The Carolina Gambit
Walking the parade route dressed in a white blouse and pink skirt ahead of the Polk County Democrat contingent in the Saluda Coon Dog Day Parade, Kay Hagan approached the review stand in what counts for downtown in this quaint mountain hamlet (Pop. 575) a block or so down the main drag from a historical sign erected by the state of North Carolina.
The famed “Saluda grade,” as described on the cast iron sign, is “the steepest, standard-gauge mainline railway grade in the US. Opened in 1878. Three miles long. Crests here.” South of Asheville the Eastern Continental Divide snakes in a southwesterly direction through these Blue Ridge Mountains — a Republican redoubt even before Jesse Helms snatched the segregationists away from the Democratic Party and launched the Grand Old Party’s modern era in North Carolina. “Ladies and gentleman, take a good look at this young woman running for Senate,” said Hop Foster, the jovial master of ceremonies as the 55-year-old Democratic candidate for US Senate passed the review stand. The incumbent’s representation in the parade looked modest by comparison. An elderly man walked the route sandwiched between campaign placards facing front and back and slung around his neck. “Elizabeth Dole,” Foster intoned. “She’s in there now, and trying to get back in.” The emcee later betrayed his partisan preference by referring to Tommy Melton, the Democratic chairman of the Polk County Commission as “my friend.” With recent polls placing Dole about 10 percentage points ahead of Hagan, the incumbent clearly enjoys frontrunner status. “Hagan’s challenge is she’s not run a statewide campaign before,” said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill. “This is a big state. She’s got to make the transition from someone who just campaigns in her state Senate district in Guilford County. She’s got to be seen as having the gravity and substance to be a US senator.” The town fair had attracted numerous young people, including some tough-looking white boys with burr haircuts who walked the railroad tracks, avoiding the crowds clotting the street. One of them wore a shirt popular in some parts of the South in the early ’90s bearing a Confederate battle flag and the retort, “You wear your X, I’ll wear mine.” The crowd brimmed with professional craftspeople, weavers, bikers and salt-of the-earth women with tanned and lined faces, dressed in tight blue jeans with painted lips and bleached hair mixed with less aged women from the country-club set. Dole carried this county by a margin of 18.2 percent six years ago. In 2004, when the Democrats got their next crack at a US Senate seat, their candidate lost by only 7.2 percent in Polk County. Notwithstanding those precedents, it would be an understatement to say Democrats are feeling energized this year. Down the mountain, at about 8:30 a.m., before the parade got underway, the local Democrats awaited the Hagan campaign’s arrival in a white clapboard house serving their headquarters in the county seat of Columbus. With a capacity of 70, the hall was full by the time Chip Hagan, husband of the candidate, poked his head through the doorway. “Welcome to your extended family,” said Tom Thomas, a local candidate for state Senate. Chip Hagan beamed. “I love extended family.” The campaign made about 25 stops during the week of Independence Day, with the end of the legislative session in Raleigh creating only a minor hiccup before Hagan pushed forward again in a flurry of retail politics. With less than a hundred days to go before Election Day, such intimate and familial moments on the trail are likely to soon be overtaken by the mass-media campaign — less personal, but infinitely more effective in shaping perceptions. Comprised of a sequence of encounters with voters, speeches, town-hall meetings and greetings to the party
faithful— all real-time, in-the-flesh politicking — the campaign right now cansometimes feel like something of a dress rehearsal for the moreimportant battle for hearts and minds to be fought later, ad againstad, on living-room television screens. It feels like a test run by thecandidate and her party allies in Washington as they analyze polling,gauge the mood of likely voters and consider the peculiarities of NorthCarolina politics before presenting the proper tableau — Kay the Motherand Wife, Kay the Proud Military Family Member, Kay the EffectiveBudget Writer in Raleigh — and highlighting the right issue positions —fixing international trade, getting out of Iraq with honor, providingrelief for high gas prices — to roll out a finished product for aconsumer market otherwise known as the electorate. At theSaluda Coon Dog Day Parade, the various candidates and activists withthe Polk County Democrats contingent rested on a flatbed trailer linedwith hay bales and towed behind a cherry-red Ford F-250 diesel V8four-wheel-drive pickup. The Democrats positioned themselves behind asmaller pickup covered in butcher paper and advertising “SaludaCoon-Shine” in heavy black Magic Marker lettering. Across theroad, the county Republicans, including Commissioner Ted Owens, milledaround their conveyance, a black Nissan pickup. “I’m hopingthey’ll vote for Dole,” the broad-shouldered Owens said when askedwhich candidate he expected to find favor with the electorate in PolkCounty. “Hold their nose and vote for her,” said a man who hadbeen conferring with the commissioner, and Owens hastily excusedhimself. Later Owens stood behind the cab clasping the rollbars like a rancher surveying his stock. As the parade commenced, avolley of hard candy flew from the hands of a group of high-schoolstudents seated in the bed of the Saluda Coon-Shine truck, and theRepublicans duly returned fire. During the parade, the students wouldperiodically yelp spirited calls of “legalize it.” Behind them, theDemocrats took up a brief chant of “yay for Kay.” As they neared thereview stand, one called out: “A vote for Obama is a vote for yourmama.”
