Gary Pearce: Will history provide lessons for 2022 Senate race?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 16, 2021

By Gary Pearce

Can a Democrat win the race for U.S. Senate in North Carolina next year?

History isn’t encouraging. Since the two-party era began in 1972, Democrats have won only four of 17 U.S. Senate elections here – a puny .235 batting average.

Let’s look at the lessons those four wins might hold for 2022.

The first win was in 1974, when then-Attorney General Robert Morgan was elected to succeed retiring Senator Sam Ervin.

That was the Watergate year. President Nixon resigned in August; Republicans got routed in November. Only one Republican was left in the 50-member state Senate. Morgan won almost 62% of the vote.

Lesson No. 1: Pick a good year to run.

After that, a Democrat didn’t win for a dozen years.

In 1986, former Governor and Duke University President Terry Sanford beat Jim Broyhill, a longtime congressman and furniture heir. Broyhill had been appointed to succeed John East, who resigned because of poor health and later committed suicide.

Like 1974, 1986 was a good year for Democrats. President Ronald Reagan was enmeshed in the Iran-Contra scandal. It was Reagan’s second midterm election; historically, those are good for the opposition party.

Sanford was a respected senior statesman – and a savvy campaigner. When Republicans called him soft on defense, he put on his World War II paratrooper jacket and campaigned in a helicopter. He won 52-48%.

Lesson No. 2: Pick a strong candidate. And remember lesson No 1.

The next win came another 12 years later, in 1998. John Edwards beat Lauch Faircloth, who had beaten Sanford in 1992.

Edwards was a fresh face, a newcomer to politics who had spent his legal career representing victims of accidents and malpractice. Edwards was good on TV and willing to spend millions of dollars of his own money putting himself on TV.

Faircloth was showing his age. He ducked debates and joint appearances. Edwards was the perfect contrast. He ran as a Washington outsider who would fight for North Carolinians, not take money from lobbyists and avoid politics as usual.

It was President Clinton’s second midterm, and it was the year of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Clinton’s impeachment. But Republicans overplayed their hand. They made the election about Clinton’s lies and sex life, not about the country.

Edwards won in an upset, 51-47%.

Lesson No. 3: Pick a weak opponent. And remember lessons Nos. 1 and 2.

The final victory, 10 years later, was Kay Hagan in 2008 over incumbent Elizabeth Dole. Dole had been elected to succeed Helms in 2002.

Hagan was a popular and respected legislator and Greensboro civic leader. She picked a good year; Barack Obama carried North Carolina for President and helped elect Bev Perdue Governor.

Dole was hurt by independent ads suggesting she was too old for the job. She hurt herself by running an ad that suggested Hagan didn’t believe in God. Hagan won comfortably, 52-44%.

Lesson No. 4: Pick the rare good year when the Democratic presidential candidate runs strong here. And remember lessons Nos. 1, 2 and 3.

The 2022 race comes 14 years after Democrats’ last win. It will be a midterm election. Neither President Biden nor former President Trump will be on the ballot. But their records will be, for better or worse.

It will be a rare open-seat race, with no incumbent running.

In a year like that, you can’t do anything about the national political winds. You have to take what comes.

You can’t pick your opponent, although you can weaken him or her.

You can only pick your best candidate, run your best campaign and hope for the best.

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 public policy at www.NewDayforNC.com.

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