National Democrats blew it

Staff WriterMay 9, 2010 

Here are some lessons learned from Tuesday's primaries.

Limits of the national party. Senate races are now pieces on a national chess board. Both of North Carolina's senators, Republican Richard Burr and Democrat Kay Hagan, were handpicked by their national parties. So was former Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole. But even with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's support - and the symbolic nod from President Barack Obama - Cal Cunningham could not come close to winning the primary and faces an uphill fight in the runoff with Secretary of State Elaine Marshall.

The Democratic big boys in Washington mishandled North Carolina by waiting too long for Congressman Bob Etheridge to decide whether to run, by not either backing Marshall or, if they didn't like her chances, clearing the field for Cunningham. As Burr keeps building his $5 million war chest, the runoff will put the Democrats further behind.

Climbing the ladder. Chapel Hill lawyer Ken Lewis impressed many in his political debut. But going from private citizen to the U.S. Senate was too big a leap. Harvey Gantt was elected to the Charlotte City Council and then mayor before he ran for the Senate in 1990. Obama served in the state legislature before running for the Senate. Political novices who have won their party's Senate nominations - John Edwards in 1998 and Erskine Bowles in 2002 - have been willing to spend millions of their own money.

The middle is a dangerous place. With our politics particularly polarized, it is increasingly difficult to be in the middle. Take 8th District Democratic Congressman Larry Kissell of Biscoe. Although he is the first Democrat to hold the seat in a decade, he had a stiffer-than-expected challenge in the Democratic primary because he voted against the health care legislation. Nancy Shakir drew 37 percent of the vote. Plus, a group backed by the State Employees Association of North Carolina is trying to gather signatures to run a third-party candidate against Kissell in the fall - again, because of his health care vote. At the same time, one of his Republican challengers, Tim D'Annunzio, is running TV ads accusing him of being a socialist. Tough crowd.

What anti-incumbent mood? There's been a lot of talk about a throw-all-the-bums-out mood. But it wasn't evident in the primary. GOP Congressman Howard Coble drew five primary opponents, while Republican Congressman Patrick McHenry drew three opponents. Each won with 63 percent of the vote. Burr drew three Republican opponents and won 80 percent of the vote.

Kissell won with 63 percent, and Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler beat his challenger with 62 percent. Maybe voters are waiting for the fall to vent their frustration.

Democrats deflated. Unless something changes, this has the makings of a big Republican year. The Democratic Senate primary was virtually lifeless. It was hard to find bumper stickers, yard signs or even any buzz. Voter turnout of 426,000 in the Democratic primary was down by nearly a third from the 2002 Democratic primary.

That was the year Dole steamrolled Bowles. or 919-829-4532

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