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Gary Pearce: Is 100-county tour the path to U.S. Senate victory?

By Gary Pearce

When Jeff Jackson jumped into the 2022 Senate race, he revived an old staple of North Carolina politics, the “100 county campaign.”

Is that the Democrats’ road to victory in 2022?

There’s another road, one that runs through fewer than half the counties — specifically, the dozen or so metropolitan counties that are strongly Democratic as well as eastern counties that have significant numbers of Black voters and eligible but unregistered voters.

The “100-county tour” has a rich history. Candidates do it to show they care about the whole state and everybody. Jackson’s website says: “Every election, we lower our expectations. We settle for less transparency, less energy, less substance. We want to raise your expectations for political leadership. So we’re going to all 100 counties and holding town halls in every one. We’re going to listen and learn and build an agenda that is actually tailored to our state – a North Carolina agenda – not an agenda imported from D.C. or from donors.”

The last “100-county tour” candidate I recall was Fred Smith, a Republican who ran for governor in 2008. Smith had a “100 county barbecue tour.” He threw barbecue dinners in every county. Republicans ate up his barbecue but voted for Pat McCrory. Smith lost.

When Jim Hunt ran for lieutenant governor in 1972, he did a 102-county tour. One road was out in the far west. So, he had to go through two counties in Georgia to get to Clay County in North Carolina.

Clay County illustrates the problem with a 100-county campaign. In November, 6,930 people voted in Clay County. Sen. Thom Tillis won 72% of them. In Wake County, 634,423 people voted — almost 100 times as many as Clay.

Campaigns have only two resources: time and money. You can always raise more money, but you can never get more time. Why spend a day in Clay County when you could be knocking doors in Wake County?

By starting 15 months before the primary, Jackson may figure he has the time.

Most of all, Jackson wants to distinguish himself from Cal Cunningham. It’s not Jackson’s fault he’s another white, male military veteran. But it’s his burden to bear.

Jackson got vetted by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2020. But Jackson says Senator Chuck Schumer wanted him to spend 18 hours a day “in a windowless room” making fundraising calls to pay for negative ads against Tillis.

Schumer anointed Cunningham and directed tens of millions of dollars his way. That looks like a bad choice now. But Cunningham was leading in the polls before he self-destructed.

Jackson says there’s another way to raise money: online. He raised $500,000 in the 48 hours after he announced.

There’s also another way to turn out votes. A retired journalist I know looked at 29 counties in North Carolina between I-95 and the coast: “Trump won them, but not by much, 408,182 to 383,716, around 25,000 votes. He won the rest of the state by around 50,000 votes. Obama outperformed Biden in a lot of these counties in 2008. That’s part of how he won the state.”

There are lots of Black voters in those counties. In 2020, Black turnout was up 4.1% over 2016. But only 68.4% of Black voters voted, compared to 78.8% of white voters. And there are 500,000 eligible but unregistered persons of color in the state.

That’s why some Democrats want former Chief Justice Cheri Beasley to run in 2022.

The debate isn’t just over the best candidate. It’s over the best road to victory.

Note: The 29 counties mentioned are Anson, Bertie, Bladen, Columbus, Cumberland, Duplin, Edgecombe, Franklin, Gates, Granville, Greene, Halifax, Hertford, Hoke, Lenoir, Martin, Nash, Northampton, Pitt, Richmond, Robeson, Sampson, Scotland, Tyrrell, Vance, Warren, Washington, Wayne and Wilson.

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

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