RALEIGH — While the eye of the national political world turns towards next week’s exciting and competitive caucuses in Iowa, North Carolinians have reason to start paying attention to a different electoral contest: the 2004 contest between Gov. Mike Easley and one of his half-dozen Republican challengers. A combination of legal and political events last weekend allowed the race to take a clearer shape, at least to these previously distracted eyes.
First, the Republican plaintiffs in North Carolina’s ongoing redistricting imbroglio decided to appeal a lower-court ruling on a legislative move to change the venue of the case. Back during the special redistricting session in November, Democratic leaders drawing up their latest House and Senate plans (in conjunction with House co-speaker Richard Morgan) tacked on a slimy bit of procedural gunk. The bill stated not only that all future challenges to the district maps would have to be heard by a new three-judge panel in Wake County, but also that pending litigation would have to be moved there. This unprecedented and legally questionable maneuver came before Franklin Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood, who upheld its legality.
This isn’t really the core of the case, and it doesn’t seem likely that moving it to a judicial panel selected by Chief Justice Bev Lake will dramatically change the legal principles and interpretations involved. Lake, after all, wrote the Supreme Court opinion that will govern the next wave of litigation, whether it be in Superior Court Judge Knox Jenkins’ courtoom in Johnston County or in Wake. Still, the plaintiffs apparently believe the ruling is flawed and see no reason to accept any potential disadvantage based on it. So they have decided to appeal.
For the purposes of this discussion, the key result is a likely delay of legislative primaries now scheduled for May. The filing period for those elections was supposed to begin in February. Unless the higher courts move with Quicksilver speed, the filing period can’t begin on time. The issue before the State Board of Elections, and the state legislature if it wants to intervene directly, is whether to move all the primaries or just the legislative ones. Generally speaking, Democrats (and Morgan) favor the former. Republicans favor the latter.
Easley supporters want any Republican nominee for governor to start out with the greatest possible disadvantage. Based on Erskine Bowles’ unpleasant experience against Elizabeth Dole after a late and bruising primary, these Democrats now wish the same fate on their Republican rival, whoever he or she may turn out to be.
Speaking of, the Republican candidates gathered in Raleigh last week to tape a debate for broadcast on the Triangle’s CBS affiliate, WRAL-TV. The News & Observer covered the event separately and added in its latest statewide poll on the race, which showed Easley’s re-elect number in the high 40s, Richard Vinroot leading the Republican field with 27 percent, Patrick Ballantine (16 percent) and Bill Cobey (14 percent) roughly equivalent, and the rest of the candidates not yet known outside their home regions.
Having let these events bounce around in my head for a while, I’ve seen them fall into the following patterns:
* Vinroot has little reason to be complacent. His lead in name-recognition remains, but it’s not large. Ballantine was the only candidate eager to talk about his fundraising performance to date and is spending some now on television. He will likely have sufficient funds to be competitive. Cobey started later, and presumably has less money on hand, but as a former Martin administration official and GOP leader he also has some political contacts and assets statewide that Ballantine still must develop.
* Republican primaries in North Carolina revolve around region and ideology. Vinroot’s strength continues to be the fact that he is the best-known candidate in Piedmont and western counties that are rich with Republican voters (and likely to have higher-than-usual turnouts in the primary because of the competitivess of two GOP primaries for Congress in the region). His weakness is that many Republican activists elsewhere resented the conduct of his 2000 campaign and have been talking Vinroot’s 2004 candidacy down for more than a year now, with negative consequences for fundraising and for that unquantifiable “buzz” factor.
* Ballantine’s strength is that he is the only candidate from the East, where many political wonks believe the general-election race will be won or lost. His weakness is that, campaign rhetoric to the contrary, he is proving (in the minds of many Republicans I’ve talked to recently) to be the least conservative of the three leading candidates — for example voting for the recent corporate-socialism bill that his rivals, and most conservatives, abhorred.
* On the flip side, Cobey’s strength in the race is that he is probably the most doctrinaire conservative of the three leading candidates, both on fiscal and social issues. He is, in other words, the closest fit to the state Republican platform and the mainstream of the party. However, he hasn’t run for elective office since his one term in Congress in the 1980s, and while he hails from another increasingly Republican-rich region, the Triangle, he is less well-known there than the other two are in their respective home regions.
* Don’t discount the importance of the other GOP candidacies. Moore County businessman George Little has some big-name endorsements and could at least serve as a bit of a spoiler, pulling votes (I’m guessing) disproportionately from Vinroot and Ballantine. Sen. Fern Shubert has a long and impressive track record of pushing conservative ideas in the General Assembly, and is now garnering significant attention statewide because of her stand on the emerging issue of illegal immigration. I’m guessing that any gain on her part would be disproportionately Cobey’s loss. And Davie County Commissioner Dan Barrett is a promising talent who is aiding the entire field in focusing attention on Easley’s shabby treatment of city and county governments during the state budget crisis.
Don’t believe knowing Republicans who think Easley is toast or knowing Democrats who think he’s safe. The race is competitive, period, as is the Republican primary. Even a delay in the nomination, perhaps requiring a September runoff to settle the matter, won’t leave Easley with a clear shot at re-election — though it probably will move him a bit closer to the basket.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.