North Carolina Democrats have a lot to learn from last night, and with redistricting up ahead, the lessons are critical ones.
With Bob Etheridge the only casualty with respect to congressional races, it's proof that strong candidates can fend off a Republican wave. Ilario Pantano was not a harmless opponent, nor was Harold Johnson. Still, Larry Kissell and Mike McIntyre proved again to be strong candidates. Jeff Miller was probably the weakest of the GOP candidates who had a chance, and Shuler topped him. Outside interest groups poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into each of these races.
This shouldn't be read as a sign that more conservative Democrats are stronger in the state, but rather that good candidates make good defenders of Democratic seat. Etheridge lost his composure and appears to have been caught in the wave. He showed weakness and got swept away for it. It is not because Renee Ellmers has any clue as to what she's doing. (Carter Wrenn is the one who guided her into place). The standard rule about recruiting strong candidates still applies.
Elaine Marshall was going to lose to begin with. I realize that's a statement that doesn't make people happy, but it is the truth. She's not a notoriously good campaigner or fundraiser, while Burr knows how to sound like a moderate. Marshall's commercials late in the campaign were a bit like watching those awful fireside things Jack Hawke used to produce. Also, she had no money because she spent too much bloody time fighting her way through a primary runoff with Cal Cunningham. Without the bruising primary runoff, Marshall at the least could have fought the millions in pro-Burr advertising in the last weeks. The lesson here is that if the option is primary runoff or back out gracefully, the second-place finisher needs to take a bow and get to helping the party out.
Now to the General Assembly. Realistic early projections were for a takeover of the Senate, but retention of the House. Then Art Pope got involved. The puppetshow is a well oiled machine. It has generated its audience, and one that distrusts the media, which long ago abdicated its post as a voice of American sanity. Pope's various tendrils have long provided ready-made sound-bites and quotes for the media, espousing conservative values while building their own credibility (irrelevant of whether or not it is a farce). There is a policy propaganda machine (Locke Foundation), a hack campaign arm (Civitas) and any number of political committees. When talking to an audience that hates the media, these outsiders are hard to complain about.
Pope-connected groups started fires all over the state, and the Democrats struggled in their own districts, preventing them from shuffling around money to endangered seats as in past years. The purpose of Pope's groups are to elect Republicans. Many of them don't have to disclose donors and can spend unlimited amounts in favor of candidates. There is no parallel among Democrats in this state. These groups can attack in ways a candidate cannot.
These things are all the more critical when district lines are drawn. This state has a bad habit for gerrymandering, and I don't suspect Republicans will be any less likely to do it. Democrats need to remember that strong candidates, understanding primaries and a statewide infrastructure are the path to victory. If they fail to see this, it means we face a new Republican era in this state.
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