RALEIGH, N.C. — Facing a tough fight for a second term, Gov. Beverly Perdue said Thursday that she will not seek re-election so she can focus her energy on fighting for a sales tax increase to fund education.
"The thing I care about most right now is making sure that our schools and schoolchildren do not continue to be the victims of shortsighted legislative actions and severe budget cuts inflicted by a legislative majority with the wrong priorities," Perdue said in a statement.
Last week, she proposed increasing the state sales tax rate by three-quarters of a cent to help restore funding to public schools, which lost millions in state funding last year as lawmakers slashed the budget to erase a deficit. Republican legislative leaders allowed a temporary one-cent sales tax increase to expire last June rather than extend it to avoid some cuts.
"It is clear to me that my race for re-election will only further politicize the fight to adequately fund our schools. A re-election campaign in this already divisive environment will make it more difficult to find any bipartisan solutions," Perdue said.
The decision stunned supporters. One major fundraiser told WRAL News that there was no indication Perdue planned to drop out of the race, although a campaign finance committee meeting scheduled for Wednesday night was canceled.
Perdue told supporters during a conference call Thursday morning that she had mixed emotions about the decision, according to the fundraiser. She said she believed she could win in November with the boost provided by President Barack Obama's ground forces and money in his own re-election bid.
"The atmosphere has gotten so toxic between me and the legislature," the fundraiser quoted her as saying. "I don't want to put my family through this."
The first woman elected governor in North Carolina, Perdue faced a potential rematch against former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a Republican whom she narrowly defeated in 2008 in the state's closest gubernatorial contest since 1972. Perdue's win was partly attributed to Obama's surprise win in North Carolina.
North Carolina is considered an important state for Obama's re-election prospects, and Democrats decided to hold their national convention in Charlotte in September.
“Bev Perdue rode into the governor’s mansion on the coattails of Barack Obama, and now that he is doing so poorly in North Carolina and across our nation, she realized there was no chance of being re-elected," Rick Wiley, political director of the Republican National Committee, said in a statement. "With Bev Perdue bailing on North Carolinians, the path to 270 electoral votes just got much longer (for Obama)."
Democrats search for new candidate
News of Perdue's decision came hours after 13th District Congressman Brad Miller said he also would not seek re-election, avoiding a potential primary contest against fellow Democrat David Price after the Republican-controlled legislature drew them both into the 4th Congressional District.
Miller didn't rule out a gubernatorial bid during a conference call with reporters.
"I haven't given it a first thought," he said. "There are other qualified candidates out there."
Perdue's decision throws open a May gubernatorial primary and sets off a scramble among other Democrats. Candidate filing opens on Feb. 13.
"This is late. Not even I thought this would occur now. I thought it would occur sooner," said former state Republican Party chairman Tom Fetzer, who had predicted last September that Perdue wouldn't run this fall.
Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton quickly threw his hat in the ring, announcing Thursday afternoon that he plans to seek the Democratic nomination.
"I am the only candidate who has run and won statewide, and I look forward to waging an aggressive campaign," Dalton said in a statement. "Elections are about choices. As a state, we must decide the direction in which we will turn. With this campaign, I choose to look ahead to a brighter future. I choose progress. I choose a future where public education is the foundation of our economy.”
Rep. Bill Faison, D-Orange, has hinted off and on since last fall that he could oppose Perdue in a primary, but he said Thursday that he wasn't prepared to make an announcement yet.
"I've been going around the state for the last five months talking about the issues that matter to people," Faison said, noting he has developed a plan to create jobs for more than 36,000 North Carolina residents.
Attorney General Roy Cooper and State Treasurer Janet Cowell immediately withdrew their names from consideration, saying that they plan to run for re-election to their current posts.
"I am honored to serve as attorney general and plan to file for re-election for that office to continue my work keeping people safe and moving North Carolina forward," Cooper said in a statement.
"In a year with so many unknowns, the most valuable role I can play is ensuring the stability of our state's finances and continuing the important work of the office," Cowell said in a statement.
Former State Treasurer Richard Moore, who lost to Perdue in the 2008 Democratic primary, said he hasn't decided whether to enter the race, but he said he's not sure he's the right person to run this year.
Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, didn't rule out a campaign, although he said he wasn't positioning himself for one. The former House speaker said he wants the Democrats to field a candidate with the same support for job creation and education that Perdue has.
Other names circulating Thursday as possible candidates include former 2nd District Congressman Bob Etheridge, a former state lawmaker and education superintendent; 11th District Congressman Heath Shuler; former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, who lost a 2010 bid for the U.S. Senate; Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines; and Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx.
Foxx said in a statement that he remains focused on leading the Queen City but plans to discuss with family and friends in the coming weeks "how I could best serve our city and state."
Four-term Gov. Jim Hunt wasn't available to comment Thursday morning on Perdue's decision, but a secretary said he wanted everyone to know that he has no plans to run again.
With little time to recruit strong gubernatorial candidates and raise money for a campaign, Democrats are reeling, said Rob Lockwood, a spokesman for the state Republican Party.
"I think what they're probably realizing is that this just made the outlook better for the Republicans. We have momentum going on our side. This is a battleground state," Lockwood said.
Democratic consultant Brad Crone compared the suddenly open race to the legendary Oklahoma land rush.
"It's line up, fire the gun and see who gets from the starting point to the finish line," Crone said. "The candidate who breaks on television first to define this race will immediately become the Democratic Party front-runner."
Impact of new Democratic candidate
North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman David Parker predicted the party "will have no trouble selecting a strong gubernatorial candidate," and he expressed confidence in winning the governor's office in the November election.
