Capital Goods - march 2008

A moderating influence

By Scott Mooneyham

Every four years, North Carolina Republicans talk about ending the Democrats’ stranglehold on political power in the state. And every four years, Democrats usually beat them back. The Democrats’ success, at least since the 1970s, hascome in part by their embracing the role of pro-business moderates. Doing so, Democrats running for governor and other statewide offices have been able to harvest the state’s most fertile source of campaign money — wealthy business executives and business-related political-action committees — leaving the Republican candidates digging for scraps.

Will 2008 be any different? Gary Pearce doesn’t think so. He might be a little biased. He’s a Democratic political consultant whose clients included former Gov. Jim Hunt and then-U.S. Senate candidate John Edwards. Pearce calls it “cracking the code,” and he doesn’t see even hairline fractures right now. “I think the Democrats’ hold is getting stronger and stronger.”

His reasoning might surprise you. Pearce believes the influx of highly educated, moderate Republican voters is helping moderate Democratic candidates, not hurting them. Transplants moving to Charlotte, the Triad and Triangle to work in banking, communications and high-tech industries care about pocketbook issues and public education. In addition to wrapping themselves in the pro-business blanket, Democrats running for statewide office have made these issues their own. At the same time, the Republicans’ anti-tax, anti-regulation message — successful in presidential and congressional races — hasn’t had the same resonance on the state level.

Of course, Pearce is painting with some broad strokes. The details are a bit more complicated. For one thing, Democratic success hasn’t been complete. Republicans Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin won terms as governor (two for Martin) in the 1970s and 1980s. The GOP also gained a majority in the state House for four years beginning in 1994. Today, Republicans hold three of the 10 elected executive-branch offices — agriculture secretary, labor secretary and state auditor. Also, more often than not, campaign money from business interests flows to those in power. If business is good, why wouldn’t it? Big business, in particular, craves stability and frets about the unknown. It becomes a supporter of the status quo. In North Carolina, status quo means Democrat.

Still, Republicans cracked the code elsewhere in the South, taking up residence in governors mansions while gaining and holding statehouse majorities. Why there and not here? Republican politicians’ lukewarm support for public schools, in a state whose electorate has a long history of supporting public education, may be part of the answer. GOP activists who have tended to pull their candidates away from the center — while Democrats like Hunt, current Gov. Mike Easley and legislative leaders stayed anchored in the middle — may be another explanation.

With another election looming, Republican candidates will again try to solve the riddle. Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory may be best positioned to do so. Coming to the governor’s race from the hive of business activity that is the Queen City, he ought to be able to tap a deep reservoir of business money. The seven-term mayor enjoys a characteristic important to big business donors — he’s a known, steady commodity. With his moderate record, McCrory should have appeal among Piedmont suburbanites as well as retirees living along the coast.

Then again, Richard Vinroot, a former Charlotte mayor, had much the same going for him when he took on Easley in the 2000 governor’s race. He lost by 6 percentage points. McCrory also could struggle to get out of a crowded GOP primary in which many voters stand ideologically to his right. Polls indicate that state Sen. Fred Smith, a Johnston County developer, is likely to be his toughest competitor. Salisbury lawyer Bill Graham and former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr also are fighting for the nomination. Both Smith and Graham have poured more than $1 million of their own wealth into their campaigns and probably will put in even more.

You’d think that a homebuilder like Smith might attract money and support from the business crowd. He has pulled in donations from fellow homebuilders and the like, but his fundraising through December shows him woefully behind the two main Democratic candidates — Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue and State Treasurer Richard Moore.

Perdue had taken in nearly 10 times more than Smith from political-action committees, most of them business-related. Moore continues to tap financial-services execs for campaign cash. Both Democrats had around $4.6 million to spend at the beginning of January, better than four times Smith’s available money, despite a $1.5 million loan to his campaign.

Forget about the polls. Given those early returns — the kind that can be counted in dollars and cents — that’s reason enough to think that Republicans are still a long way from cracking the code.

Scott Mooneyham is the editor of The Insider,

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