TheSenate campaign is about more than Saluda and Polk County, about morethan North Carolina even, but how voters responded to her here mightgive some indication of how her candidacy will play across the state.For the national Democratic Party, the contest between Hagan and Doleis a chance to broaden its majority in the Senate and to multiply thepower of a hoped-for Obama presidency, to recalibrate the balance ofpolitical power in Washington for perhaps a generation. The nationalparty clearly views Hagan as a viable candidate, and has committed itsresources accordingly. Two months before Hagan won her primaryagainst five other candidates, including an openly gay Chapel Hillresident favored by bloggers and others in the liberal activist wing ofthe party, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had spent$158,693 to cover expenses for the Hagan campaign. (National partycommittees are normally limited to giving a total of $39,900 toindividual Senate campaigns over the course of a campaign, but underthe so called Millionaire’s Amendment, congressional candidates inNorth Carolina facing opponents who spend significant personal fundsmay receive coordinated party expenditures from party committees suchas the DSCC of up to $575,500.) The DSCC spent $66,717 from early Marchup to the date of the primary on payroll for Hagan’s campaign staff. Thecommittee spent $20,626 on media production and $18,372 on politicalconsulting, including research, direct mail and fundraising support,all on Hagan’s behalf. Among the committee’s expenditures was a $10,064check dated April 17 to AWF Consulting of Washington for catering andfacilities. The committee’s communication director, Matthew Miller,declined to provide specific information about the event, but said itis common for the committee to work together with candidates onfundraisers. Only two other Democratic Senate candidates havereceived greater sums of cash in coordinated party expenditures thanHagan: Jeff Merkley, the Oregon House speaker, who is challengingRepublican Sen. Gordon Smith, with $340,453; and Sen. Mary Landrieu ofLouisiana, who is defending her seat against John Kennedy, the state’sRepublican treasurer, with $184,861. At a campaign stop inCharlotte on July 24, Hagan looked directly in a reporter’s eyes andsaid with absolute conviction: “This is a race I’m going to win. Thisis not
theDemocratic Party, which supports all candidates. This is the DemocraticSenatorial Campaign Committee, and it’s a very strategic commitment.They know what I can do.” In addition to relying on the DSCC to coverthe cost of airline tickets and hotels, and to foot the bill forpolling, Hagan has hired staff from a pool of experienced partyoperatives, including Press Secretary Dave Hoffman, who moved toGreensboro after serving on the staff of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse ofRhode Island, and Political Director Muthoni Wambu, who worked onDelaware Sen. Joe Biden’s recent presidential campaign. Hagansaid she has traveled to Washington to meet with the DSCC leadership.In discussions with the committee, which is chaired by New York Sen.Charles Schumer, Hagan said her national sponsors embraced “the factthat I am a pragmatic, common-sense, hard worker who gets things done.I live in North Carolina and my husband can vote for me. The people inNorth Carolina are very frustrated with Dole. Working people in thisstate are looking for a change.”
