Despite predictions in 2008 of a permanent shift from red to blue, the 2010 North Carolina Senate race could be a test of the durability of Democratic strength. First blush judgments of a lasting shift in a state that went to President Obama by 14,000 votes may have been premature. Voters will certainly have a clear choice since Republican Sen. Richard Burr
, who is running for reelection, has opposed most of the things the Obama administration has favored.
Even in the inhospitable climate predicted for Democrats in the mid-term election, there are plenty of them vying in the May 4 primary for the opportunity to take on Burr, who has some nominal opposition but is expected to easily win his own primary contest. The three leading Democratic candidates in a field of six -- a newcomer, a veteran officeholder and a military star -- have their own records, rafts of endorsements and reasons that they think Obama's policies will help them prevail.
On Capitol Hill after health care reform passed, Burr was among the GOP senators to slow Senate business with parliamentary maneuvers. Even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) objected to Burr's delay
of an Armed Services Committee hearing. Burr has said: "Despite being marketed as a health care reform bill, the legislation that passed today amounts to nothing more than a massive expansion of the federal government." He lined up against Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and with Sen. Jim Bunning
(R-Ky.) when Bunning blocked a vote to extend unemployment benefits.
Burr, the only GOP freshman senator running in a state that Obama won, is confident. "There is no doubt in my mind that I'm going to get reelected," he told me. "There are going to be members who wake up having lost -- not having realized they are in trouble," Burr said. Candidates must "differentiate themselves from the toxicity of the entire institution" of Congress, and Burr thinks he's done that.
"It's the most divisive I've seen it in the 16 years I've been there," he said. The major contributor, in Burr's view, are "the limitations that the majority leaders have put on the process," by not allowing unfettered amendments and debate -- that is, by imposing limitations on the minority.
Government spending and debt are the issues that have "energized people," Burr said, along with the economy, jobs, international trade, the health care bill, and cap and trade energy legislation.
"It has America scared to death right now. I think there is no silver bullet. It starts with changing the spending habits that we've seemed to embrace for the last several decades."
Burr described the tea party movement as "a healthy process" and a "tremendous opportunity for Republicans."
Despite the fate of the last N.C. Senate Republican incumbent – Elizabeth Dole, who was defeated by Democrat Kay Hagan in 2008 – Burr may have reason to be optimistic.
In 2010, in a state with an unemployment rate of 11.2 percent (compared with 9.7 percent nationwide), there is some dissatisfaction with incumbents, and not much enthusiasm for Democrats. A recent Rasmussen poll
showed 57 percent in the state disapprove of the job Obama is doing (with 51 percent "strongly" disapproving) while 42 percent approve. Fifty-six percent oppose his health care plan (with 52 percent in "strong" opposition) while 42 percent favor it.
Despite the changed political climate, Democrats are betting they can re-energize their base, though they are split on who can best lead the effort.
When Harvey Gantt recently backed Ken Lewis
, it was an historic passing of the torch. Unseating an incumbent senator "is not an easy task," said the man who bears the bruises of two close Senate races against Jesse Helms in 1990 and 1996. Gantt – who was elected Charlotte's first African-American mayor in 1983 -- failed to make history against Helms, but, he said, Lewis can "finish the job we started to do some two decades ago."
"I believe this man has the heart, the character and the intelligence to fight for those who don't have a voice in Washington today," Gantt said of Lewis, a 48-year-old attorney. The newcomer to politics has also been endorsed by N.C. Democratic Reps. Mel Watt and G.K. Butterfield.
"I'm not a career politician," Lewis told me, while emphasizing his business and entrepreneurial experience. "I'm not someone who asks for permission from Washington to run for this office."
The Winston-Salem native attended Duke University and was a Harvard Law School classmate of Michelle Obama. He met Barack Obama in 2000, raised money for him when he ran for the Illinois Senate and knocked on doors in the North Carolina and South Carolina Democratic presidential primaries.
It's an association Lewis thinks is a plus. "What I see as I travel around the state are that people are hurting and people are looking for solutions, and when the president offers you health care when you don't have health care, there may be some who think that's a government takeover, there are some people who like having their health care," he said. "I think in the end the substance wins out over the noise."
(Another interesting association is the name he shares with the former Bank of America CEO, well known especially around Charlotte. "I actually play with it on the campaign trail," Lewis said.)
Lewis agrees with Burr that the Congress is broken, but, not surprisingly, thinks the incumbent is part of the problem. "The Senate that we have now..." Lewis said, "is focused on short-term partisan political gain. That is a problem for the country."
Lewis grew up on the campus of Winston-Salem State University, the historically black institution where his father taught.
"I've lived and belonged to a wide variety of communities," said Lewis, who worked his way through college and law school as a dishwasher, janitor, bus driver and tobacco factory worker.
All of the candidates are campaigning for the votes of African Americans, who make up about one-third of the state's electorate.
Another Democrat, Elaine Marshal
l recently received the endorsement of the Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg. She also has a strong base among women, and has been endorsed by the National Organization for Women (NOW), the Women's Political Caucus and the Women's Campaign Forum.
Marshall is proud of her four terms as Secretary of State and one in the state Senate. In the 1996 race for that position, she made history as the first woman elected to statewide executive office, defeating legendary NASCAR driver Richard Petty, considered unbeatable when Republicans nominated him.
Though Marshall lost to eventual Democratic nominee Erskine Bowles in the 2002 Senate primary, she said she learned a lot in that campaign and now has a story to tell about her work on financial regulation.
"I have balanced budgets and done budgets for large entities, the state of North Carolina ..." she said, "when I was in the state Senate and now as an agency administrator."
