Around the U.S. in 50 Days: North Carolina

If Barack Obama had little room to maneuver in neighboring Virginia, there is an even smaller margin of error in North Carolina in 2012. Barely winning the state’s 15 electoral votes in 2008 will translate into an even tougher job this time around. Mainly reliant on heavy voter turnout in the state’s more urban centers, he will be hard-pressed to replicate his performance. Still, he does maintain an approval rating in the state that should cause worry within the GOP. Based strictly upon those numbers, one would have to give the nod to Obama here. However, the margin of victory would be approaching recount territory, especially if the electoral count is close. There IS a reason the Democrats are holding their convention here. And one can rest assured that Obama will be showing his mug a lot in North Carolina this year. Only because these predictions are so early in the cycle and will be revisited as the elections grow near, I will stick with my original criteria and give the Tar Heel state to Obama again, although I firmly believe that by time November rolls around, this could change.

There will also be a Governor’s race this year that is tied to redistricting efforts in the state. A little on that in a few moments. However, things changed very quickly in the dynamics of this race when incumbent Democrat Bev Perdue decided not to seek another term after reading the political tea leaves. Given the state’s fiscal situation and unemployment rate which worsened under her tenure, she would likely face certain defeat. Deciding to save what was once a promising political future, she opted out. Lining up for the Democrats so far are Lt. Governor Walter Dalton and state representative Bill Faison. However, those names are sort of the B-list of candidates. Other names being bandied about are Bill Etheridge, Mike McIntyre and Heath Shuler. Etheridge has been the most cagey in responding to his political aspirations- one day thinking about a run for Governor, the next thinking of taking on Renee Elmers again in the House race. This is where redistricting figures into the whole picture as the legislature made it decidedly more difficult for Democratic incumbents to win reelection in their districts with certain exceptions. That was the main reason Brad Miller decided to retire rather than run for reelection.

For the GOP, the former mayor of Charlotte, Pat McCrory is the frontrunner and will likely face only token opposition in the primary. They would come into the general election well-rested and funded. Preliminary hypothetical polling indicates that McCrory would defeat any likely Democratic candidate at this time. This is sort of indicative of the damage done to the Democratic brand in the state inflicted by the Perdue tenure. It is also a reason to believe that this will affect Obama at the top of the ticket. Still, anything can happen as Shuler especially has shown independence from Democratic orthodoxy in the House and the fact he took on Pelosi for the leadership role bolsters him. Regardless, at this point I am predicting a McCrory victory and unanticipated GOP pick up of a Governor’s seat.

The current House delegation is 7-6 Democratic. In redistricting, what goes around comes around. Years of Democratic gerrymandering in previous redistricting cycles produced the 7-6 split that exists to this day. But, this remains a fairly consistent conservative state and people like McIntyre, Kissel and Shuler had to adopt a centrist stance and some independence from the Democratic leadership in order to win. With the goal of shoring up incumbent Republicans, the map changed that it endangers these Democrats.

First, the safe Democrats. In the 1st, George Butterfield should win in a district that stretches from the Virginia border yo Greeneville. The other safe district would be the 12th held by Melvin Watt. This is a minority district, the infamous gerrymandered serpentine one that was left alone. He will seek a challenge from Tea Party activist Jack Brosch.

The 4th, represented by David Price, is the area west of Raleigh and includes the college towns of Durham and Chapel Hill. In fact, Price worked and fought very hard to keep Chapel Hill in his district. The interesting part is that Brad Miller was drawn into this district from his current 13th District. Rather than face a primary against Price- one he would likely lose- he decided upon the new 12th. Price will likely face George Hutchins who ran against Price in 2010 and lost.

As far as the safe Republicans, Howard Coble, described as a moderate and representing the 6th District in the central part of the state around Greensboro, announced he will run and likely win. In the 9th, far right Republican Sue Myrick will likely face a primary challenge from Tea Party activist Michael Stein. This is the southern and western suburbs of Charlotte. And Walter Jones’ 3rd District in the northern coastal area of the state is considered a safe retention. In the 5th, the district of Virginia Foxx became slightly more Democratic. This area extends from the Virginia border to the Winston-Salem area. She will probably face Treva Johnson, the former chair of the Wilkes County Democratic Party, but should win.

If any Republicans face a tougher time in 2012 than in the past, the first would be Renee Elmers who defeated Bob Etheridge in 2010. He is mulling a run against Elmers who could be considered a more centrist Republican representing the area around Raleigh. However, Etheridge is being pushed towards a gubernatorial run. Considering that Elmers won with 49% of the vote in 2010 and being a freshman, another run against Etheridge would appear tough, especially if Obama increases voter turnout here. Until a decision is announced by Etheridge, one would have to give the nod to Elmers at this point. Patrick McHenry took one for the team in the 10th District. Extending from South Carolina to the Tennessee border, the district took in a huge chunk of Democratic Buncombe County including the city of Asheville. In fact, he will probably run against the former mayor of that city, Terry Bellamy. It is believed he retained enough GOP territory to fight off a challenge, but this will be a tougher race this time out and he will not win with 71% of the vote as he did in 2010. He will also have to survive a primary battle against Ken Fortenberry.

Republicans believe they can take the 7th from Mike McIntyre. The area was made more favorable for the GOP. Located in the southeastern part of the state along the coast and extending to Fayatteville, 2010 challenger Iliaro Pantano is considering another run much to the chagrin of the North Carolina GOP. They believe that state senator David Rouzer would be a better candidate. This could become academic if McIntyre decides on a run for governor. The 8th, represented by Larry Kissel, became more favorable to the GOP. So far, the Republican field is crowded.

In the 11th, Heath Shuler recently announced he would not seek reelection which fuels speculation he will run for governor. Located in the southwestern part of the state, it lost a large part of Democratic Buncombe County. In all reality, despite his Blue Dog status, votes against most of the costly and controversial Obama programs and his stand against Nancy Pelosi, Shuler would have faced a tough battle to win another term. One can only imagine what would have happened if Shuler had prevailed in his fight against Pelosi. Most likely, this seat will be won by District Attorney Jeff Hunt, a Republican gain.

Finally, there is the 13th where Brad Miller announced he is vacating the seat. He, too, may seek the gubernatorial nod. Running from Raleigh north to the Virginia border, the new district took in more GOP territory which would have made it harder for any Democrat- including Miller- to win. That is true especially since the fairly popular ex-mayor of Raleigh, Paul Coble, announced his intention to take on Miller in the general election. Coble will, however, face a primary against perennial candidate Vernon Robinson and George Holding, best known as the prosecutor who investigated former Senator and presidential candidate (and wife cheater while she suffered from cancer, which makes Newt Gingrich look almost saintly) John Edwards.

In conclusion, and with the caveat that things could change quickly, I will assign the state’s 15 electoral votes to Obama for now. I believe McCrory has enough of a head start on any challenger and will be the next Republican Governor- an unexpected pick up. Because Obama will win by the skin of his teeth, his coat tails will have no effect down the ticket. With the elimination of Miller and Shuler, the GOP can expect at least a two seat pick up.

Running totals thus far:
Obama with 261 electoral votes to 223 for the GOP;
Net gain of 3 Governors;
Net gain of 4 Senate seats;
Net loss of 5 House seats.

Next: South Carolina