BothHagan and Miller acknowledged that the two parties have been in atleast periodic communication, but declined to discuss the specifics ofhow the committee vetted Hagan’s candidacy. “It is one of themost important races in the country, and Kay Hagan is one of the bestcandidates,” Miller said. “She works hard, she’s an exciting candidateand she has run a tremendous campaign.” The hundreds ofthousands of dollars spent by the DSCC to help Hagan during her primarycampaign will pale in comparison to $5-$6 million dollars rumored tohave been committed for television advertising buys on behalf of thecandidate before the November general election. Miller would neitherconfirm nor deny the investment, which was originally reported in the News & Observer. Toput the amount in perspective, the Hagan campaign reported raising only$2.1 million as of the end of June. The Democrats have employed astrategy of exploiting the fact that despite her six years in officemany North Carolinians don’t know much about Dole. “She comes across toher constituents as a known quantity, but Democrats think she’svulnerable for a couple reasons,” Guillory said. “Just because peoplethink they know her, she’s not an everyday visible person in the state.That’s why you’ve seen her spending money on advertising. She’s raisedher visibility in recent months. My sense is that the Democrats want tomake the case that she’s a Washington figure rather than a NorthCarolina leader. She’s combating that with the stuff she’s doing withthe sheriffs on immigration.” One of Dole’s television adsfeatures Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes and other sheriffsexpressing gratitude to the senator for her assistance on localimmigration enforcement. The ad shows tough-talking men and comfortingimages of a smiling Dole stepping out of a pickup truck, coupled withbucolic rural scenes shot in soft light. A dozen sheriffs take turnsreciting an adulatory
narrative. “Thepoliticians talk and talk about illegal immigrations,” says SheriffSteve Bizzell of Johnston County, “but Senator Dole actually didsomething about it.” Davidson County Sheriff David Grice picks up thethread: “Most of us didn’t have tools to apprehend illegal immigrantswho were repeatedly committing crimes.” “The ones who aretough, hardened criminals,” Davie County Sheriff Andy Stokes says. AndBarnes continues: “To give us access to the federal tools to identify,apprehend… “…And deport these repeat criminals,” Alamance CountySheriff Terry Johnson finishes. Barnes, one of the mostpowerful Republicans in Guilford County, said his application for287(g) program was stuck because of a backlog at Immigration andCustoms Enforcement. Dole expedited the application after receiving acall from the sheriff, and the senator helped set up a collaborativearrangement among North Carolina sheriffs so that together they couldaccess the federal government’s database of illegal border crossers.Later, Dole attended the NC Sheriffs Association conference in AtlanticBeach to reaffirm her support for the sheriffs. “We had ameeting right here in this office with the sheriffs, many of whom wereinvolved in the commercial,” Barnes said. “She looked at some of theproblems of immigration, problems of getting information and data fromfolks who did not have the paper work. She talked to us.” Barnes saidhe considers Hagan a friend, but was happy to help Dole, his fellowRepublican. “What is motivating me is that Senator Dole hasaccess,” Barnes said. “She’s been up there long enough that she knowswho to call, she knows who to contact, she knows what buttons to push.From my point of view, that access and experience is a valuable thing.” It remains unclear how much advantage Dole will realize fromhighlighting the issue of immigration. “It probably helps Dole energizethe base of Republican voters more than it gets her swing voters,” saidFerrel Guillory of the Program on Public Life. “She needs politicallyto have that kind of excitement in her campaign. We’ve got to realizethat immigration has become an emotional issue in this state, becauseimmigration has been increasing. We’ve had a strong economy and we’vehad jobs, and Latinos have been coming here for the jobs that theeconomy has produced, many of them low-wage, low-skilled jobs.” Just asDole has tapped into unease among the electorate over the role ofimmigrants in the state, the Hagan campaign has its own stratagem toexploit popular frustrations through a series of encounters between thecandidate and voters at gas stations to highlight the high price offuel. The authenticity of one of the events, an appearance at Steve’sFriendly BP in Greensboro on July 11, was undermined by the presence oflocal Republican activists and a couple reporters horning in on theconversation. Don Wendelken, a former Republican candidate for GuilfordCounty Commission, showed up on a Harley and tried to goad Hagan intosupporting domestic oil drilling, before she extricated herself with athumbs-up. Mike Stone, a registered Republican who is acandidate for Guilford County School Board, pulled his white vintageCamaro with red SS racing stripes up to the pump. He too wanted to knowif Hagan would support new domestic oil drilling. She parried thatCongress should consider eliminating tax breaks for oil