The N.C. Secretary of State doesn't do elections or driver's licenses. The state has "the most business and law enforcement secretary of state in the country," Marshall said. She touts her work on lobbying reform and regulating stock brokers, business transactions and financial advisors. Her campaign says: "Elaine's commitment to protecting investors and combating financial fraud has in just the past year and a half alone led to the recovery of over $340 million from major Wall Street banks for North Carolina investors and foundations." She said that figure has passed $600 million and is on track to reach $1 billion.
Marshall, a supporter of the health reform law, said she appreciated that Obama "didn't abandon the ship" despite "so much misinformation" about the bill. Her biggest motivation is public service, she said. "The gap between the rich and the poor in the last 30 years has grown incredibly wide and the resolve to do anything about it is shrinking," she said. "We're in the worst recession that anyone I know has lived through. When people look at Washington for help on these kinds of issues, they see politicians and special interests standing in the way." They see, she said, the "obstructionist" policies of Burr.
"I think people who have known me since before I have been a senator, since before I became secretary of state, they see the same Elaine," said Marshall, 64, who moved to North Carolina from Maryland right after college. After years as a teacher, she earned a law degree at Campbell University and worked on issues of credit discrimination for women and improvement in the domestic laws.
"It's easy in Washington to get in the cloistered refines of the Senate," she said, "and everybody kind of thinks alike, everybody kind of praises up. That's not the real world." She thinks the Democrats' chances are good, now that the health bill is law and the economy is slowly "moving in the right direction."
So do national Democrats, although they are said to favor the candidacy of a third candidate, Cal Cunningham
. Retired general Wesley Clark
, in his endorsement, said, "This is another key pick-up opportunity in a southern 'swing state,'" and called Cunningham "beyond a doubt the best candidate to take on Richard Burr this November."
"Cal would be the first veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to serve in the U.S.Senate," Clark's statement said. "He would bring a veteran's unique perspective to policymaking in Washington." An attorney and captain in the U.S. Army Reserves, Cunningham served a one-year tour as a military prosecutor in Iraq in 2008, and earned a Bronze Star for prosecuting contractor misconduct. His military background is a plus in a state that's the home of Fort Bragg, where Cunningham was also mobilized.
The 36-year-old – who also served one term in the state Senate -- has received endorsements from the N.C. Association of Educators and he recently released the names of 250 "Women for Cal" from across the state, perhaps trying to blunt Marshall's appeal to women voters.
While Cunningham acknowledged his Washington support, telling me he talked with national party leaders as well as Democrats throughout the state before entering the race, he said, "North Carolina Democrats are going to decide this primary on May 4."
Looking at the economy, "this is a very difficult time for people all over North Carolina," he said. "Richard Burr has voted right along party lines for issues that got us into this mess in the first place." Incumbents in Washington who "cannot explain how they've been working to better the economy and people's lives will have a difficult time running for reelection. Incumbency has a price."
"In 2008, he [Burr] said that North Carolina would never vote for Barack Obama as president -- and it did." And Cunningham added, On the same day that Democrats lost Virginia and New Jersey, we elected the first Democratic mayor in Charlotte in 22 years."
Cunninghamn said Obama "is doing a very good job under very difficult conditions. He inherited one of the worst messes -- the worst since Franklin Roosevelt -- and he's laboring mightily to right the ship."
He said passage of the health care bill was a "first important step" in reforming the system, and he listed the small businesses, children, young adults and seniors that he said would benefit from tax credits and increased access to care.
For the "Number 1 issue, jobs and the economy," Cunningham's proposals include "exporting our values rather than our jobs in the trade deals we are negotiating," reform of the financial services industry, and a long-term investment in education that expands tax credits "to make college more affordable."
The campaign is getting testy, with Lewis' organization this week asking the Teamsters Union to drop its endorsement of Cunningham because of confusion over his views of the "card check" process which would allow employees to sign cards petitioning the National Labor Relations Board for union representation. Union officials defended Cunningham, as reported in The Charlotte Observer
Polls are tight, but show Burr beating the top three Democrats, with substantial numbers of undecided voters. A Public Policy Polling survey
conducted last month showed Burr leading Marshall 41 percent to 36 percent, with 23 percent undecided, and leading Cunningham and Lewis by somewhat wider margins. The primary race looks close, with large numbers of undecided voters.
That picture might change after Wednesday's planned 90-minute debate among five candidates seeking the Democratic nomination -- and the effort to drum up enthusiasm and campaign donations from the buzz of the debate.
The candidates will certainly be quizzed on the Obama administration's agenda (the three leaders recently departed from the president's off-shore drilling
plans, expressing caution in this state with a coastline). The next day, early voting begins.
If no primary candidate gets at least 40 percent, a runoff election will be held between the top two on June 22.
Burr, meanwhile, used the Senate holiday recess for his own state tour. "My race has never been about who I run against." There's a reason, he said, that Washington is paying attention, that Obama and Vice President Joe Biden recently visited the state. "My race is absolutely crucial to the president's reelection." If you take North Carolina and Virginia out, he said, "The electoral map becomes much tougher to sell."
In Burr's opinion, 2008 was not indicative of a permanent change in the state's political views, which he's convinced are right of center and more Republican than Democratic. "It was more of an anomaly," he said.
The result in November will be closely watched in a state that in 2008 voted Democratic for the first time since Jimmy Carter won it in 1976. It's about the balance of power in the Senate -- and the tint of a swing state in the next presidential election.
Then again, 2012 is a political lifetime away.