September 5, 2004


Ballantine gives Easley reason to be worried: Suddenly the reluctant campaigner steps up public appearances (JACK BETTS, 9/05/04, Charlotte Observer)

In 1996, then-state Rep. Robin Hayes found out how difficult it was to run against an entrenched incumbent. After defeating former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot for the Republican nomination for governor, Hayes found himself running against a Democrat who appeared to be everywhere at once.

Jim Hunt, then in his third term and running for his fourth, knew not only how to campaign -- daily, since boyhood -- but also how to maximize the advantages of the incumbent. Nowhere did it show up more starkly than in the wake of Hurricane Fran, which struck on Sept. 5, 1996. In the following weeks, Hunt and his blue chambray work shirts were on front pages and on TV news everywhere, listening to storm victims, talking to emergency officials and bringing messages of hope.

Hayes struggled, meanwhile to get the news media to pay attention to his campaign. It must have seemed like a tidal wave for the Republican challenger as Hunt rolled to victory that fall.

Maybe it seems that way for Patrick Ballantine, too. The former Senate Republican leader wasn't given much of a chance by the Keepers of the Conventional Wisdom earlier this year when he gave up his Senate seat to concentrate on his campaign for governor. After all, everyone was betting that Vinroot, running for a third time, would win the nomination again -- and some thought he might win it outright in the July 20 primary.

I don't know if anyone is underestimating Patrick Ballantine any longer. Ballantine defied expectations and led the first primary, stunning Vinroot and causing him to reassess his future. He announced the next day that he would not call for a runoff against Ballantine, a big boost for the Wilmington lawyer. Because Ballantine didn't have to campaign in a runoff Aug. 17, he got right to the job of telling voters why he ought to supplant Gov. Mike Easley.

Still, the incumbent Easley was showing a big lead in the polls and was widely regarded as a shoo-in. Some Republican Party leaders were privately shrugging off the '04 gubernatorial race as pretty much a lost cause.

It's not entirely clear why they didn't regard Easley as more vulnerable. Easley has struggled with a host of state budget issues after an economic recession cost the state tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues that governors usually use to boost education spending and other programs. To balance the budget and pay for new programs, Easley persuaded the legislature to take money that normally goes to local governments, raise sales taxes and allow local governments to raise their taxes, too. He also reduced the usual state contribution to a state retirement fund.

What's more, Easley defied convention by ignoring the kinds of political responsibilities that his predecessor used to thrive on. He reluctantly attended to some duties, but didn't show up for a big rally for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and his running mate, N.C. Sen. John Edwards in Raleigh. He didn't go to the Democratic National Convention, either. Republicans teased Easley about those absences, but the governor's staff probably was not too displeased; it suggested that Easley was independent in his thinking and not a slave to partisan politics.

Ballantine, on the other hand, is happily embracing his party and his national ticket.

How describe the state of a party whose vice presidential pick is not only not going to help carry his home state but is also going to see his own Senate seat go Republican and possibly the governorship?

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 5, 2004 8:47 PM

"it suggested that Easley was independent in his thinking and not a slave to partisan politics"

If a Repubican did that, the story would be that he was trying to distance himself from the bigots and religious fanatics who make up his party, or that he'd "grown in office" and was no longer beholden to the narrow special interests that make up the GOP.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at September 5, 2004 10:45 PM

Orrin -
I think you mean that John Edwards will _not_ help carry North Carolina.

Posted by: jim Miller at September 6, 2004 7:36 AM

Great hair and a big smile goes a long way in the Demo. Party.

Posted by: genecis at September 6, 2004 11:21 AM

The Democrat strategy in the South has become to win the overwhelming majority (90+%) of the Black vote, while getting a sliver of White votes. White trial lawyers who know how to befuddle the shallow end of the Southern gene pool are a major source of candidates. How can you not trust someone with great teeth and hair?

Posted by: Bart at September 6, 2004 1:01 PM