A Look at North Carolina

Posted February 23, 2004 at 6:47pm

This is the first of a two-part series examining the future of North Carolina politics. This article looks at western and central districts.

Just five years ago, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (D) was an unknown on the Tar Heel State political scene. [IMGCAP(1)]

Now, after just one term in the Senate, he is one of the last two candidates standing in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination and is widely discussed as first in line for the vice presidency if his bid for the top office falls short.

While such a rapid rise is nearly unprecedented in politics, Edwards clearly serves as inspiration for a generation of aspiring North Carolina pols hoping to repeat his feat.

A look at the state’s political landscape, however, shows that for the foreseeable future any career must begin in the House.

Edwards’ decision to vacate the seat he won from then-Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R) in 1998 as a symbol of his dedication to the presidential race created the second free shot for the Senate in as many cycles.

That window of opportunity quickly closed as Rep. Richard Burr (R) used his fundraising prowess to keep other GOPers out of this year’s race, and 2002 Senate nominee Erskine Bowles (D) kept his political infrastructure in place throughout most of 2003, giving him a major leg up over other potential Democrats.

A similar scenario played out in 2002, when Sen. Jesse Helms (R) retired after five terms.

The candidacy of former Cabinet Secretary Elizabeth Dole (R) effectively ended the chances of any other GOPers including Burr, who was openly contemplating the race.

On the Democratic side, Bowles won a competitive primary against a former state legislator and then-Secretary of State Elaine Marshall.

Dole then won a relatively pedestrian 54 percent to 45 percent general election victory.

While Dole is seen as nearly unbeatable if she stands for re-election in 2008, most observers believe she is not likely to serve more than two terms. If she bows out after 12 years, that would create an open seat in 2014, which, even for the most crafty of politicians, is too far down the road to accurately plan a campaign.

Given the obstacles in the Senate, a House bid is seen as the best option for the state’s rising stars.

Republicans currently hold seven seats to Democrats’ six in the House delegation; both Burr and Rep. Cass Ballenger (R) are leaving their seats in November, but neither race is seen as competitive between the parties.

Six Republicans are seeking Burr’s Winston-Salem seat, while shockingly little attention has been paid to Ballenger’s open seat.

The western and central portion of the state has two districts that will be seriously contested between the parties when the current Members leave.

Leading that list is Rep. Robin Hayes’ (R) 8th district, a perennial Democratic target that sprawls across central North Carolina and into the Charlotte suburbs.

Hayes has held the seat since 1998, but Democratic Rep. Bill Hefner represented the district for the previous 24 years.

President Bush received 54 percent in the district in 2000, but that same year Gov. Mike Easley (D) took 53 percent there.

In the 2001 redistricting process, 100,000 suburban Charlotte voters were added to this previously rural district, making it even more friendly to Democrats.

As a result of the demographics, one North Carolina Republican said that Hayes may well be the only GOPer that can hold the district.

When he leaves, the only name mentioned on the Republican side is state Sen. Fletcher Hartsell Jr., who is in his seventh term representing Cabarrus and Rowan counties. Cabarrus is the GOP stronghold of the 8th.

On the Democratic side, 2002 nominee Chris Kouri is the most likely candidate in an open seat.

In his first race for elected office last cycle, Kouri upset former state Rep. Billy Richardson in the Democratic primary but could not compete financially with Hayes, losing 54 percent to 45 percent.

Kouri had begun to organize for a rematch but dropped out unexpectedly earlier this month.

The youthful Kouri, a former football player at Yale, did not rule out a future run for Congress.

In the far western part of the state, Rep. Charles Taylor (R) has been an on-again, off-again target for Democrats.

His stiffest competition came in 2000 due largely to revelations of unpaid property taxes and legal questions surrounding an officer at a bank the Congressman owned.

He won 55 percent to 42 percent.

Although several Democrats are milling around as potential challengers this cycle, party officials believe their best chance of winning the seat will come when Taylor steps aside.

The leading Democrat under that scenario is Buncombe County Commissioner David Young.

Young challenged Taylor in 1998, losing 57 percent to 42 percent while being outspent by a 2-1 margin.

Young is currently in his third term on the county commission and is part owner of a travel company.

Buncombe County, which includes Asheville, is the population center of this largely rural district. It is also politically competitive, as Dole won it by just one vote over Bowles in 2002.

The odds-on favorite for Republicans is Jeff Hunt, district attorney of the 29th prosecutorial district.

Hunt oversees Henderson, McDowell, Polk, Rutherford and Transylvania counties; all but Rutherford are within the 11th Congressional district’s boundaries.

First elected to the post in 1994, Hunt was unopposed for a third term in 2002.

Aside from the 8th and 11th, there are no other truly competitive seats in central and western North Carolina.

Rep. Sue Myrick (R) will hold the strongly Republican 9th district, which is based in Charlotte, for as long as she wants it.

Myrick, a former Charlotte mayor, clearly has statewide aspirations, having run and lost a Senate primary to Faircloth in 1992. She could be a candidate for Senate or governor down the line.

Current Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory (R) is an attractive candidate if Myrick retires but is also seen as possessing an appealing profile for a statewide contest.

McCrory is in his fourth term as mayor of the state’s largest metropolitan area — only the third person in state history to hold the office for that long.

Although Democrats are not given a serious chance in the 9th, Charlotte Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon is highly regarded within the party. Cannon, who is black, was first elected to the city council in 1993.

Rep. Howard Coble’s (R) 6th district is strongly Republican, and Democrats have been able to field a candidate only once since 1994.

Although Coble has been in office since 1984, he is not expected to retire anytime soon.