Commentary

Christensen: The endless campaign becomes a reality in NC

rchristensen@newsobserver.comNovember 2, 2013 

Republican Pat McCrory is appearing in TV ads talking about his accomplishments as governor. His likely opponent, Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, is moving around the state giving speeches.

The next governor’s race is more than three years away. That’s 36 months, or more than 1,100 days.

Welcome to the endless campaign, the further Washingtonization of Raleigh.

This is old stuff in presidential politics. Presidential wannabes are already making appearances in Iowa, the site of the first caucuses in 2016.

There was a time not so long ago when campaigns for governor actually began in the same year as the election. What a quaint idea. It sounds almost British now, with their short elections.

Take McCrory, for instance. During 2007, state Sen. Fred Smith of Johnston County and former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr began campaigning across the state for the GOP nomination. But in January 2008, McCrory, the Charlotte mayor, became a late entry into the race and won the primary anyway.

Although he lost to Democrat Bev Perdue in November 2008, McCrory lost little time in mounting his comeback.

By June 2009, he was on the stump making speeches attacking the Democratic administration in Raleigh. By July, he had teamed with Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy group founded by industrialists Charles and David Koch, in holding rallies across the state against President Barack Obama’s proposed health care program.

The state Democratic Party had already assigned a “tracker” to follow him with a video camera.

Crowded airwaves

The go-long strategy worked so well for McCrory that Perdue announced in early 2012 that she would not seek re-election.

Cooper seems to be following the McCrory model of starting early and running a multiyear campaign against an incumbent – one who like Perdue has been dropping in the polls.

But McCrory learned from Perdue as well. Perdue’s popularity crumbled in her first six months during a deep recession, and she never recovered.

Faced with a sharp drop in his popularity, McCrory’s political backers, through The Renew North Carolina Foundation, in September began running TV ads statewide bolstering the governor’s image.

It was an unprecedented move in North Carolina to run TV ads just nine months after a governor took office – and not a sign of strength for McCrory. It is impossible to imagine the friends of former Govs. Luther Hodges, Dan Moore or Jim Martin running TV ads at this stage in their administrations.

Nor has McCrory had the airwaves to himself this fall.

The U.S. Senate race for Kay Hagan’s seat is more than a year away, but Americans for Prosperity just began running $1.6 million in advertising tying the Democrat to Obama’s health care program. The ad campaign appears designed to soften up Hagan, while the Republican candidates are busy running against each other in next May’s primary.

Marathon campaigns

The AFP TV ad campaign suggests we are looking at a full year of TV ads in the 2014 Senate campaign. Such marathon TV advertising campaigns are not new in North Carolina.

In the 1984 Senate race between Republican Sen. Jesse Helms and Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt, the advertising campaign began in April 1983 and continued until November 1984, except for a Christmas week ceasefire.

There are multiple problems with a three-year McCrory-Cooper race: voter fatigue, primary opponents, and the fact that every public policy debate is seen through a narrow partisan prism.

Cooper’s emergence does provide some leadership for a state Democratic Party that often appears rudderless.

But the risk is that instead of debating the great issues facing the state – taxes, education, jobs – we are going to get an endless amount of McCrory-Cooper partisan trash talk for the next three years.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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