The 2002 elections are finally over (though not every race has been declared as of this writing). There have been some big surprises, in North Carolina and elsewhere, and I’ll try to offer some quick takes on them.
One thing that doesn’t surprise me at all is the mixed bag that was my set of election predictions. Pegging races isn’t just an art rather than a science – it’s more like the kind of game college freshmen play at 2 o’clock in the morning after having consumed a large quantity of adult beverages.
It’s a lark. It’s for entertainment purposes only. Still, I’m not too ashamed about my preview of the various competitive elections; at least I call more right this time than I did in 2000, when a last-minute surge by Democrats upended much of my pre-election analysis.
Let’s start at the top of the ticket. Elizabeth Dole won the U.S. Senate race fairly easily, as I predicted. Indeed, I never understood the national fascination with putting North Carolina’s race in the list of competitive seats. It was always possible, but not likely, for Erskine Bowles to make up the large amount of ground he needed to against Dole to come out on top. He made a furious and expensive effort to transform himself into a winning politician. But he didn’t win, and let’s face it, he’s not a politician. Dole is a natural one.
Nationally, I also predicted that Republicans would buck the historical tide and give the president a gain in Congress. It looks like this is going to happen, perhaps in both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate. That hasn’t happened, by my calculations, since Frankin Roosevelt’s Democratic Party made gains in the Depression-era 1934 mid-terms. Kennedy and Clinton both gained in one chamber but lost in the other. We’ll see later on Wednesday how best to characterize President Bush’s amazing performance.
But then, we get to the state legislature. I wasn’t confident in my prediction of a slight GOP majority in the N.C. Senate, but it’s fair to say that I was off here. Several of the races I thought would be more competitive for the Republicans turned out not to be. The biggest surprise for me was the victory of Democratic Cecil Hargett over Republican Tommy Pollard in the 6th District, based in Onslow County. A shocker. It helped the Dems keep a majority, though the GOP did make strong gains, with 22 seats to the Dems’ 28, up from a previous 15-35 deficit.
Here’s a fascinating fact: according to my preliminary analysis, if Republicans had netted only an additional 3,739 votes across four key districts, they would have won a 26-24 majority in the N.C. Senate. As you can see, the vote totals are far closer than the seat margins would suggest. We have a closely divided state, and now the Senate more accurately reflects that.
In the N.C. House, I was a couple of seats off in my again-hesitant prediction of a tiny 61-59 Republican majority. It looks right now like GOP might end up with a gain of a single seat, leaving the Dems with a 61-59 edge. This is hardly a disaster for the Republicans, but it is disappointing. More importantly, it happened not because Republicans failed to win their targeted races in competitive seats. They won quite a few of them. The problem was that they lost several GOP incumbents, mostly in mountain counties, that they probably had assumed would make it through some tough campaigns. In a development I discussed in this space several months ago, it was the Democrats’ success in Western North Carolina that proved critical in their defense of a slim majority. Again, my calculations are that if Republicans had gotten only around 700 more votes, in two key districts, they would have eked out a 61-59 majority of their own.
Such are the thin foundations of governmental power in a state that can boast political parity for the first time in recent history.