North Carolina Democrats watching Tennessee and Virginia

by DG Martin

Last Thursday, President Bush and I were in Richmond, Va.

We did not get up with each other this time.

He did not have time to stop by the offices of the Presbyterian Synod of the Mid-Atlantic where I was busy at a church meeting.

And I did not have the thousands of dollars it would have cost me to attend the political fundraising event featuring the president.

Bush’s event raised about $500,000 for the campaign to reelect Virginia Senator George Allen. On the same day, former President Bill Clinton was also in Virginia raising about the same amount for Allen’s Democratic challenger, Jim Webb.

Interesting enough, you might say. Then you would ask if the two presidents’ visits to Virginia have anything to do with North Carolina.

The high level of fundraising activities signals a very close Senate election in our neighboring state.

Something similar is happening in our neighbor to the west, Tennessee. That state’s senator, Bill Frist, is not running for reelection. Democratic Rep. Harold Ford and Republican Bob Corker are locked in a contest that is very close.

The strong campaigns of the Democratic candidates in Virginia and Tennessee surprised most political experts. Like North Carolina, our neighbor states have been voting strongly Republican in recent presidential elections. None of the three currently has a Democratic senator.

In fact, of the 22 senators from the former states of the Confederacy, only four are Democrats (one each in Florida and Louisiana and two from Arkansas). The South has given the Republican majority in the Senate a reliable bedrock of strength.

Other than John Edwards’ victory in 1998, Democrats have not won a Senate election in North Carolina since Terry Sanford’s 1988 victory. In the last two senate elections, Democrats fell short, even with the strong candidacy of Erskine Bowles, who lost to Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr.

Of course there is no Senate election in North Carolina this year. Two years from now, however, Sen. Dole’s seat will be on the ballot. While prominent Democrats are already gearing up for statewide races for governor and lieutenant governor, there seems to be very little public discussion of possible Democratic candidates for the Senate.

With the recent Democratic losses in North Carolina Senate races, even with a strong, well-financed candidate like Bowles, it is no wonder that people are not standing in line to take on Dole, assuming she runs for reelection.

The strong Republican hold on Southern Senate seats also discourages interest.

But Democrats will be asking whether or not the good showing of Democratic candidates in Tennessee and Virginia might signal an opening for them in North Carolina in the 2008 election.

As they evaluate their prospects, Democrats ought to look at the reasons why the candidacies of Tennessee’s Harold Ford and Virginia’s Jim Webb caught fire.

Ford started as a long shot. If elected, he would be the first African-American senator from the South since Reconstruction. He has turned race to his advantage and has carefully campaigned as a moderate, even conservative, on issues that are important to conservative swing voters. For example he has supported a ban on gay marriage, a constitutional prohibition on flag-burning, a repeal of the estate tax, posting the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, and taken “pro-gun” positions.

Ford has also run what some have called the “best” Senate campaign in the country.

Jim Webb also started out as a long shot in Virginia. His opponent, Sen. Allen, was already being touted as a presidential candidate before he made a few bad mistakes. Webb was ready to pounce. As a former marine and Republican secretary of the Navy, he has a crossover appeal other Democrats envy.

If it takes candidates like Ford and Webb to compete for Senate seats in the South, would North Carolina Democrats be willing to nominate one? Could a moderate-conservative candidate win a Democratic primary?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that Democratic Gov. Mike Easley has demonstrated an ability to win over conservative swing voters. He cannot run for reelection in 2006. And he began his statewide election career running for the Senate in 1990.

Keep an eye on him.