Opinion: Daily Journal

Carolina Caught the Wave

RALEIGH – As was widely expected, the 2010 election cycle produced a massive Republican wave that washed over much of the country. This year’s electorate turned out to vote against President Obama’s fiscal and economic policies, and to vote out of office dozens of Democrats they associated with those policies.

In North Carolina, the Republican trend certainly had a major effect, helping to propel the GOP into majority status in both houses of the General Assembly for the first time since the 1890s.

But in the state’s congressional delegation, most of the vulnerable Democrats found their footing and survived the wave. Only longtime 2nd District Rep. Bob Etheridge – who is he, again? – managed to weaken himself enough to give Republican challenger Renee Elmers an opening to eke out a narrow victory.

Richard Burr’s easy reelection to the U.S. Senate made history. It was the first time anyone had managed to win that Senate seat two times in a row since Democratic legend Sam Ervin held it in the 1960s and 1970s. And Burr’s margin of victory was not what North Carolinians have been used to seeing in their highly competitive Senate races – in recent memory only Jesse Helms managed to win a similar margin in his 1978 reelection bid against hapless Democrat John Ingram.

But because Burr was already widely expected to win, and his victory was a retention rather than a takeover, his misfortune is to be overshadowed by the big political story of the night in North Carolina – the election of a Republican legislature.

It would be impossible to overstate how this news is affecting the state’s political class right now. The state capital has long been a Democratic place. The state’s consultants, lobbyists, and fixers are overwhelmingly Democratic. The political, business, and media establishments in Raleigh are largely Democratic. It was revolutionary enough in 1994, when Republicans captured the state house, but Democrats soon recovered their lost ground and never lost the state senate.

This is a different situation altogether. Republicans have won the legislature right before the 2011 redistricting cycle. Even if they don’t devise aggressive gerrymanders the way their Democratic predecessors did in 1991 and 2001, the new GOP majorities will likely redraw the maps in ways that remove the lingering Democratic biases in legislative districts. In 2012, when the political mood could well be somewhat less toxic for Democrats, many will no longer be running in favorable districts. And they probably won’t enjoy the kind of fundraising advantages that their longtime majority status has typically produced.

As I’m writing this column late Tuesday, with some of the races not yet called, I suppose I should call it a night and return to the data in the morning with a fresh look. But I’ll make some initial observations:

• President Obama has been a disaster for his party. In North Carolina, the vulnerable Democrats who voted against ObamaCare and other administration policies – Mike McIntyre, Larry Kissell, and Heath Shuler – won reelection. The vulnerable Democrat who voted for ObamaCare, Etheridge, was defeated. Pretty clear message there.

• Democrats are trying to blame their loss of the General Assembly on independent expenditures, including those by groups receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from Raleigh businessman Art Pope. While the independent spending helped narrow the traditional Democratic edge in state campaign spending, by no means did Republicans achieve a financial advantage in 2010. They just weren’t outspent as much as usual.

To suggest that this fact explains the results of the legislative races is to suggest that, in all the past cycles that Democrats won legislative majorities, they did so because of their overwhelming cash advantage – not because they best represented the sentiments of the North Carolina electorate in those years. Is that really the message Democrats want to be conveying?

• The wave wasn’t simply partisan. It was conservative. In addition to the congressional results, where the right-leaning Democratic incumbents bucked the trend and Etheridge didn’t, look at the county referenda on sales taxes. In 14 counties, voters were asked to approve quarter-cent hikes in their sales-tax rates. In all 14 counties, the voters said no – often by large majorities.

I’ll have more analysis tomorrow, including a closer look at district and county races across the state. But the outlines of the 2010 story are already clear: 1) conservative candidates and causes prevailed, 2) Democratic members of Congress who rebuffed Obama’s unpopular policies prevailed, and 3) the 2012 political cycle just began.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.

p.s. Also, if you want to read up on the key races that defined the 2010 election cycle in North Carolina, there’s no better place to go than Carolina Journal’s Exclusive Series Covering the 2010 Elections.