Commentary

Christensen: Primary lessons: Money, women and song

rchristensen@newsobserver.comMay 10, 2014 

Here are seven lessons from last week on Karl Rove, the Southern Manifesto, Clay Aiken and related subjects.

Lesson One: “Money makes the world go around,” as they sing in the musical “Cabaret.” In most races, the candidate who spent the most money won, such as House Speaker Thom Tillis. Ideas, principles and character are great. But you have to have money to get the message out. In a few cases, celebrity and incumbency trumped money.

Lesson Two. Negative ads can be too over the top. The $1.3 million spent tying N.C. Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson to child molesters was too extreme. Living in a swing state, North Carolina voters have been forced to become connoisseurs of negative ads. They know when one doesn’t pass the smell test, which is why the child molester ad backfired and Hudson led the primary field.

Lesson Three. Karl Rove still matters. The former strategist for former President George W. Bush was a key behind-the-scenes figure in Tillis’ victory, helping pull together GOP establishment support and making sure his PAC provided $1.6 million to Tillis’ candidacy. Rove played similar roles for Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr, the last two GOP senators elected from North Carolina.

Lesson Four. Tar Heel Republicans almost always get behind a single candidate in a Senate primary. In the 84 years since the state’s first Republican Senate primary was held in 1930, there has been only one runoff, according to Eric Ostermeier, author of the Smart Politics blog. That was in 1968 when Rowan County Solicitor Robert Somers defeated Durham attorney John Zimmerman. Tillis dodged a bullet in avoiding a runoff. Ostermeier notes that each of the last five Democratic and Republican U.S. Senate runoff winners (Somers in 1968, Nick Galifianakis in 1972, John Ingram in 1978, Harvey Gantt in 1990 and Elaine Marshall in 2010) all lost in the general election.

Lesson Five. Incumbency trumps all in primaries. The last time a North Carolina Congress member lost a primary was in 1956, which means that Tar Heel incumbents have won 299 straight primary elections. That year, three Democrats lost, including Reps. Charles Deane and Thurmond Chatham because they refused to sign the Southern Manifesto opposing the U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision ordering desegregation. The facts that Taylor Griffin won 45 percent against incumbent Rep. Walter Jones in the 3rd District and Frank Roche won 41 percent against Rep. Renee Ellmers in the 2nd District indicate conservative discontent with both.

Lesson Six. So far, this has been the Year of the Women. State Rep. Alma Adams of Greensboro was the Democratic nomination for the 12th Congressional District against a field of men, even though the district is heavily weighted toward Charlotte. Laura Fjeld of Orange County won the 6th District Democratic nomination for Congress even though the district is centered in Greensboro. Hudson led the Supreme Court primary. Ellmers fended off her tea party-inspired primary challenge. Lorrin Freeman won the Democratic primary for Wake County DA. And so it goes. Women beat guys everywhere on the ballot. Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan hopes the trend continues.

Lesson Seven. It’s best not to underestimate Clay Aiken. Yes, the 2nd Congressional District is designed to elect a Republican. But Aiken gets more TV airtime than Ellmers. And he is the sort of unconventional candidate who is difficult to run against. (See Fred Gandy, who played Gopher on “Love Boat,” Ben Jones, who played Cooter on “Dukes of Hazzard,” Sonny Bono, Al Franken, Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronald Reagan.) America is obsessed with celebrities.

Christensen: 919-829-4532; Twitter: @oldpolhack

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