companies, andinvest the money into research on alternative energy sources. “AllI’m saying is, let’s open the field up a little bit and put money intorenewable energy,” she said. Stone tried a different tack. “Let me askyou this question,” he said. “If the oil companies — well, let’s get alittle more basic. We all have retirement plans, right?” “No, wedon’t,” Hagan said. “Well, you do,” Stone shot back. “I do. Right? Ibet that our retirement plan includes gas prices. So we want ourretirement plans to go up, correct?” Hagan tried to follow his logic,and then demurred. “I think that’s a whole separate issue,”she said. Hagan scanned the pumps for new gas customers and departed.While the crowd at Steve’s Friendly BP in Greensboro contained asizeable batch of Republican contrarians, other stops such as PolkCounty have found crowds of Democrats happy to have another prominentcandidate for national office to join Obama in rallying the party. Waitingfor the Saluda Coon Dog Day Parade to get underway, Democratic activistJerry Hardvall, who wore an Obama shirt, noted that in 2006 theDemocrats picked up two of five seats on the previously all-Republicancounty commission. The three remaining Republicans, including TedOwens, face reelection this year. “It’s almost an assured thing we’regoing to flip it,” Hardvall said. “We have George Bush to thank for anawful lot of this,” added Ray Gasperson, a Democratic candidate forcounty commission. “So many people have been shocked by his policies.After the 2004 election, I suddenly felt I had to get up and dosomething. I went to the Democratic men’s breakfast. I could never haveconceived of running for county commissioner.” That sentimentextends to the Columbus police chief, a 62-year-old registeredDemocrat, whose wife Becky chairs the county board of elections. “Thewar was something that was sold to us based on something that was neverthere,” Butch Kennedy said. “It’s a shame that there were four thousandpeople that gave their lives for something that was never there. I havea hard time when the government fabricates stuff.” Jim Jacksonrecalled how, as a veteran of World War II, he switched from theDemocrats to the Republicans because of his admiration for Dwight D.Eisenhower, and because of corruption in the local Democratic Party. “In1954, we had an incumbent sheriff who was arrested for drunkendriving,” said the 84-year-old Jackson, who is now regarded as a“Democratic icon” in Polk County. “He was a Democrat. We felt we had toget rid of him. The Republican candidate for sheriff won bythirty-seven votes. I was a delegate to the Republican convention in1956 in San Francisco. That convention shifted me back to theDemocratic Party because I was very much into civil rights, and I sawno hope for the Republican Party. I saw a little hope for theDemocratic Party. The county went exactly opposite of me. I would sayfrom the sixties pretty much until the last election, it was allRepublican.” Voter registration for Democrats in Polk Countyhas increased 6.3 percent since the spring of 2006 — nearly double thatof the Republicans. The Democrats’ advantage in registering new votersin Polk County closely reflects trends across the state. Recenthistory also bodes well for Democrats in the mountains and forstatewide candidates who need their votes to win elections. TheRepublicans lost the 11 th Congressional District in 2006, which coversthe western end of the state, when Democrat Heath Shuler beat incumbentCharles Taylor by a 7.6 percent margin. Polk was among thenine counties in which Democratic majorities helped swing the districtinto Shuler’s column. Erosion of Republican clout is also evident inthe 8 th Congressional District east of Charlotte where the loss oftextile jobs to offshore locations, coupled with Republican-led tradedeals such as the 2005 Central American Free Trade Agreement, havedisillusioned many voters with the party. Despite little support fromthe national party, Democrat Larry Kissell came within 329 votes ofousting Republican Robin Hayes in 2006. Democratic registration hasincreased by double digits since 2006 in Cabarrus County, whichincludes Hayes’ native Concord. Hagan campaigned in Hayes’ district onJuly 25, making stops in Wadesboro, Rockingham, Laurinburg andFayetteville. Still, the precedent of past Senate campaignsoffers a mixed prognosis for Hagan. “John Edwards in 1998, ten yearsago, was the last time a Democrat won a Senate race,” Guilloryreflected. “Democrats like John Edwards and, before him, TerrySanford won their seats in non presidential-election years. Democratshaven’t won a Senate seat in a presidential election year since SamErvin in sixty eight.” Dole beat Democrat Erskine Bowles by an8.6 percent margin in 2002, carrying not only Republican strongholds inthe mountains and conservative areas along the coast, but the state’sthree most populous counties encompassing Charlotte, Raleigh andGreensboro. When Bowles made a second attempt in 2004, thenagainst Burr, the Democrats managed to retake the three largestcounties and narrow the margin to 4.6 percent, but the Republicansstill prevailed by accumulating sufficient votes in rural counties tosend Bowles home without the coveted seat. It should come as nosurprise that the Democrats are at least outwardly