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John Hood: Campaign song remains the same

RALEIGH — Governors make lots of decisions. They propose budgets. They hire Cabinet secretaries and other key officials. They appoint members to governing boards. They sign or veto bills. They offer or withhold clemency to criminals.

So when governors stand for reelection, there is a host of potential issues for their challengers to use against them. When it comes right down to it, however, the health of the economy tends to dominate these races. Incumbents say it is getting better. Challenges say that’s a mirage, or that the economic growth isn’t being widely shared.

Ever since North Carolina governors gained the option of succeeding themselves, each reelection campaign has essentially followed this script. In 1980, Republican nominee Bev Lake challenged the economic stewardship of incumbent Gov. Jim Hunt, blaming him and his fellow Democrats for hurting traditional industries such as textiles and tobacco with burdensome taxes and regulations.

In 1988, Democratic nominee Bob Jordan, the lieutenant governor, discounted the state’s high job-creation rate and low unemployment rate since incumbent Republican Gov. Jim Martin took office in 1985 by pointing to the slower growth experienced by some communities outside the state’s I-85 corridor. He even talked of the “Two North Carolinas,” one urban and prosperous, the other rural and falling behind. (It was a phrase that later politicians such as John Edwards would borrow and refine.)

In 1996, it was Jim Hunt’s turn again to be the incumbent governor facing a Republican challenger who talked down the economy. Robin Hayes, a state legislator who would later win election to Congress, cited the urban-rural gap as evidence that Hunt’s economic-development programs were ineffective and that state taxes should be further reduced, particularly the sales tax on food.

In 2004, Democratic Gov. Mike Easley faced Republican Patrick Ballantine, the former minority leader in the state senate. Ballantine had represented a Wilmington-based district in the legislature and sought to attract conservative Democrats to his banner by emphasizing regional disparities in economic growth. “The biggest issue in eastern North Carolina is creating a better business climate,” Ballantine said.

Pretty repetitive, right? There’s one other common element to all these races. Each challenger lost, badly.

The exception proves the rule. During the Great Recession, North Carolina as a whole had a bigger-than-average downturn followed by a worse-than-average recovery. For a population used to thinking of its state as an economic pacesetter, the experience was traumatic. Fairly or not, people chose to blame incumbent Gov. Bev Perdue for it. Her approval ratings plummeted shortly after taking office in 2009. They never recovered. She didn’t even bother to seek reelection in 2012.

So here we are, in the early stages of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s reelection campaign against likely Democratic nominee Roy Cooper, and the challenger’s supporters are already pulling out the same dog-eared script. McCrory’s “Carolina Comeback” is just a mirage, they say. Standard measures of the economy don’t mean what the governor claims. His programs are failing. Rural areas are falling behind. Et cetera.

Past failure is no guarantee of future results. Perhaps the political strategy will work this time. The Democrats’ rhetorical problem, however, is that North Carolina isn’t just outperforming the rest of the region and nation on a single measure, such as the standard unemployment rate.

According to the Federal Reserve’s Coincident Index of data on unemployment, employment, hours worked, and wages, North Carolina’s economic performance in 2014 was the best in the Southeast and significantly above the national average.

And if you use broader unemployment measures that include people who’ve dropped out of the labor force, North Carolina has still had one of the biggest labor-market improvements in the United States over the past several years.

That’s not to say, of course, that everyone is doing equally well. Many North Carolinians still struggle to find jobs or make ends meet. Some communities are in desperate straits. This is a real problem that deserve our attention. But it does not constitute a new phenomenon, or the kind of devastating political takedown that liberals seem to think it is.

Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation. Follow him @JohnHoodNC.

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