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The Final Countdown

More than just an election is at stake

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For Republican Jim Puckett, the run-up to Election Day could be the final countdown to the end of his political career.

Puckett abandoned his comfortable, easy-to-win conservative district in the north part of the county for a shot at an at-large county commission seat. Now he is putting all of his chips on the table to test a local theory that in an off-year election, Republicans can still retake the Mecklenburg County Commission.

Democrats say it can't be done -- that the 2004 election proved that Mecklenburg County has gone so blue that there is no going back. But a look at the numbers shows that both parties are losing traction to a power block of moderate unaffiliated voters who increasingly determine elections here.

Back in 1993, 51 percent of voters here were Democrats, 38 percent were Republicans and 11 percent were unaffiliated. Now 43 percent are Democrat, 34 percent are Republican and 23 percent are unaffiliated. Since some of those Democrats are the "old Southern" conservative types who live in areas like Derita and who vote Republican, and since unaffiliated voters tend to swing either way, Republicans can still win, though Democrats have the advantage.

So for years, the pattern has generally been that the Democrats win a majority of the three at-large seats in presidential election years, when Democrat voters turn out in higher numbers. In off years, like this one, when there is no presidential race and no major statewide race to grab Democrats' attention and pull them to the polls, Republicans win, because Republican voters vote more consistently than Democrats do.

With a couple of exceptions, like the arts debacle in 1998, when Republicans angered the community by defunding popular arts groups because of a gay-themed play they objected to and corporate leaders raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat them, Republicans often retake the commission with a 5-4 majority in off years.

The county went stunningly blue in 2004, when local Democrats benefited from hundreds of thousands of dollars in national Democratic money that was pumped in to turn voters out by national and Senate candidates.

Democrats like local strategist Tom Chumley like to argue that was the final shutout -- that the county is blue now, that the national mood is so anti-Republican that the Democrats can now sweep all three at-large seats in an off-year election.

If that happens, it could change the landscape of local politics from one where Republican opinions are given a moderate level of attention on the off chance they might surge to the polls and sweep Democrats out, to one where Democrats rule the day and can ignore the opinions of Republican voters completely.

After the 2004 election, just three of the nine members of the county commission were Republican. To win back control, Republicans need two out of three at-large seats, a feat they accomplished in 2002, the last time they won back control of the commission.

Puckett is convinced that between the three of them, he and Republican candidates Kaye McGarry, who currently holds an at-large seat on the school board, and Dan Ramirez, who won an at-large seat in 2002 and lost it in 2004, can win at least two seats.

But they are not leaving anything to chance. Most years, candidates on both sides of aisle just put out signs and spent money on mailers. This year the Republicans are going all out, they say. The state party has gotten involved, which means that local donors can send unlimited amounts of money to the state party -- which can turn around and spend it back here. Sources say the party has spent money on polling and is putting upwards of $100,000 into television commercials. According to their polls, which mirror national trends, local Republicans believe that they can use gay issues to drive a wedge between voters and Democrat Parks Helms, the popular chairman of the county commission and a vocal supporter of gay rights. So they're running a commercial in which Helms defends gay rights. They're also attacking at-large Democrats Jennifer Roberts and Wilhelmenia Rembert for double-digit tax increases.

"Republicans have been afraid to run before," says Puckett of colleagues who haven't really taken on the Democrats on over controversial issues like their support for gay rights and benefits for gay partners. "This is the first time we've really done that."

But Michael D. Evans, chairman of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party, isn't impressed. Republicans may be running commercials and spending more than in the past, but $100,000 isn't enough to make much of a dent in a county of this size, he and other Democrats say.

"The Republicans are spending a lot of money because they feel they are in trouble," Evans says. "It's an off-year election and we are concerned about turnout and there doesn't seem to be a hot button issue to turn voters out."

He says the Republicans have misgauged the community, which is way too moderate for the conservative message they've chosen.

"The Republicans have clearly drawn a line in the sand," says Evans. "They have a very ideological team and are advertising that it is a conservative Republican slate. I think there is a clear difference in what you are going to get if you elect those folks or the Democratic team that is currently leading the county commission."

And there's another thing that Democrats have going for them that could end Puckett's political career on Nov. 7: Republican angst.

The gay marriage issue may have worked wonders for Republicans across the country in 2004, but running on it now could actually backfire on local Republicans, Democratic insiders say. After a scandal in which national Republican leaders failed to reign in Republican Congressman Mark Foley after they learned of his affinity for young male pages, running commercials focusing on Helms' support of gay rights could serve to remind Mecklenburg voters of the Foley scandal or worse, make local Republicans look hypocritical.

There's another possibility as well, that even some local Republicans admit to off the record. It may not matter at all what they do this year. Those who know how to read the internals of tracking polls have seen a tsunami coming on the Democratic side. In 1994, 29 percent of Democrats told Gallup pollsters they were more excited about that election than the one before and Democrats got crushed. In recent polls, 48 percent of Democrats nationally reported they were more excited about this election than the previous one, the highest number Gallup has recorded in over 15 years. Republican enthusiasm levels for this election hover around 39 percent, which is pretty typical, suggesting that if Democrats can maintain that enthusiasm for another week and a half, the Republicans may get clobbered.

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