Senate Scramble

D.C. Democrats Have Carolina on Their Minds

Posted January 3, 2003 at 5:46pm

Sen. John Edwards’ (D-N.C.) decision to form a presidential exploratory committee last week has Republicans salivating about a potential pickup, as Democrats quickly assess their options for his replacement.

Up for re-election to a second term in 2004, Edwards has made no decision on whether he will attempt to run for both offices, which he is allowed to do under North Carolina law.

Asked when Edwards would reach a decision on the matter, a spokesman said only, “in the future.”

Republicans were much clearer about their hopes for Edwards’ political future.

“Run John, Run,” urged North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Bill Cobey. “The more [Edwards] runs for president, the harder it is for him to get elected to the Senate down here.”

National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Dan Allen said that “Edwards’ ambition has always been more for running for president than representing the people of North Carolina.”

Regardless of what Edwards chooses, his seat will be a “top target” for Republicans, Allen added.

Several Republicans, led by Rep. Richard Burr, are pondering bids.

Edwards’ potential retirement further complicates Senate Democrats’ hopes of retaking control of the chamber.

Nineteen Democratic Senators are up for re-election in 2004 compared to 15 Republican Senators. In 2002, Republicans had to defend 20 seats to Democrats’ 14.

With the numbers working against them, Democrats must keep retirements in their ranks to a minimum, a task made more difficult by the wide-open race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The decision of outgoing Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.), who is contemplating a presidential bid and is expected to decide within the month, could be key to Democrats’ hopes.

If Daschle leaves the Senate, his party will be hard-pressed to hold the seat, which is up in the 2004 cycle.

Both outgoing Rep. John Thune (R), who lost a narrow race to Sen. Tim Johnson (D) in 2002, and Rep.-elect — and former four-term governor — Bill Janklow (R) are considered likely candidates in an open-seat scenario.

The Democratic bench in South Dakota is significantly thinner, with 2002 House nominee Stephanie Herseth the only candidate being mentioned for federal office at this point.

Another potential blow could come in Florida, where Sen. Bob Graham (D), who is also up for re-election in 2004, is considering entering the presidential race.

In North Carolina, Democratic Party Chairwoman Barbara Allen said that she was “not concerned” about the potential of Edwards leaving his Senate seat.

“We have got some good people who are interested and would make excellent candidates,” she said.

The most discussed replacement for Edwards is 2002 Senate nominee Erskine Bowles, a businessman and former White House chief of staff.

“He is definitely interested if Senator Edwards does not run,” said Mac McCorkle, who served as an adviser in Bowles’ 2002 race.

After winning a September primary over two serious Democratic opponents, Bowles seemed to be gaining momentum in the final days of his race against former Cabinet Secretary Elizabeth Dole (R), but came up short, 54 percent to 45 percent.

He raised $5.8 million and gave himself an additional $6.8 million, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Bowles’ personal wealth and residual name identification make him an appealing candidate.

He also has strong connections to Edwards, and attended last Wednesday’s meeting of the Senator’s closest advisers at which he announced his presidential intentions. Edwards served as the chairman of Bowles’ campaign as well.

“I don’t know if anybody has the right of first refusal,” said McCorkle, “but [Bowles] is by far the strongest candidate.”

Allen, the party chairwoman, said that “Erskine does a wonderful job in anything he does” and said that he “came a long way in a short period of time” in 2002.

McCorkle added that Bowles “ran a very good race in a very bad year.”

Second district Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.) is also a potential candidate.

“Congressman Etheridge is very flattered that his name has been mentioned,” said spokeswoman Sara Yawn. “He does believe it is important that the seat remain in Democratic hands, but really at this time there isn’t an opening.”

Etheridge, who has held the 2nd district since 1996, was considered a likely candidate for the open North Carolina Senate seat last cycle, but backed out at the last minute.

Prior to his Congressional service, Etheridge held the statewide post of superintendent of public instruction from 1988 to 1996.

State Rep. Dan Blue (D), who placed second to Bowles in the Senate primary, is also considering the race.

At first glance, the demographics of the state seem to suggest that North Carolina is fertile ground for a competitive contest.

Tar Heel Democrats have something of a stranglehold on statewide offices controlling all but two — Dole’s Senate seat and the state labor commissioner post.

George W. Bush carried the state with 56 percent of the vote in the 2000 presidential race, however, and Congressional Republicans outnumber their Democratic counterparts 7-6.

Electoral unpredictability aside, Republicans argue that the state’s voters are ideologically conservative, which will favor their party regardless of whether Edwards runs for re-election.

“Anytime you can run in an open seat in a place like North Carolina you would choose that option,” said Cobey, the Republican Party chairman.

In the past two cycles, there have been five open Senate seats in the South, four of which have been won by Republicans.

Interestingly, however, the only party turnover in those races was in 2000 when Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) won the seat previously held by Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.).

Several Republicans have made their interest in the race known, whether or not the seat is vacant.

Burr, a telegenic five-term Member, is considered the preferred candidate of the White House and other national Republicans. He has played coy about his intentions thus far, but has embarked on an ambitious fundraising schedule designed to put himself in position for a Senate bid.

Through Nov. 25 Burr showed $1.7 million on hand; he had raised $1.1 million in the 2002 cycle despite having only token opposition in his House race.

Another potential factor in Burr’s decision is a term-limits pledge that comes due in 2004.

The other Republican candidate giving the race serious thought is Rep. Walter Jones Jr., who has represented the eastern North Carolina 3rd district since 1994.

Jones has been relatively close-mouthed about his thoughts on the race to this point.