North Carolina Lacks Competition in GOP’s Southern Push

Posted March 10, 2010 at 6:21pm

Although North Carolina was a top battleground in the 2008 presidential race, the swing state appears to be far from the front lines in the battle for the House in 2010.

With the political winds blowing in the GOP’s favor, national Republicans have pursued an aggressive strategy to win back conservative seats in the midterm elections, especially in Southern states.

The National Republican Congressional Committee put Blue Dog Democrats on notice early this cycle that they would be targeted and has since touted recruiting victories in South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and even Maryland.

But with the candidate filing deadline passed, it’s become clear that the Tar Heel State has the potential to became an afterthought on the playing field of competitive House races. Georgia may be equally unexciting in terms of competitive races, but the filing deadline in the Peach State is still a month and a half off.

There are no North Carolina recruits listed among the 31 candidates who have reached the top two levels of the NRCC’s much-touted “Young Guns” program. Among the 35 candidates who have reached the program’s third tier, North Carolina Republicans boast just one candidate, retired Army Col. and defense industry consultant Lou Huddleston. Three other North Carolinians are enrolled in the Young Guns program but have yet to break into any of the top three tiers.

Gary Pearce, a self-described “recovering” North Carolina Democratic political consultant who runs a Web site about national and Tar Heel State politics, said that while North Carolina Democrats are concerned about the poor environment this year, that concern hasn’t really translated to the Congressional level. Pearce said Tar Heel State Democrats are primarily worried about maintaining their hold on the state Legislature, which they’ve controlled for more than a decade.

Not surprisingly, the NRCC contends that it is still positioned to play offense in the Tar Heel State this year.

“We have promising candidates challenging out-of-touch incumbents, and they’re running on political ground that’s just as fertile for newcomers as it was when a failed athlete and an underfunded teacher managed to win once-long-shot races here just recently,” NRCC spokesman Andy Seré said.

Seré was referring to sophomore Rep. Heath Shuler, a former NFL quarterback, and freshman Rep. Larry Kissell, a former high school teacher, who rode the big Democratic waves in 2006 and 2008 to victory.

Kissell’s 8th district, which stretches from Charlotte to Fayetteville, is the more competitive district even though Shuler’s 11th district has a stronger Republican voting index.

But, as Seré acknowledged, GOP victories in those seats depend on the efforts of relatively untested challengers.

In the 8th district, Huddleston and businessman Hal Jordan bring the most campaign experience to the GOP field. They have each run an unsuccessful state House campaign. Other Republicans running in the 8th district include a wealthy businessman and Army veteran and a former television sportscaster.

The most touted Republican candidate in the 11th district is businessman Jeff Miller, who is best known for founding a nonprofit group for veterans. Miller is facing a primary that includes Hendersonville Mayor Greg Newman, a former county school board member and several others. Miller is enrolled in Young Guns; Newman is not.

So why aren’t there more big-name GOP recruits in North Carolina this cycle in what is shaping up to be a very good year for national Republicans?

While Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee officials contend the reason is the “independent profiles” of their incumbents, Republicans say the real reason is that the state party hasn’t done enough to build a farm team for recruits in recent years.

“One of the weaknesses of the party during the past 10 years is they haven’t built a grass-roots succession plan within the party to prepare for this moment,” said Pat McCrory (R), a former Charlotte mayor who lost his gubernatorial bid last cycle. McCrory was the first choice of party strategists to take on Kissell this cycle, but he passed on the contest as he continues to eye another gubernatorial run.

McCrory said that with all the homegrown grass-roots enthusiasm in the state, the party could still have some real surprises on the Congressional level this year.

“I think a lesson learned is we needed a succession plan prior to the moment of need,” he said.

“There’s a thin bench for recruitment,” agreed North Carolina Republican consultant Carter Wrenn, who is running campaigns in the 2nd and 13th districts. With Democrats dominating the Legislature for a decade and winning five gubernatorial elections in a row, “the Democratic infrastructure is a lot stronger than the Republican infrastructure” in the state.

Wrenn said former Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer, who took control of the state GOP in June, has been more active than previous chairmen in keeping the party on the attack.

North Carolina Republican Party spokesman Jordan Shaw pointed out that Fetzer made it a priority this year to find a recruit for each of the state’s 50 state Senate races and managed to field recruits in 111 of 120 state House races.

But Wrenn said the state Republican Party will be at a disadvantage until it can compete financially with Democrats.

“There’s no real financial infrastructure under the [state] Republican Party, and I reckon building one will take a long time,” he said. And doing so will be “sort of like straightening out a train wreck.”