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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Amongst the Apathetic in NC

North Carolina was a happenin’ place politically in 2008, particularly for Democrats, with a very exciting and important presidential primary, and of course, a general election in which the Tar Heel State was one of three southern states carried by Barack Obama. There was also a competitive governor’s election and a couple of very interesting House races.
But this year? Not much excitement so far. In the May Democratic Senate primary, turnout was a languid 425,00, down about 40% from the turnout in the last midterm competitive Senate primary in 2002. But in yesterday’s highly competitive runoff, only 157,000 voters bothered to show up. Nor was this just a Democratic problem: in the three competitive U.S. House runoffs for Republicans yesterday, turnout was 15,241 in the 8th District, 6428 in the 13th District; and 2770 in the 12th District. The apathy was infectious: I had to use the search function on the Charlotte Observer site today to find any coverage of the runoffs.
In any event, in the Senate runoff, Elaine Marshall did a much better job of navigating the circumstances than did her opponent, the DSCC-recruited Cal Cunningham, beating him 60-40 in a race where the only public poll (back in mid-May) had the two candidates tied. A look at the county returns indicates that Marshall pulled third-place primary finisher Ken Lewis’ supporters into her camp, while Cunningham did little to expand his appeal.
While some made this out as an ideological struggle between the more progressive Marshall and the more centrist Cunningham, it looks to me like the latter simply failed to make a good enough case as to why North Carolina Democrats should prefer him to a very familiar figure who, after all, has won four times statewide, including a victory over NASCAR legend Richard Petty.
Having symbolically avenged her 2002 Senate defeat to another nationally-recruited candidate, Erskine Bowles, Marshall must now prove her viability against incumbent Sen. Richard Burr, an invisible man in Washington and to some extent in NC, who could be the ideal representative of an apathetic population. All joking aside, Burr’s small footprint in the Senate could make him vulnerable, even in a pro-Republican year like this one.
The aforementioned GOP House runoffs largely went as expected. In the 8th, the self-immolation of wild-man self-funded conservative Tim D’Annunzio ended in a 61-39 loss to Harold Johnson. In the 13th, BP/Obama conspiracy theorist Bill Randall–like SC’s Tim Scott, a hard-core African-American conservative–easily defeated Bernie Reeves. And in the 12th, past nominee Greg Dority won the nomination to take on veteran Rep. Mel Watt in the runoff that only 2770 voters chose to participate in.
Maybe NC political races will heat up later this summer or sizzle in the fall. But right now, it’s as though 2008 soaked up all the energy anyone wants to expend for a while.

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