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Gary Pearce: Why do Democrats want to run for Senate?

By Gary Pearce

I don’t understand why Democrats want to run for North Carolina’s U.S. Senate seat in 2022.

They aren’t likely to win, and if they do, they’re even less likely to win a second term. If they do win, they’d be one of 100 in what is no longer exactly the greatest deliberative body in the world.

They’d spend every day navigating between Washington Democrats who lean left and voters at home who lean right.

They’d likely owe the election to Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader who holds the key that unlocks the tens of millions of dollars they’d need to win. That’s the power of King Caucus in today’s politics. The Democratic primary didn’t pick Cal Cunningham as the Senate candidate in 2020; Schumer did.

In fairness, he may have picked a winner. Cunningham was leading the polls until he scuttled his own ship.

But Democrats have a tough time winning Senate races in North Carolina. Since the two-party era began here in 1972, only four Democrats have won. None of them won reelection.

Democrats have lost 13 of 17 Senate elections since 1972. That’s a batting average of .235 – or under 24% field-goal shooting.

Jim Hunt, the dominant Democrat of the age, lost. Elaine Marshall, who probably has won more elections and more total votes than any Democrat ever, lost. Harvey Gantt lost twice. Erskine Bowles lost twice. Deborah Ross lost.

Three incumbent Democratic Senators lost reelection: Robert Morgan, Terry Sanford and Kay Hagan. John Edwards ran for president instead of running for reelection.

But that doesn’t stop the ambitious from dreaming of becoming a giant of the Senate, delivering stirring orations in floor debates and striding among the greats in Statuary Hall.

State Senator Jeff Jackson said he will spend the holidays deliberating with his family about running, which sounds like a wonderful way to spend Christmas.

Jackson immediately took hostile fire from Democrats who want a Black candidate and see Jackson as a Cal Cunningham rerun. His determination to chase rural voters who love Donald Trump raises suspicions among progressives.

Jackson wanted to run in 2020, but Schumer didn’t like his plan of holding town halls in all 100 counties. Schumer wanted a candidate who’d spend hours every day locked in a room making fundraising calls. “Call time,” it’s called.

Deborah Ross wanted to run in 2020, but now she has a seat in Congress that she likely can hold as long as she wants.

Anthony Foxx could be a strong candidate. Erica Smith wants to run again.

The strongest Democrat is Attorney General Josh Stein. He’s won statewide twice, albeit narrowly.

Democrats searching for a way forward should study how Stein and Gov. Roy Cooper won.

Which raises a question: Why aren’t any Democrats talking about running for governor in 2024?

Any senator who has been a governor will tell you that being governor is better.

One of them, Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, said a governor, unlike a senator, can do things that directly help people. He can get a road built. He can get a community a sewer system or a library or a new industry. He can get teachers better pay. He can start a new health program – or, like Gov. Jim Hunt, a statewide Smart Start program.

Why did Hunt run for governor again in 1992 and 1996 instead of for senator? Because he knew he could do more as governor.

If you want to make speeches in Washington, run for senator. If you want to make changes in North Carolina, run for governor.

Gary Pearce was a reporter and editor at The News & Observer, a political consultant, and an adviser to Gov. Jim Hunt (1976-1984 and 1992-2000). He blogs about politics and government at www.NewDayforNC.com.   

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