RALEIGH — I’ve changed my mind about the 2012 campaigns for North Carolina governor. I now think they may actually matter.
Well, perhaps that’s not the best choice of words. The outcome of the governor’s race was always going to matter. If Pat McCrory wins, the likely result will be a unified Republican government in Raleigh for the first time since Reconstruction — and major initiatives in 2013 to rewrite the state’s tax code, restructure the state’s education system, and continue to reform the state’s regulatory process.
But if Walter Dalton manages a come-from-behind victory, Republicans will either have to maintain large majorities in both legislative chambers or prepare to negotiate the details of such major policy initiatives with a Democratic governor.
So the electoral stakes are obviously high. What I wasn’t so sure about, however, was the ability of either the McCrory or Dalton campaigns to get many words in edgewise. I thought that the presidential race might grab so much of the attention, campaign cash, and ad slots in North Carolina that voters might not end up hearing much from the gubernatorial candidates.
National events have changed my mind. As the Obama and Romney campaigns duked it out over the summer, each team’s scenarios for victory continued to evolve. As New York Times blogger Nate Silver has observed, that odds that North Carolina will play a decisive role in the presidential contest have gotten pretty long.
President Obama doesn’t need North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes to win reelection, and will have to work extremely hard to get them. (In 2008, a high-water mark for Democratic turnout performance, the president won North Carolina by only 14,000 votes.) Right now, Obama is strongly or modestly favored in enough states to win the Electoral College. But if the Paul Ryan pick, the GOP convention, and other factors put Mitt Romney even or better against the president by September, the Obama campaign will likely choose to defend friendlier political turf, such swing states in the Midwest and Southwest.
As for Romney, if he is still battling hard for North Carolina in October, that will be a clear signal of a doomed campaign. More likely, the campaign will put most of its resources elsewhere. North Carolina voters will certainly see plenty of broadcast ads from the two camps, as we experienced in 2008. But I no longer expect saturation buys.
For their part, McCrory and Dalton will debate as many as five times and have already reserved significant broadcast time for campaign ads in the homestretch. According to the Raleigh News & Observer, McCrory’s campaign has secured $6 million worth of ad time between now and Election Day. Dalton’s campaign will do $1 million worth in October, plus an undisclosed amount in September.
That means that McCrory and other Republican candidates in North Carolina are experiencing another first: a campaign-funding advantage. Historically, Democrats have vastly outspent Republicans in state politics. The trend extended all the way to the 2010 cycle, when Democrats enjoyed a big cash advantage even if independent expenditures were included in the tally.
No one should expect Dalton and the Democratic Party to go down without a fight this year, however. Recognizing that the GOP will almost certainly keep control of the legislature, Democrats are desperate to stay relevant in state politics by helping Dalton make a race of it — and thus boost the prospects of their other statewide candidates, such as State Treasurer Janet Cowell and Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin. So expect to see some independent-expenditure ads by liberal groups over the next several weeks to bolster the Democratic ticket.
McCrory and his supporters will seek to hammer the Democrats for holding the governor’s mansion during a time of economic stagnation and political scandal. Dalton and his supporters will seek to raise questions about McCrory’s policy ideas and business ties.
If the presidential candidates shift their focus elsewhere, which now seems quite possible, voters will learn more about their candidates for governor. Good.
— Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and author of “Our Best Foot Forward,” a book on North Carolina’s economy.