The first five weeks of 2012 may have been the most trying time for North Carolina Democrats since the party suffered historic defeats in the 2010 state legislative elections.
Last week Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue sent shock waves through Tar Heel politics with the announcement that she will not seek re-election this fall. The news caught most political observers off guard.
While Perdue struggled in the polls through much of 2011, she had shown an ability to keep pace on the fundraising front with her likely Republican rival, former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory. And Perdue seemed to have found an effective foil in the Republican-controlled legislature, which, thanks to funding cuts for education, saw its popularity fall among North Carolina voters.
Surely, Perdue’s path to a second term was to be difficult, perhaps even Herculean, but not impossible – especially given the focus that the Obama campaign will give to North Carolina in terms of organization and money. A rising tide for Obama in the Tar Heel State would seem to lift all Democratic boats.
Perdue’s stated reason for opting against a run at a second term was that she wished to depoliticize the debate over education funding. She may be quite sincere in that rationale, but it seems unlikely that Perdue’s lame-duck status when lawmakers return to work will change much in the adversarial relationship between the legislature and governor’s office.
The retirement of Perdue could end up helping her party’s chances of holding the governor’s office, given her polling difficulties as North Carolina continues to suffer higher unemployment rates than many other states. But Perdue’s abrupt timing has caused Democrats to scramble for a standard-bearer just 15 weeks before the May 8 primary.
This week, Democrats focused their hopes on convincing former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles to pick up the party’s banner and make a run for the Executive Mansion. The prospect of Bowles as the nominee was attractive to Democrats on several fronts.
Bowles lost twice in runs for the U.S. Senate, first against Elizabeth Dole in 2002 and against Richard Burr in 2004. But since then, he has won praise for his service as president of the UNC system and then as a member of a bipartisan commission appointed by President Obama and tasked with finding ways to reduce the national debt.
If Bowles were to enter the contest, he would instantly close the gap with McCrory in terms of name recognition and money. Both men come from Charlotte, a hub for wealthy investment bankers, allowing Bowles to cut into McCrory’s fundraising base. And Bowles’ reputation as something of a deficit hawk would have made him appealing to more moderate voters.
Indeed, a survey conducted by Public Policy Polling found that among 13 potential Democratic gubernatorial contenders, McCory led Bowles by just 2 percent, while most other hypothetical candidates trailed McCrory by double digits.
However, Bowles announced Thursday that he would not enter the fray for governor, joining a cavalcade of Democratic luminaries that had also declined to run: U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, Attorney General Roy Cooper and current Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx.
That same day, Congressman Heath Shuler, who had also been weighing a bid for governor, announced that not only would he sit out of the governor’s race, he would retire from Congress at the end of this year.
The news was perhaps less stunning than Perdue’s announcement, given that new Republican-drawn voting maps have left Shuler’s 11th District much less hospitable to Democrats by removing a chunk of Asheville. However, Shuler is no typical Democrat, having made a quixotic play to take the mantle of House minority leader from Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. A hometown hero from rural Swain County, Shuler seemed a formidable candidate for re-election, even in a district that had become tougher to win.
Adding to the party’s bad news, on Thursday former N.C. House speaker Joe Hackney, a 16-term Democrat from Chapel Hill, announced that he would not seek re-election. A sharp debater and masterful parliamentarian, Hackney’s departure could shake up the Democratic legislative caucus and make their efforts in the minority all the more difficult.
The week was not all negative for Democrats. New jobless numbers released Friday found the national unemployment rate dropping to 8.3 percent – the lowest in nearly three years – after five straight months of job growth. That is very good news for President Obama. And given how the new year has played out so far, the electoral fates of North Carolina Democrats could be even more closely intertwined with the president’s success in the Tar Heel State.
Ultimately, much can and will happen along the circuitous path to November. But for North Carolina Democrats, the first 34 days of 2012 have largely been a time to forget.