The closing days of North Carolina’s Democratic primary for governor have been a tale of the haves and have nots.
While Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton has been running an incumbent’s campaign, holding private fundraisers and making mainly official public appearances, his candidacy has been surging on the strength of a well-financed set of television ads.
Meanwhile, former U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge and state Rep. Bill Faison have been bouncing around the state like pinballs, holding news conferences, stopping at TV stations, working polling places and handing out barbecue trying to draw attention to their candidacies.
Faced with a three-month sprint of a primary after Gov. Bev Perdue’s surprise announcement that she would not seek re-election, the Democratic candidates adopted different strategies, shaped in part by their circumstances.
Dalton, 62, a Rutherford County lawyer with ties to much of the party establishment, has run a modern campaign featuring TV ads in which he talks about wanting to improve education and bring jobs.
“Clearly they are running a front-runner’s strategy,” said Mike Munger, a Duke University political scientist who ran for governor in 2008. “They are not mentioning Etheridge’s name. All they are saying is, ‘Walter Dalton − he’s a good guy, and education now means jobs tomorrow.’ ”
Etheridge and Faison, short of money, have run more traditional grass-roots efforts.
Etheridge’s campaign has the feel of traditional politics as he stumps across the state by car. He has visited 45 counties during the past eight weeks, according to aides. During one five-day marathon in the mountains, he hit 16 counties.
“I have always done this,” said Etheridge, 70. “That is important, because I pick up information I would not get if I stayed in a room and just ran TV. I learned a valuable lesson two years ago. TV is fine. Radio is fine. But you better interface with people.”
Two years ago, he lost his congressional seat to Republican Renee Ellmers, and now he is seeking a political comeback.
‘Bell the cat’
At times, it seems that Etheridge is running for state schools superintendent, a job he held from 1989-96 before being elected to Congress.
While Etheridge largely avoids criticizing his Democratic primary opponents, he regularly lambastes the Republican legislature for cutting education as part of its effort to balance the state budget.
“It’s time to bell the cat,” Etheridge said at a news conference in front of the Legislative Building on Thursday. “It’s time for the people of North Carolina to really know what is going on. Our children and their children are going to pay a price.’’
In the short term, Etheridge argues, the state budget cuts will cause local counties to bear a larger share of education costs, and thereby cause an increase in property taxes.
He is also counting on endorsements from a network of Democratic officeholders, some of whom announced for him last week, including U.S. Reps. David Price and G.K. Butterfield, former U.S. Sen. Robert Morgan and state Sen. Dan Blue, a former state House speaker.
Raking it in
Part of the reason Etheridge is so engaged in retail politics is that he can’t match Dalton’s fundraising.
Dalton has raised $1.4 million, giving him a more than 4-1 advantage over Etheridge, who has raised $310,000. Faison raised only $11,545.
North Carolina residents have been four times as likely to see a Dalton TV commercial as an Etheridge commercial during the primary, although in the final week, Etheridge has finally been able to match Dalton.
Dalton has raised his money from large and medium donors. Etheridge has only been able to out raise Dalton among donors who gave less than $100, according to an analysis of campaign-finance records.
Dalton has been able to win over many more traditional Democratic givers who had contributed to Perdue, people such as Raleigh lawyer David Kirby, Greenville lawyer Tom Taft, Raleigh construction executive Fred Mills, Jacksonville businessman Louis Sewell, retired News & Observer publisher Frank Daniels Jr., state Cultural Resources Secretary Linda Carlisle, Raleigh lawyer Robert Zaytoun, and SAS founder Jim Goodnight and his philanthropist wife, Anne Goodnight.
A last-minute argument
Most observers think the TV campaign, fueled by the big money edge, is the reason Dalton has surged in several polls in the final weeks of the campaign.
Dalton has spent much of his time attending private fundraisers or working the phones to raise money to pay for his advertising campaign.
During the past week, for example, Dalton had only two public political appearances – a speech to senior Democrats in Statesville and the Liston Ramsey Spring Gala in Asheville, both Saturday.
Dalton, who participated in three televised debates, on Saturday continued to plug away on his theme that he had the experience to link education and jobs.
“Jobs and education are the two key issues,” Dalton said in an interview between campaign stops. “Of my two opponents, one talks a lot about jobs and the other talks a lot about education. I am the only candidate who talks about the intersection of jobs and education, and I’m the one candidate who has a record of using creativity and innovation to improve both the environment for jobs and education.”
Meanwhile, Dalton’s campaign late last week sent out mailings criticizing Etheridge’s votes in Congress, saying he voted to extend the Bush tax cuts in 2010.
Etheridge responded by not only defending his vote, but using it to link himself with President Barack Obama, who remains popular among Democratic primary voters. On Saturday, his campaign began airing a TV commercial showing Etheridge with Obama, saying, “Walter Dalton is attacking Bob Etheridge for supporting Barack Obama in Congress.”
The ad says that Etheridge backed extension of the Bush tax break at Obama’s request in order to extend middle class tax breaks. The ad ends: “Walter Dalton, tell the truth.”
Dalton said Saturday that he stands by the ad, saying it calls into question a series of pro-Bush votes by Etheridge. Dalton has also criticized Etheridge’s support of a 2001 trade agreement.
“So it wasn’t just a one-shot thing with Bush,” Dalton said. “Jobs is such an important issue in this campaign and he voted to give George Bush fast track trade agreements which really devastated our textile industry and our furniture industry, too.”
A jobs plan
Although Faison began hinting at a gubernatorial run even before Perdue announced that she would seek a second term, his campaign has failed to catch on, mired in the low single digits in the polls.
More than any other Democrat in the race, Faison has keyed on high statewide unemployment – an issue that polls say should be powerful. And he has pushed a jobs plan that includes raising the sales tax by seven-tenths of a percent to rehire laid-off teachers and public employees.
“I am the only Democratic candidate running for governor with a jobs plan,” Faison told a forum sponsored by the Delta Sigma Theta sorority in Chapel Hill on Thursday night.
But he has been unable to get his message out. He said fundraising has been difficult – he only raised $11,545 in contributions. A wealthy 65-year-old Orange County trial lawyer, he loaned his campaign $500,000 in December, only to pay himself back days later.
“I have really come to the conclusion that the Occupy people put their finger on something that is very important,” Faison said. “There is a sense that money should not be trying to buy elections.”
Taking on McCrory
Opinion polls suggest that the race is between Dalton and Etheridge, with few issue differences between the two. For many voters, it may come down to who is more electable, who has the most baggage, who would be the strongest candidate against presumptive Republican nominee Pat McCrory.
Munger, the Duke professor, thinks Etheridge would be the strongest Democrat.
“McCrory is a very good candidate,” Munger said. “He comes across as being an affable guy you would like. The question is who is going to run a better campaign with ads. I’ve got to think Etheridge. Dalton is stiff. He doesn’t project much of an air of confidence. He seems like a nice guy, but he is pretty colorless. Etheridge has a lot of experience in running with races where he has the sort of passion and personal ability to project caring about voters that has been tested.”
But Gary Pearce, a veteran Democratic strategist, has come to a different conclusion.
“I thought Etheridge won the debates, but Dalton clearly won the fundraising race, and that seems to have given him a pretty good lead in the polls,” Pearce said. “Dalton has shown he has the ability to be competitive on the money, and that is going to be critical with McCrory sitting on $3 million.
“There is not a lot of difference between them on anything else. Dalton probably has an advantage from being a little more of a fresh face.”
Researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.
Source: News and Observer