From the political wilderness to top of the heap

Republicans had only a tenuous foothold on political power four years ago. After Tuesday's election, the GOP is firmly in control of North Carolina's government.

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Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — On Election Day in 2008, North Carolina's Republican Party was, to outward appearances, adrift in the political wilderness.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole, a conservative icon, lost her re-election bid to a low-profile state senate Democrat from Greensboro. Democrats maintained their historic hold on the state legislature. Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue won the governor's mansion, and to add insult to injury, the state would go blue in the presidential election for the first time since 1976.

Four years later, Republicans celebrated a very different kind of election night. Republican nominee Mitt Romney didn't win the presidency, but he carried North Carolina. Pat McCrory claimed the governor's mansion for the GOP for the first time in 20 years. Legislative Republicans expanded their majorities to the point where they can propose constitutional amendments at will.

Republicans can even claim victory in the putatively nonpartisan state Supreme Court race, where Associate Justice Paul Newby held on to his seat.

So what changed in four years?

"The first thing to say is these things run in cycles," said an introspective Tom Fetzer, a political consultant who served as chairman of the state Republican Party in 2009-10. "So, it would be a little arrogant or presumptuous to say anything has changed permanently."

North Carolina has long been a state of roiled and conflicting politics. For decades, Tar Heels have mostly backed Republican presidential and U.S. Senate contenders while most often electing Democrats to the state legislature and governor's mansion.

"The nature of North Carolina is reflected better by the presidential race over the last two cycles than anything else," said Paul Shumaker, a longtime Republican strategist.

Shumaker calls North Carolina "a purple state, trending blue" due to a combination of demographic shifts and long-held political allegiances.

"I think 2008 might have given people a little bit of misconception," said Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies, a liberal think tank.

North Carolina is neither as Democratic-leaning as the 2008 election would indicate, nor as solidly Republican as this year's victories would indicate, Kromm said.

Back to 2004

Republicans controlled the state House for two terms in the 1990s. They also shared power with House Democrats for an awkward legislative term in 2003-04. There had been two Republican governors during the 20th century, so there had been glimmers of hope for the party. 

But Tuesday's sweeping victories had their roots sometime between 2004 and 2006, depending on who you ask.

"Just after the 2004 election, we were working at the things that needed to be done in order to be successful," Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said.

According to multiple accounts, legislative Republicans had never put together the coordinated campaign to recruit candidates and raise money that has been a hallmark of Democratic leaders for years.

"Phil basically committed to copying the Basnight and Rand model," said Jim Blaine, a Republican consultant and former Berger chief of staff, referring to former state Sens. Marc Basnight and Tony Rand, who led the state Senate from 1993 through 2009.

The process was painful at times. Efforts in 2006 and 2008 met with political headwinds, not the least of which was President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign.

"In 2008, Barack Obama was the first campaign since early voting began in 2004 to focus on early voting," Shumaker said.

Republicans were caught unaware. Obama won the state's 15 electoral votes and carried a number of Democrats to victory.

Among those Democrats was Perdue, who turned back a strong challenge by then-Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory. By all accounts, the Republican was stunned by the setback, but it set him on the campaign trail for 2012 with new determination.   

Legislative losses weren't as bad as they could have been – Senate Republicans actually picked up a seat that year. They were beginning to get donors to back their races and develop a network of candidates. All they needed was opportunity. 

Money, candidates and luck

That opportunity came in 2010. As the economy struggled, voters grew frustrated with Democrats in power. At the same time, legislative districts that had been drawn to favor Democrats lost their partisan punch as voters moved in and out of districts.

Learning from 2008, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr launched an aggressive early vote effort and was determined to bring other state Republicans along with him.

"We basically had a one-sided 2010," Shumaker said, who worked as a consultant for Burr. 

At the same time, Berger, R-Rockingham, and his allies put long-planned moves in motion, and state House Republicans like Reps. Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, and Paul "Skip" Stam, R-Wake, began to organize their caucus in much the same way their Senate colleagues had done.

"We never had a history of organization," Tillis said of the House Republicans.

Even during the sweep that brought the GOP to power in the 1990s, many Republican lawmakers met each other for the first time when they arrived in Raleigh. Tillis worked to build a team of long-suffering GOP stalwarts and new blood.

"We brought in a number of young professionals, people who are in the peak of their earning years in terms of their careers," Tillis said. "We worked hard to get people with the right experience and business experience." 