bullish this timearound. Democratic pollsters John Anzalone and Jeff Liszt, whooperate their political shop out of Montgomery, Ala., received $8,000from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee the day before theNorth Carolina primary to research Hagan’s prospects in the Novembergeneral-election match-up with Dole. “Kay Hagan faces a significantlymore advantageous political environment than previous Democratic Senatecandidates in North Carolina,” they wrote in a May 27 memo. “Democraticregistration has increased, and expanded participation in this year’sDemocratic primary suggests higher turnout among Democrats in the fall.At the same time Democratic turnout is rising, voters are morepessimistic about the direction of the country, and the Republicanleadership in Washington shoulders much of the blame.” InCharlotte, as in Polk County, Democrats appear revved up by Obamafever. Democratic registration in Mecklenburg County, which encompassesthe Queen City, has shot up by double digit percentages since thespring of 2006. About 25 people, not counting campaign staff and press,attended a veterans town-hall meeting — the third Hagan had held thusfar — at American Legion Post 380 on July 24. “I hope Kay has a chance,but I know Dole has a lot of support across the state,” said JackFlynn, an unsuccessful Democratic candidate against Republican Rep. SueMyrick in the 9 th Congressional District and a member of the USVeterans Commission. “I think Barack is certainly going to help all theDemocratic candidates down the ticket. He may have some coattails.” Flynnsaid he perceives a clear difference between Hagan and Dole on veteransissues, complaining that Dole has voted in support of requests by theBush administration to reduce benefits funneled through the VeteransAdministration. “I’ve known Kay for several years,” he said.“I know her to be a true friend to veterans.” And yet to win, theDemocratic Party must fashion together an unwieldy coalition of thosewho favor moderate change and those frustrated by incremental advances.Among those who may want more than Hagan is capable of delivering isJohn Autry, a Navy sailor from 1972 to 1976 and organizer of theCharlotte chapter of Veterans For Peace. “We just want theseveterans taken care of,” Autry said. “We want a veteran friendlyVeterans Administration. We want to pay active-duty soldiers a livingwage. We don’t want any military families to have to rely on foodstamps for sustenance. We also believe the best way to support thetroops is to not send them into harm’s way needlessly. We’re going topush forth these issues with all the candidates, not just Democrats.” Beforehearing Hagan’s pitch Autry indicated that he had yet to form animpression of the candidate. “When the campaign is going on everythingis easy,” he said. “Everyone’s supportive. We call them the ‘summersoldiers.’ But when things get tough, we can’t rest. Know what I mean?”“With US military spending exceeding that of the rest of the worldcombined, wouldn’t it seem that we could find a way to take care of ourwounded warriors?” Autry asked Hagan. “Wouldn’t it seem that we couldspend some money on making sure that active-duty soldiers receive aliving wage?” Hagan responded by saying that a number of North CarolinaNational Guard members have lost their houses to foreclosures whiledeployed in Iraq, and mentioned that as a state senator she played arole in creating an emergency fund to help them make mortgage payments.During the meeting, Hagan committed to hiring a veteran on her Senatestaff, and made ample mention of two nephews in the military, herhusband’s military service in Vietnam, and the fact that herfather-in-law is a retired two-star general in the Marine Corps. Alludingto the backlog of disability claims filed by returning veterans at theVeterans Administration, Hagan committed to due diligence but promisedno miracles. “From the disability standpoint, we have got todo more,” she said. “With $11 billion spent a day in Iraq, surely wecan do better than this. I can’t say I’m going to get it fixed the dayI’m elected, but rest assured that I’m going to be working on it.”Hagan will have to walk a tightrope in her contest with Dole to projectan image that allows voters to distinguish her from her opponent, butavoids casting herself as anything other than a solid middle-ofthe-road business progressive. “The Republicans’ tactic for along time has been to try to portray North Carolina Democrats as beinglike national Democrats,” Guillory said. “In the last Senate election,Richard Burr had those pictures of Erskine Bowles with PresidentClinton. Bowles was a traditional, businessman-conservative Democrat,but he was portrayed as being more like the liberal members of thenational
Democrats. It’s one of the challenges of the North Carolina Democrats to distance themselves from the national party. “She’llbe tested over: What is she going to do different than Senator Dole?”he added. “This one is going to be fought over: Do voters want to stickwith Senator Dole, or are they fed up with the way things are going? Asolid majority think the country’s on the wrong track, so it’s whetherthey feel comfortable that Hagan would put the country back on theright track.”
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