Don’t underrate a mountain candidate

by DG Martin

When was the last time North Carolina had a governor from its mountain region?

It was so long ago that most North Carolinians today probably do not remember.

In 1972 a modest, plainspoken lawyer from Boone named Jim Holshouser upset his better-funded opponents in the primaries and general election to become the first Republican governor in the 20th Century.

Until 1972, the Democratic nomination had been “tantamount to election.” So when Holshouser began his campaign, hardly anybody gave him the slightest chance.

His win over the Democratic nominee Skipper Bowles came on the heels of a hard fought Democratic primary between Bowles and Lt. Gov. Pat Taylor, both of whom were well qualified, well financed and well known. Some of the bitterness left over from that primary weakened the Democrats and helped open the door for Holshouser.

There were other factors that helped him, including a Democratic presidential nominee, George McGovern, who was too liberal and too anti-war for many North Carolinians.

Could something like Holshouser’s victory happen again in 2008?

I wondered about this the other day when former NC Supreme Court Justice Robert Orr announced that he would be a candidate for governor in 2008.

Like Holshouser, Orr hails from the mountains – Pensacola Township in Yancey County, not far from Asheville.

Like Holshouser, he is modest and plainspoken.

Like Holshouser, he will probably face tough, well-financed opposition in the Republican primary. Likely candidates NC Sen. Fred Smith and Salisbury lawyer Bill Graham have significant personal assets to apply to the campaign.

Like Holshouser, should Orr win the Republican primary, he is likely to face the winner of a hard-fought Democratic primary between too strong candidates, Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue and State Treasurer Richard Moore.

Like Holshouser, he might find the Democratic ticket led by a presidential candidate who is too liberal and too anti-war for the taste of many North Carolinians.

Of course, history does not often repeat itself, but these are some intriguing parallels. Democrats should not repeat the mistake they made by underrating Orr the way they did Holshouser.

Nor should Orr underrate the challenges he faces.

Fred Smith and Bill Graham have a head start. They have already shown that they know how to turn their financial resources into media campaigns that give them favorable attention.

But neither Smith nor Graham has yet run statewide campaigns. Orr ran successfully for the Court of Appeals and for the Supreme Court.

While he does not have the financial resources of Smith and Graham, he has a close association with Art Pope, who has helped finance conservative Republican candidates. Orr is the executive director of the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law, which Pope’s family supports. Should Pope and his political friends rally around Orr’s candidacy, he should have the resources to compete.

So, who is Bob Orr and what does he stand for?

We know him best from his tenacious opposition to the state lottery and to state and local governments’ incentive programs to attract new businesses to North Carolina.

While many conservatives agree with his positions on these issues, so do many liberal Democrats. But they are not the positions of a majority of North Carolinians.

Some Democrats have told me that they would welcome Orr as the Republican nominee because they could characterize him as “anti-jobs” and “anti-economic development.”

But North Carolina voters have sometimes shown that they will forgive politicians who disagree with them on some issues if they really believe the candidate is willing to take principled stands on unpopular issues.

According to Mac McCorkle, a political advisor to many successful Democratic candidates including Gov. Mike Easley, North Carolina voters prefer moderate candidates, but not ones who search for the middle ground on every issue. They like for them to move out of the mainstream sometimes and demonstrate that their principles are not always shaped by the polls.

Is Orr the kind of principled moderate that Jim Holshouser proved to be? His close association with Art Pope will lead many to wonder.

But in the campaigns to follow, we will learn more.

One thing should be certain: Do not underrate this mountain candidate the way folks did Jim Holshouser in 1972.

DG Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at 5 p.m.