On Jan. 26, Congressman Brad Miller and North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue both announced they would not be running for re-election in 2012. In the ensuing chaos, state progressives have been praying to the political gods that the liberal Miller will replace Perdue. The N.C. Democratic Party establishment, on the other hand, has focused on fielding a challenger who can upset former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, the likely Republican candidate whose name recognition positions him as a formidable contender.
Is there a Democrat who can beat McCrory? The polling numbers say, well ... maybe.
"When you take away Perdue's personal ratings and just ask people what party do [they] want their governor to be from, polling shows that Democrats lead 46-45 and are in a decent position to win this race," said Jim Williams of Public Policy Polling.
For months, rumors had swirled that Perdue might end her political career at one term in the governor's mansion, but the general consensus was that she would stay in the race. "I was surprised by the announcement, only because I thought that if she was going to decline a re-election bid, she would do it last fall," said John Hood, president of conservative North Carolina think-tank the John Locke Foundation. "If she had bowed out last fall or even last summer, she could have given the future Democratic nominee a lot more time to get ready."
Williams suggested the governor saw the writing on the wall. "Perdue had been down double digits against McCrory in the polls for months," he said.
To understand the uphill battle the governor faced going forward, Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College, put Perdue's problems in context. "She came in at the height of the recession, she had to cut over a billion dollars out of the budget, convince a skeptical legislature of her own party to do a temporary tax increase, and then she got hit with the 2010 Republican landslide," he said.
Still, "McCrory has a dilemma," said Democratic consultant Gary Pearce. "He has been running against Perdue for four years, and obviously wants to keep running against her, but the bad news for him is that she will not be on the ballot."
McCrory built a reputation as a competent businessman, affable public figure and non-ideological problem-solver who narrowly lost the 2008 election for governor to Perdue because she rode in on President Obama's coattails. Yet McCrory's lust for power found him selling his soul to powerful libertarian oligarchs and forced his platform to a far-right conservative base.
If the new, more Tea Party-friendly McCrory is elected, we can expect massive cuts to the state budget that disproportionately hurt the poor. And the Republicans in the General Assembly are equally hellbent on enacting a radically reactionary social agenda to strip away civil rights and make it tougher for young people and minorities to vote. Based on recent evidence, the reinvented McCrory will be in those legislators' hip pocket.
Pearce suggested this scenario might provide an opening for a liberal re-awakening in North Carolina. "I'm struck that a lot of younger Democrats look at it as an opportunity to new leadership," he said.
The Charlotte Democratic establishment did not look at it that way, and rather typically urged natural-born-loser Erskine Bowles to jump into the race, which would have ensured nine months of boring politics dominated by campaign consultants and tracking polls. On Feb. 2, the former White House Chief of Staff and UNC system president wisely decided not to risk losing a statewide campaign for the third time.
As of last week, three other Democrats had officially entered the race: State Rep. Bill Faison, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, and former Congressman Bob Etheridge.
Faison is a self-financed ex-malpractice attorney who angered Democratic activists by repeatedly suggesting Perdue should not run for re-election, and boldly predicting she wouldn't. "It turns out that Faison was absolutely right, and all the activists and pundits who ridiculed him were wrong," said Hood.
Dalton comes straight from the Harry S. Truman school of politics, and is hardly an ideological bleeding heart, but he could be a rhetorical cage fighter against conservatives on bread-and-butter economic issues. "The party as a whole is probably more progressive than his record has been," said Pearce, "so he is going to have to address that as well as show some fire and some dynamism."
Etheridge has a strong record in the House and as state schools superintendent, but his long career leaves him open to attack and his age, 70, will be a factor. Plus, his vote against the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell will hurt him in a primary with a ballot amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
There is substantial room for a liberal populist to enter the race, and that candidate just might be retiring Congressman Miller of Wake County, who at press time was said to be considering the race. Miller is a champion of the progressive Netroots, due to his bold stances on financial reform and LGBT rights. He is considered a long shot but has the potential to mount an energetic campaign.
A Miller run could wake up college campuses, inspire a new generation into politics, and engage the apathetic at a time when the majority of eligible voters do not participate in elections and Republicans want to make it even harder for N.C. progressives to vote.
Could the Democrats elect a dark horse who is not a crafty behind-the-scenes administrator, but rather a leader who would draw a stark contrast as a financial reformer against longtime banking-industry friend McCrory.
Even conservative Hood thinks maybe so. "They don't just want to blunt the excesses of the Republican legislature," Hood said. "They want to destroy the Republican legislature and chase them out of Raleigh, and I think there will be an outsider candidate."
Mike Cooper is a student at the Charlotte School of Law and a 2009 New Leaders Fellow at the Center for Progressive Leadership. He was born and raised in North Wilkesboro, N.C.