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Autopsy of the 2006 NC elections

by Kirk Ross

At 20,000 feet, the level at which the national media generally views us, the political landscape of North Carolina has shifted ever so slightly in the form of Heath Shuler’s win over Charles Taylor and the turnover of one congressional seat.

Nevermind how close NC-8 was or Democratic pickups in the state legislature or how Walter Jones Jr. campaigned hard against the war in one of the most military populated districts in the country.

At ground level, people here can see that things are very different. Like Howard Dean, state Democratic Party chair Jerry Meek has shown there are votes in areas that had been written off as GOP strongholds. In Wake County, the mountains, the coast and even in the heart of tobacco country there is evidence that with the right message and the right messenger there are far fewer safe seats than thought.

The conventional wisdom that the GOP can cruise ahead thanks to a migration of traditional Republican voters may have gone up in smoke last Tuesday. So was it coincidence that Ferrell Blount, head of the state GOP and a man known for his fondness for the demographic theory of eventual political majority, chose just a few hours before the polls closed on Election Day to announce he was stepping down? Word is he’s been encouraged to run for something – fortunately state demographer is not an elective post.

Here’s a rundown of the shifting sands:

The fate of NC-8, which stretches from Kannapolis to Laurinburg, is up to the election boards of the district’s 10 counties. While there was a lot of disappointment Larry Kissell didn’t share in the Democatic triumph outright, there’s still hope he can join the 110th Congress. A recount is scheduled to start Friday, Nov. 17 and it’s going to be close.

GOP incumbent Robin Hayes’ margin on Election Day was 465 votes – less than half a percent of the more than 120,000 votes cast. Kissell won six of the 10 counties and swamped Hayes in Mecklenberg County 68 to 32 percent. Hayes ran strong in Cumberland and Cabarrus counties, but he lost in places like Hoke County despite a lovely, federally-funded refurbishment of downtown Raeford over the past couple of years.

There are 1,492 provisional ballots not yet counted. Kissell would have to win roughly 65 percent of those to come out on top. The recount will draw some further attention to this race and a lot more national dollars to the district in the next election.

Over in NC-11, things got settled right quick once the polls closed. In between thanking local supporters and explaining to the national media over and over that he ran as a Democrat, Heath Shuler, North Carolina’s newest congressman, has been pulling together a team.

Meanwhile Charles Taylor has a few more days warming a chair in Congress before he can head back to his bank offices in Asheville and stare out at the park that cost him votes.

Shuler’s win represented a comeback for Democrats in western North Carolina and vindicated efforts to try to woo the mountains back to the fold.

As expected, Shuler had coattails that helped with two decisive Senate races; Joe Sam Queen took his seat back from Sen. Keith Presnell and Democrat John Snow won decisively. Both Queen and Snow were on the GOP’s target list.

As for the rest of the NC Senate, the Democratic pickup was a net two seats thanks to winning one open seat, unseating two GOP incumbents and losing just one of their own. GOP Sen. Hugh Webster of Alamance County was among the fallen much to the chagrin of the Capital Press Corps and anyone looking for an odd quote out of a General Assembly debate. The sole GOP pickup was Carteret County’s Jean Preston. The Senate is now 31 Democrats and 19 Republicans.

Across the hall, the NC House Democrats widened their majority to 68 to 52 in a set of wins that showed that the demographic shift in the state may not favor the GOP after all. Democrat Van Braxton won in a heavily GOP district near Kinston that was the scene of a bitter interparty fight. He defeated Willie Ray Starling, who was backed by Art Pope & Co. In other signs of incursions on what was though to be Republican turf, Wake County’s longtime Rep., the silver-throated Russell Capps, was defeated by Ty Harrell and out west Catawba County’s Ray Warren unseated GOP Rep. Mark Hollo; and Watauga County’s Cullie Tarleton beat GOP Rep. Gene Wilson.

Kirk Ross travels the state for CapeFearMercury.com and writes about state governance at ExileOnJonesStreet.com. He can be reached at editor@capefearmercury.com.

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