RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue — the woman who wanted to cancel congressional elections — has decided to cancel her own.
After signaling that she would seek a second term in 2012, Perdue shocked the political world Jan. 26 when she scuttled her re-election bid. The decision has implications far beyond the confines of Tar Heel politics.
Perdue, a Democrat and the state’s first female governor, ranked as one of the weakest incumbent governors this year. She rode President Obama’s coattails in 2008 to defeat former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory by a whisker. Without the benefit of Obama’s turnout machine, Perdue would have lost.
Her chances were even dimmer in 2012, so she dropped out. Her official reason was to fight for public education, which Democrats claim was damaged by a budget approved by the Republican-controlled legislature last year.
“It is clear to me that my race for re-election will only further politicize the fight to adequately fund our schools,” Perdue said. “A re-election campaign in this already divisive environment will make it more difficult to find bipartisan solutions.”
It was a rationale that induced collective head scratching across the state. Even many Democrats doubted the effectiveness of surrendering the war to win it. But all of them are relieved that Perdue will no longer top the ballot with Obama. Perdue has consistently trailed McCrory, the presumed GOP gubernatorial nominee in 2012, in recent polls. Perdue’s departure means the gubernatorial race will be more competitive.
That’s good news for Democrats; plenty of bad news accompanies it. Perdue’s late announcement — coming three weeks before candidate filing begins for the primary in May — left North Carolina’s Democratic Party in disarray. There is no presumed successor to the governor’s office, prompting a dozen Democrats to voice interest in the job publicly. No doubt many more pondered the possibility privately.
The lieutenant governor’s post is seen as a stepping-stone to the governor’s office. But the current lieutenant governor, Walter Dalton, is a nonentity to many Democrats. Even more, his political history has liberals wary.
Before being elected lieutenant governor in 2008, Dalton was a moderate to conservative Democrat in the state Senate, elected from a rural district. In 2005, he co-sponsored a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions, a position that he tried to walk back this week. The sin of supporting traditional marriage might be too great for orthodox liberals.
Democrats had hoped that current Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, an African American, would jump into the race. Foxx had a lot going for him: He won a second term as mayor in November by a hefty margin, and is seen as an up-and-coming political rock star in the vein of Obama. His popularity in Charlotte, North Carolina’s most populous city, would have struck a blow to McCrory. But Foxx opted to fight another day and passed on a gubernatorial bid.
Enter Erskine Bowles. Yes, that Erskine Bowles, of Simpson-Bowles debt commission fame. Shortly after Perdue announced her retirement, pundits began speculating that Bowles might enter the race and immediately jump to the front of the pack.
Polling backed up that assertion. A survey by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling found Bowles and McCrory in a statistical dead heat. That was big news: Perdue trailed the former Charlotte mayor by double digits, and no other Democrat who would potentially run performs well in a hypothetical matchup.
But Democrats were dealt another blow Thursday when Bowles announced that he wouldn’t seek the governor’s office. If he had thrown his hat into the ring, his background, experience, and name recognition would have made him the most able challenger to McCrory.
That leaves two candidates who have announced so far: Dalton, and N.C. House member Bill Faison, who hails from the liberal bastion of Chapel Hill. Faison will make plenty of noise — he publicly called for Perdue to forego a second term, and caught grief from fellow Democrats for doing it — but he doesn’t have a prayer. It remains to be seen whether Democrats will coalesce around Dalton or opt for a more liberal alternative.
Liberals’ favorite pick would be U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, first elected to represent the state’s 13th Congressional District in 2002. Republicans all but drew Miller out of his seat this year, packing the district with more GOP voters. It’s doubtful whether Miller could be successful in a statewide campaign, though. His politics have made him one of the most liberal white Democrats in the South.
On the national stage, Perdue’s decision proved a bit of a curveball to Democrats. Yes, they wanted her out of the way — there is even speculation that Obama himself was responsible for shuttering her re-election bid, telling her that he couldn’t win North Carolina with her on the ballot — but this is also an embarrassment.
When Democrats descend on Charlotte in early September for their convention, it will be in a state where the sitting Democratic governor is quitting due to unpopularity. That can’t help Obama in a must-win state.
In the end, Perdue’s decision turned a competitive election year in the Tar Heel State into a wild rollercoaster ride. Democrats are happy that Perdue is gone, and they feel renewed momentum going into the gubernatorial election with a fresh start. Republicans are even more optimistic with their champion McCrory.
It’s already a messy year. It’ll only get more so.