Photo Credit: DSCC

The general consensus among political pundits is that North Carolina is primed for its most competitive elections for local, state and national offices in history. It very well could be that for the first time since arch-conservative television commentator Jesse Helms took his seat in the U.S. Senate, the Tar Heel state is truly up for grabs.

As an example, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) clearly thinks the state is in play. They are in full swing readying for a fight to oust Republican Elizabeth Dole from her seat in the U.S. Senate. Just a few months ago, Dole was generally thought to have an easy road to reelection.

And what about the other major races? Will North Carolina’s suddenly competitive nature give Democratic Sen. Barack Obama a boost over his GOP rival, Sen. John McCain? Who will claim the governor’s mansion?

Q-Notes looked into each of these three key races, read on to see what we found.

The sleeper race
In a recent email to supporters, the DSCC asked Democrats across the country to donate to a few, key “battleground” campaigns. Surprisingly, North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race was mentioned in the list, along with other states like Virginia, Mississippi and Kentucky.

“Pundits called this one the sleeper race of the cycle because Sen. Dole wasn’t supposed to be vulnerable,” the email said of the race between incumbent Dole and Democratic challenger Kay Hagan. “The DSCC’s job is to level the playing field and give Hagan everything she needs to keep fighting.”

A recent three-page mailer from the Hagan (pictured) campaign, obtained by Raleigh’s News & Observer and its Under the Dome blog, claimed that the DSCC would “spend millions” on the fight against Dole (pictured).

Part of Hagan’s surge is attributable to Dole’s relative closeness to what Democrats and many independents (and even some Republicans) see as a failed Bush White House. According to the capital newspaper, Hagan has effectively “tethered” Dole to Bush.

“Hagan writes that Dole has spent ‘hundreds of billions’ on a ‘mismanaged war,’ kept troops ‘deployed indefinitely’ and voted against veterans’ benefits,” the News & Observer recounted.

The candidate herself asserted in the mailer, “It is truly astonishing to me that Senate Republicans like Elizabeth Dole have worked hand-in-glove with George Bush to force his agenda on America.”

Dr. Charles Prysby, a professor of political science and expert on Southern politics at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, told Q-Notes, “Kay Hagan has a good shot at winning. She’s certainly still the underdog, though.”

He added that there were lessons she could learn from two-time Senate candidate and current University of North Carolina System President Erskine Bowles.

“Erskine Bowles, even though he lost, ran pretty good races [against Dole and Sen. Richard Burr],” Prysby said. “He talked about how he’d be an independent Democrat and portrayed himself as more moderate.”

Obama drama
Nationally, the core issues driving the general election — the deteriorating economy, skyrocketing healthcare costs, the ongoing bloodshed in Iraq — are expected to skew in Obama’s favor as the “change” candidate. Also, his historic run could yield record African-American voter turnout.

“Based on those factors it would seem like it would be a good year for Democrats,” Prysby said.

However, here in North Carolina, Obama’s left-wing reputation is a handicap with many voters. Recent polling shows North Carolinians slightly favoring McCain (45 percent) over Obama (41 percent). Prysby doesn’t see the numbers improving for the Democrat unless he’s swept up in a tidal wave of national support.

Barring this surge, Prysby also doesn’t have expectations that Obama’s place on the ticket is going to have significant impact on Tar Heel Democrats seeking lower offices.

Speculation aside, what we already know is that Obama intends to fight for the state. His first general election TV ad has already hit the airwaves in North Carolina. It does exactly what spots by Democrats running in the state have done for ages — it plays the “moderate” card, complete with observations that America is full of “strong families” and “strong values.”

In the ad, Obama shares, “I was raised by a single mom and my grandparents. We didn’t have much money, but they taught me values straight from the Kansas heartland where they grew up. Accountability and self-reliance. Love of country. Working hard without making excuses. Treating your neighbor as you’d like to be treated. It’s what guided me as I worked my way up — taking jobs and loans to make it through college.”

If Obama is able to sell his humble beginnings, his fight with McCain for the state’s blue collar voters could be an all-out brawl by November.

‘Big city’ brouhaha
Democratic Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue will face GOP Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory in the race for the state’s top executive office. McCrory’s got an uphill climb, considering some North Carolinians’ mistrust of all things “big city,” as well as what many small-government conservatives see as his city’s poor tax and spending record.

An article in the March 2008 issue of Governing magazine brought the issues to light.

“The suspicion from easterners is that all the state institutions are set up with a bias toward shipping resources into western counties,” Eric Heberlig, a University of North Carolina-Charlotte political scientist, noted in the article.

The feature continued, “McCrory’s record, which includes attracting help for big-money projects that include not only transit but also an arena, a NASCAR museum and other cultural facilities, could fuel such suspicion.”

In an April opinion piece for The Lincoln Tribune, writer Jim Kouri expressed the concerns of many Carolina conservatives who are none too pleased with the Queen City’s metropolitan problems.

“To make matters worse, the latest Cost of Government study by the John Locke Foundation, found that — for the seventh year in a row — Charlotte leads North Carolina with the highest per capita local tax burden,” wrote Kouri. “At just over $2,400 a year it is some $350 higher than the next highest city, which is Chapel Hill.”

He continued, “While … Pat McCrory is atempting to wear the mantle of a conservative, the fact is that experts are estimating the size and cost of local government will actually double in the next 10 years.”
Despite such Republican dissent, the gubernatorial race is polling in a dead heat at the moment. “We’ll just have to see,” Prysby said.

Votes for change
As North Carolina enters this new competitive political age, a change in the state’s social climate will inevitably come with it to move us forward. The outlook for LGBT people will get brighter and brighter because competition breeds new and better ideas. As these new philosophies take root, we’ll find ourselves living more equitable lives.

— Keep an eye on future issues of Q-Notes for coverage of important South Carolina races heading into the general election.

Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.