdue in recent months and all but launched a campaign to primary her.
“Bill Faison has been secretly campaigning for quite a few months. I’m not sure he is the answer for most Democrats in terms of a strong candidate to face McCrory,” McLennan said. Perdue’s decision “leaves Democrats in disarray,” he said.
Appearing on WPTF-AM radio this morning, Faison said he would make an announcement “fairly soon,” but he stopped short of declaring his candidacy. He was uncharacteristically laudatory of the governor.
“Today is Gov. Perdue’s day,” Faison said, “and I don’t want to do anything that would detract from that.”
Democratic consultant Joe Sinsheimer said the wild card in the primary fight would be whether Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx runs.
“Personally, I think he is the strongest nominee,” Sinsheimer said. “Dalton would suffer from Perdue baggage, because he comes from the same political machine as the governor, and Foxx would be the freshest face.”
Foxx, an African-American, won a second term as mayor of the Queen City in November, taking home two-thirds of the vote compared to his Republican opponent.
Another name being floated as a gubernatorial contender: U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, Democrat of North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District, who announced Wednesday that he won’t seek re-election to Congress. Rumors had circulated that Miller would challenge fellow Democrat David Price to a primary in the 4th Congressional District.
Other names on the short list: Bob Etheridge, former congressman from North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District; Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff to President Clinton and past president of the University of North Carolina system; and Heath Shuler, congressman from North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District.
Perdue’s announcement is good news for Democrats, Sinsheimer said, because the “focus in November can now be on the message as opposed to the messenger.”
“There is nothing worse in politics than having to defend an unpopular incumbent,” he added. “Democrats have been freed from that burden, and I think that’s positive.”
Less than an hour after the news broke, national Republicans pounced, predicting a GOP victory in the fall.
“It’s now clear that the past four years of having a Democratic governor in North Carolina has been a failure,” said Phil Cox, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, in a statement. “No matter how hard they try, whoever emerges as the Democratic Party’s successor to Bev Perdue won’t be able to run from the Democrats’ record of higher taxes and disappointing job loses.”
Bitzer sees the news as more of a mixed bag for Democrats. “The likelihood is that we’re going to have a very divisive May primary, and the biggest question is going to be: Can the eventual nominee solidify the base going into what is going to be a monumental campaign come the fall,” he said.
David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.
Members of governor’s staff, from top photo: Deputy Chief of Staff Kevin McLaughlin (left) and Chief of Staff Britt Cobb; Revenue Secretary David Hoyle; State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison (left) and Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco; Department of Administration Secretary Moses Carey (left), Cultural Resources Secretary Linda Carlisle (center), and Department of Natural Resources Secretary Dee Freeman.