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Hood column: Democrats hope for replay of 2008

Sen. Burr wants to avoid Elizabeth Dole’s fate
RALEIGH ó We are nearing the end of the year before a key U.S. Senate race with some awfully familiar items in the news.
Two years ago, several prominent North Carolina Democrats passed on the chance to challenge Sen. Elizabeth Dole. While Democratic insiders were looking at polling data and national trends suggesting she was beatable, they couldn’t get well-known politicians to take the plunge.
Even Kay Hagan, then a state senator from Greensboro, told the D.C. Dems no ó the first time. They came up with a better offer the second time, including promises of substantial campaign cash and independent expenditures against Dole. Wisely, Hagan then said yes.
Fast forward to today. Once again some Democratic strategists are convinced that they have a golden opportunity to take out an incumbent Republican freshman. Sen. Richard Burr won his 2004 Senate race with Erskine Bowles in part due to President George W. Bush’s huge margin in North Carolina. In 2010, Burr will top the ticket. And he has yet to establish a strong presence in the minds of many voters. It’s not that they disapprove of his job performance. They don’t yet know him well.
The water already looks warm to Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, who sought the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate before, against Bowles. Marshall says she’ll run in 2010. So will Ken Lewis, a Chapel Hill attorney with some political experience.
But national Democrats seem unsatisfied with these options. They’ve courted U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, former Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker, and possibly several others. All declined.
Republicans have pointed out that 2010 promises to resemble 2008 about as much as 1994 resembled 1992. Prevailing winds shift in politics, and appear for now to have shifted from east to west. It’s no surprise, they say, that few Democratic politicians seem willing to take on Burr.
But active North Carolina Democrats don’t seem to me to be as down in the dumps as their counterparts are in other states. While the 2009 election cycle provided mostly bad news to the party elsewhere, in our state the results were mixed. Democrats picked up the mayor’s office in Charlotte for the first time in a generation and lost it in Greensboro for the first time in recent memory.
Do Democratic activists think 2010 will be a challenging year for them in North Carolina? Sure. That doesn’t mean they expect to lose big, though. After two spectacular cycles and a long-term dominance of state politics, they’re used to winning. And of course, as all political activists do, they believe their cause to be obviously right and thus destined for eventual success.
This is a case where I think the reluctant politicians have a better read of the situation than the local activists or national strategists do.
Running against the grain in 2010 will cost a lot more ó in money, sweat, and potential reputation ó than Hagan’s 2008 campaign did. Would-be Senate candidates recognize that the national Democrats will have higher priorities than beating Burr, such as defending incumbent Democratic senators and governors.
Without the infusion of funds from afar and the devastatingly effective “Liddy Dole is old” ad campaign funded independently, Hagan probably wouldn’t have beaten Dole last year, even with the help of the Obama turnout machine. Etheridge, Cunningham and Wicker are smart men and understand that reality. Without a comparable national investment in North Carolina, a Burr defeat becomes improbable.
Marshall and Lewis are proceeding, anyway. So far, the secretary of state is emphasizing her record promoting government openness and ethics reform, which is a pretty good message for our current moment. Lewis is defending ObamaCare and calling for more federal bailout spending, which is pretty much tone-deaf given the prevailing sentiment in North Carolina on those matters.
In his recent appearances, Burr is stressing military affairs and his consumer-oriented alternative for health care reform. One gets the impression that he’s taking his reelection campaign very seriously, determined to avoid Dole’s fate.
So far, he is. His strongest potential challengers have bowed out.
– – –
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of CarolinaJournal. com.

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