At the same time, outside backers were willing to put money into state Republican campaigns like never before. An independent expenditure effort lead by former Rep. Art Pope, chief executive of Variety Wholesalers, helped tip the balance of power. 

When the General Assembly convened in 2011, Republicans controlled both the state House and state Senate for the first time since the 19th century. 

With that victory came the opportunity to redraw legislative boundaries after the once-a-decade census. The new lines have helped Republicans go from holding only six of 13 congressional seats to at least nine in the coming year. New state legislative boundaries would also contribute to 2012 victories.

Tillis and Berger say that voters also gave a nod to a legislative program that included allowing a temporary sales tax to expire, limiting new rules by state agencies and calling for reforms in education.

"That approval from the electorate was key," Berger said. 

As Republicans worked to expand their legislative majorities -- they now hold 77 of 120 House seats and at least 32 of 50 state Senate seats -- McCrory ran into his own bit of luck.

Perdue, faced with low poll ratings and a highly charged partisan environment, decided not to run for re-election. Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton would take over as his party's standard bearer on short notice. 

"She put Walter Dalton at a severe disadvantage," Shumaker said. Typically, it takes two or three years to build the war chest and support needed to mount a run for governor, he said, and Dalton had less than a year.

McCrory, by contrast, was able to avoid a contentious primary and parlay a fundraising advantage into a television ad blitz that set Dalton on his heels.

Whither the Democrats

Democrats insist that Republicans won their victory based on tactics, not the strength of ideas of legislative program as Berger and Tillis say.

But even liberal analysts say any clear-eyed analysis for Democrats needs to start with a long, hard look in the mirror.

"Part of what created opportunity for Republicans is the other side fell apart," Kromm said.

Old guard Democratic leaders stepped away from the political scene. Basnight retired from the legislature after losing his majority in 2010. Rand moved to a post on the Probation and Parole Commission. House Speaker Joe Hackney stayed on as minority leader, but Democratic legislators never got their fundraising mojo back on track.

"The Democrats were a party that lived on its organization and discipline," Fetzer said, "and it's just gone." 

As Democrats struggled to raise a new generation of leaders, a scandal enveloped the party headquarters. An executive director was accused of sexually harassing a male staffer, and Chairman David Parker was criticized for his handling of the debacle. A protracted public power struggle followed. Parker stayed in place, but the party found it hard to raise money even as national Democrats arrived in Charlotte for the national convention.

"The Democrats' political machine was based on the persuasiveness and connections of a handful of legislative leaders," said Chris Fitzsimon, director of the liberal N.C. Policy Watch. "One common criticism is they haven't done a good job of transitioning to the next generation of folks."

The Pope Question

Both Fitzsimon and Kromm point the the work of Pope, who has financed a network of nonprofits such as Americans for Prosperity, The John Locke Foundation and Civitas Institute.

Some, like Locke, helped provide the intellectual underpinnings for Republican policy proposals.

Pope himself says that's a narrow-minded view of Locke, saying that the think tank has pushed policies adopted by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Others say that Pope's most effective work has come through Americans for Prosperity, a group built to explicitly advocate policy proposals.

"North Carolina is unique from other states in many ways in that it has a well-funded and integrated network of groups that promote conservative ideas and conservative policies," Kromm said.

Pope is a common thread between the independent think tank arm and the groups explicitly to campaign – such as Real Jobs NC, which spent money on television and mail to help Republican legislative candidates and McCrory.

Pope says his groups have provided a counterweight to liberal special interests, an assessment with which Shumaker agrees. Democrats were able to create institutions such as the Emerging Issues Forum and Rural Economic Development Center with taxpayer backing as a place to develop people and ideas.

"(Pope's) groups helped fill an intellectual vote," Shumaker said. 

Asked how much credit he gets for this year's political victories, Pope paused.

"I had one vote," he said.

Fetzer said that Pope's work is hard to quantify, but it has been helpful.

"However, the people who carried the day are the people who signed up to run, got on the ballot, won election and did the job once they got into office," Fetzer said.

Time to govern

However you explain the GOP's rise to power, Republican analysts say their team now has both an opportunity and a responsibility.

"If you look at the history of Republican campaigns, we like to run on labels. Who's conservative, who's liberal," Shumaker said. "Moving forward, it's going to be about solutions, not labels. What are you doing to solve our problems? What are you doing to make my life better?"

Fetzer was even more blunt.

"We, the Republicans, now own anything that happens in the state," he said. "If we don't govern well, then we'll have on of these election cycles coming up in our future. With victory comes enormous responsibility."

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