RALEIGH, N.C. — Gov. Mike Easley handily
won re-election Tuesday
, persuading voters that citizens harmed by job losses in textiles and furniture and the recession would see better times in the next four years.
Easley, a former local prosecutor and two-term attorney general, defeated Republican Patrick Ballantine, who conceded defeat at mid-evening.
"Tonight, the people spoke up, not for me, but spoke up for opportunity and for progress," Easley said at a downtown Raleigh rally for state Democrats.
"They said, 'You do whatever you have to do to bring good jobs and a better economy to this state and we will support you and protect you all the way," he said.
Ballantine, who was in Wrightsville Beach to wait out the results, called Easley to congratulate him on his re-election.
"Sorry we couldn't have more fun tonight than we were supposed to have," Ballantine told supporters at a hotel, his voice choking with emotion. "We knew it was tough to challenge an incumbent. We knew we would be taking a big risk.
"We ran what we thought was a good race. I kept it positive."
Easley said Ballantine "ran a very good and hard race ... and there will be another day (for him), but not with me."
An analysis of exit poll interviews found that Easley carried voters in lower income brackets and those who had struggled financially, as the state did earlier this decade. North Carolina has lost more than 163,000 manufacturing jobs since 2001.
But voters appeared not to hold that against the incumbent; the state's economy appeared to turn the corner in the last year, with the unemployment rate dipping below the national average and state government ending the most recent fiscal year with a surplus.
Voter Angela Reavis, 38, of Raleigh, said Tuesday she chose Easley not because of his record, "but because I knew more about the candidate, one more so than the other."
All year long, Easley argued that voters should re-elect him because the state emerged stronger from its struggles, thanks to investments made in his education initiatives even during a budget shortfall that reached $1.6 billion in 2002.
"It's important to gauge your success on whether or not you make progress, even in tough times," Easley told The Associated Press in a March interview. "The question is, 'Did we make progress and face adversity at the same time?' And the answer is, 'Yes, we did."'
Ballantine's argument that Easley raised taxes three years in a row instead of cutting waste in state government to plug the shortfall failed to resonate with voters.
Easley's campaign said taxes were raised only one year, a move he described as necessity to fill the hole as he was constitutionally required to do.
Easley performed well in the Triangle, Charlotte and Down East, where Ballantine had hoped to capture some conservative Democrats. Ballantine did best in the suburbs and among higher-income voters.
Ballantine also performed well with the 35 percent of voters surveyed who considered themselves born-again Christian, winning their votes by a 2-to-1 margin.
Easley continues a trend of North Carolina governors who won their second terms by a comfortable margin. Governors first were allowed to run in successive terms starting in 1977. Republicans haven't taken the Executive Mansion since 1988.