Recent polls – even those conducted by Democratic-leaning groups – showed McCrory, who is expected to declare his candidacy next week, with a sizable lead over Perdue. Most importantly, they surveys found that few independents favored the governor.
Swing voters no longer see Perdue as an effective governor, Democratic consultant Joe Sinsheimer said, which likely played a role in her decision.
"That's the death knell in a state that's going to have very close elections," Sinsheimer said. "Interestingly, with the Republican legislature pushing all the way to the right, it's Gov. Perdue who's lost the middle."
McCrory campaign spokesman Brian Nick said Perdue's decision won't change the game-plan for the former Charlotte mayor.
"It actually does little to affect things on our end because Pat’s message is the exact same today as it was yesterday. He’ll bring a message of fixing a broken government and fixing a broken economy," Nick said.
A bruising Democratic primary could only help McCrory, he said.
"The situation on the other side will take time to work itself out. Most folks expect a spirited primary on their side, and primaries cost money. I doubt whoever wins that primary will have much money left over when it’s done," he said.
National media outlets recently labeled Perdue as one of the country's most vulnerable incumbents in the fall elections, and pollsters said Thursday that her departure could provide Democrats with a better chance at holding onto the governorship in the fall. Although any candidate would start as an underdog to McCrory, he or she wouldn't have Perdue's baggage, they said.
An October survey by Public Policy Polling noted that McCrory was handily ahead of Cooper, Dalton and Faison in the minds of voters, but all three Democrats had better numbers than Perdue has attracted in recent polls.
Also, former University of North Carolina President Erskine Bowles was tied with McCrory in the October poll. Bowles lost a 2004 bid for the U.S. Senate to Sen. Richard Burr, and he recently was co-chairman of Obama's deficit-reduction panel.
Left-leaning Progress North Carolina said its polls show the General Assembly has an even lower approval rating among North Carolina voters than Perdue, and another Democratic candidate could exploit McCrory's support of the Republican legislative agenda.
"Gov. Perdue's made a wise decision to bow out gracefully," Sinsheimer said. "The governor's decision to step aside really allows the party to put a new face out there."
Duke University political science professor Mike Munger, who ran against Perdue as a Libertarian in 2008, said her low poll numbers have been pulling the entire Democratic Party down in North Carolina, which would have hurt Obama's re-election bid.
"Maybe they shouldn't have waited so long, but given where they were, they did the right thing – they finally lanced the boil," Munger said. "This is a net positive for the Democrats in the sense of getting her out of the way, having a different candidate (means Republicans) aren't sure who they're going to run against and having sort of a renewed sense of excitement among the Democratic faithful in the state."
State Democratic Party Executive Director Jay Parmley, who learned of Perdue's decision Wednesday night, said the move also gives the party "a two-for-one" during the campaign. Democrats will have both a sitting governor and a gubernatorial candidate speaking about issues, he said.
"(Perdue now) gets to spend her full energy fighting for her passion, which is the children in our public schools," Parmley said.
A Democratic primary also could affect another issue on the May ballot: the proposed constitutional amendment to ban on same-sex marriages, Munger said, since it could attract more voters who oppose the proposal.
Perdue's legacy as governor
Perdue has struggled with a state economy hit hard by the recession and an unemployment rate persistently above the national average. Polling conducted throughout her term has consistently shown her approval ratings hovering around 40 percent.
The state Democratic Party highlighted her efforts to create jobs and fund public schools to help the state rebound from the recession.
"Her leadership – and her willingness to make tough decisions – has kept our state afloat during the toughest economic times since the Great Depression," Parker said in a statement.
House Minority Leader Joe Hackney agreed that Perdue worked hard to guide the state through a difficult period.
"She was determined to fight for education and early childhood, and I think people across the state overwhelmingly support those issues," said Hackney, D-Orange.
In addition to the sluggish economy, Perdue had to fend off state and federal investigations into her campaign finances. Although she has never been charged with any offense, her former campaign finance director pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, and a longtime family friend and two others still face charges.
After the 2010 elections gave the Republicans control of the legislature for the first time since the 1870s, she clashed repeatedly with the GOP leadership. She traded jabs with Republican leaders on issues ranging from jobless benefits to a measure allowing death row inmates to use statistical evidence of racial bias to challenge their convictions. In a sign of the tension, she vetoed a record 16 bills last year.
“It’s now clear that the past four years of having a Democratic governor in North Carolina have been a failure. North Carolina’s lost ground to its neighbors and now has the worst unemployment rate in the region," Phil Cox, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, said in a statement.
"No matter how hard they try, whoever emerges as the Democratic Party’s successor to Bev Perdue won’t be able to run from the Democrats’ record of higher taxes and disappointing job losses,” Cox said.
Fetzer said he believes the annual budget battles and fights with GOP lawmakers took a toll on Perdue, but he wondered whether other issues that haven't yet surfaced might have pushed her to act now.
"I think things were just piling up on her too high. It was going to be too steep a mountain to climb," he said. "No one wishes the sort of personal pain and anguish that comes with a decision like this on anyone."
"She may have also have factored in that she didn't want to become a piñata," Sinsheimer said. "She has a record that will be very hard to defend."
House Speaker Thom Tillis, a frequent critic of the governor, thanked her Thursday for her years of service to the state, and he offered an olive branch.
"Republicans in the General Assembly have disagreed deeply with the governor over many issues, but I am hopeful we can find opportunities in her remaining time in office to work on legislative matters that will become a part of her legacy, and do so for the good of all North Carolinians," Tillis said in a statement.
Perdue, who has lived most of her life in New Bern, worked as a teacher and director of geriatric services at a hospital in her hometown before entering politics. She served in the legislature and as lieutenant governor before being elected governor.