Hampered by an unpopular president, record gas prices and a sour economy, Republicans across the country are bracing for a tough election year, particularly for Congress.
“I don't want to say it's a train wreck, but it's an uphill climb,” U.S. Rep. Howard Coble, a Greensboro Republican, said Saturday.
But Coble and other Republicans who gathered for their state convention this weekend say they're optimistic about the party's chances in North Carolina.
Convention chairman Billy Miller of Charlotte called gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory and lieutenant governor hopeful Robert Pittenger the strongest GOP ticket since Jim Martin and Jim Gardner in 1988 became the last Republicans to win the seats. Republicans also like the chances of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
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But Republicans have lost three special House elections this year in conservative districts in Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi. President Bush's approval, below 25 percent nationally, is only around 40 percent in North Carolina, a state he carried by wide margins in 2000 and 2004.
Factor in the expected boost in turnout among African Americans and young voters for presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama. Around 1.6 million North Carolinians voted in last month's primary, more than voted for the Democratic ticket in November 2004.
Democratic strategist Gary Pearce has said Obama's candidacy could boost his party's turnout by 5 percent, or tens of thousands of votes, helping other Democratic candidates.
“For statewide races that could have an effect,” said Francis DeLuca, executive director of the conservative Civitas Institute. “But if you get past the statewide races the impact of high African American turnout is fairly limited in (legislative) district races.”
State Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger used a PowerPoint to demonstrate just that.
Berger showed delegates a list of a dozen targeted Senate races and the minority population in each district. Most had African American populations below or just into double digits.
“So we do not feel as though what the press is telling us is going to happen this fall is going to impact Senate races,” he said.
Agriculture commissioner Steve Troxler, however, said he's incorporated the Obama factor into his strategy.
“If we have new voters who turn out in the big cities and a lot of college kids who pull a straight lever, I'm going to have to pull in more rural votes,” he said.
Coble and other Republicans said they expect Democratic scandals – including the convictions of former House Speaker Jim Black of Mecklenburg County and former Rep. Thomas Wright of New Hanover County – to do for Republicans what GOP scandals in Washington helped do for Democrats in 2006, when voters gave that party control of Congress.
Speaking to reporters, Dole said she'll talk about her own record.
“George Bush is not on the ticket,” she said, quickly pointing to issues such as immigration and climate change where she's differed from the administration.
Delegates gave one of their loudest ovations to McCrory, who called himself “a change agent” in his race against Democrat Bev Perdue.
“We have been governed for the past decade by the good ‘ole boy politics of Gov. (Mike) Easley and Lt. Gov. Perdue,” he said. “I want to change the culture.”
John Davis, president of the pro-business group NCFREE, said McCrory and Obama could appeal to many of the same kind of voters: newcomers, urban, young and ready for change.
“It's not a party thing,” he said. “It's an anti-establishment, a ‘pox-on-both-your-houses,' general change-voter driving this election year.”
Alan Pugh, the GOP chairman in Randolph County, agreed.
“So for those who understand the dynamics of the election, these are the ones that are positive,” he said. “The ones that are negative are those sitting around listening to the 24-hour news channels.”