RALEIGH – According to the available polling and several Democratic pros of my acquaintance, former UNC President and two-time Senate nominee Erskine Bowles would be the strongest challenger to Republican Pat McCrory in this fall’s gubernatorial race.
Bowles would instantly bring an impeccable personal reputation, stature as an experienced leader, credibility on fiscal matters, and financial resources to the contest.
But I’m not convinced that Bowles will run, or that he would necessarily get the nomination. To understand why, I think it is helpful to think of the Democrats of North Carolina as two distinct parties, the Insiders and the Outsiders.
Both Democratic parties are horrified at the prospect of a McCrory governorship. Both will fight hard this year to reelect President Obama and reclaim seats in the now-Republican General Assembly. Their preferences and motivations, however, are quite different.
To the Insiders, a McCrory administration would bring an end to decades of Democrats wielding power in Raleigh. Most of them would be frozen out of coveted appointments, hampered in their ability to win lucrative lobbying and consulting contracts, and frustrated in their desire to be part of the “deal,” whatever deal is struck, on major budget items and pieces of legislation.
To the Outsiders, a McCrory administration would bring ideas and initiatives they find abhorrent: tighter state budgets, tax cuts instead of tax hikes, regulatory reform, school choice, social-issues legislation, and more. They don’t just want a Democratic governor to “tame the excesses” of the GOP legislature, as the Insiders might see it. The Outsiders want a Democratic governor who will vanquish the Republicans and chase them out of the capital city screaming bloody murder.
While the Insiders basically just want to defend the status quo, the Outsiders indict it – they believe that a failure to espouse left-liberalism on all fronts is a major explanation for Gov. Perdue’s political failure as well as a disservice to the interests of the Democratic base.
If you are tempted to see the divide as entirely ideological, think again. Some Insiders are liberals, for example. They agree with the Outsiders on policy, but not on politics. They believe that Democrats can only keep power to challenge Republicans on some things by not challenging them much on other things.
Surveying the potential Democratic field, it is easy to see that Bowles, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, former State Treasurer Richard Moore, former U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, and current U.S. Reps. Heath Shuler and Mike McIntyre are all Insider candidates. A list of Outsider candidates would include outgoing U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, state Rep. Bill Faison, and state Sen. Dan Blue.
Of all these folks, Bowles starts out with the highest poll numbers and fundraising potential. What if the rest won’t clear the field for him, however? I wonder if Bowles, who has already run and lost two statewide campaigns in the past, really wants to have to sprint through a competitive three-month primary followed by a tough general-election marathon against McCrory.
More importantly, there’s a name I haven’t mentioned yet: Anthony Foxx. While an Outsider in some ways, an up-and-coming black politician with liberal leanings, Foxx is also the mayor of Charlotte. You don’t rise to that position without good relationships among the Democratic-leaning business elite of the state’s largest city.
If Foxx runs, he starts out with strong name ID in a major metro and money left over from his easy 2011 reelection. It is also possible that the marriage amendment on the May ballot will increase African-American turnout, a positive for Foxx. In a crowded primary, these factors could conspire to deny Bowles the nomination, regardless of what the general-election polls or campaign-spending figures show.
He knows this. He is a smart man. As much as he might like to cap off his career with a term as governor of the state, Bowles also does not want to end his career with an embarrassing primary loss. Does he strike you as a gambling man?
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.