They’re calling it the “triple full moon” election.
For the first time in eight years, North Carolina voters will see elections for a trifecta of top offices in 2016: president, U.S. Senate and governor.
If you’re a voter, get set for another barrage of hyperactive TV ads. But if you’re a political junkie, get set for a wild ride. Buckle up and enjoy it.
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It hasn’t been that long that North Carolina has mattered in presidential contests.
Before 2008, the state hadn’t voted for a Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976. It’s streak of being reliably Republican ended when Barack Obama eked out a 14,000-vote victory over John McCain. And in 2012, it was the Republican Mitt Romney’s narrowest victory.
So for the last two presidential elections, we’ve lived in a swing state. For the first time in decades, North Carolina mattered. Next year, it could matter even more.
That’s because lawmakers have moved up the state’s presidential primary. Now it will be not only one of the first in the South but one of the first in the country.
Two years ago, the General Assembly moved the traditional May primary to immediately follow South Carolina’s first-in-the-South primary, scheduled for February. That was too early for national Republicans, who threatened to strip the state party of convention delegates. But now lawmakers are looking at early March.
That should ensure that the state get more sustained attention from presidential candidates.
And regardless, we still have South Carolina. That state’s February primary already has drawn candidates as close as Rock Hill.
Even before drawing an opponent, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr is bracing for a tough election as he tries to win a third term.
The Winston-Salem Republican has enjoyed Democrats’ uncertainty in choosing a 2016 candidate since former Sen. Kay Hagan took herself out of consideration. But Burr knows that almost every Senate race is a nail-biter in North Carolina.
Just ask Dr. Eric Ostermeier.
As research associate at the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, he looked at 457 U.S. Senate elections since 1990. The Tar Heel State had the nation’s most competitive races, with an average victory margin of 6.1 points. No state had more races decided by single-digits.
So even before there’s a Democrat in the race, the Cook Political Report lists the races as “lean” Republican, not “solid” Republican.
And if the race turns out to be as close as history suggests, expect the state to once again be awash in money.
The 2014 Senate race in which Republican Thom Tillis unseated Hagan was the most expensive in the country. It saw more than $118 million spent.
It may be hard for Republican Pat McCrory to replicate his 2012 performance, when he got nearly 55 percent of the vote over Democratic Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton.
Charlotte’s former mayor did what few Republicans did that year: carry Mecklenburg County. McCrory took the county by a slim 3,000 votes (out of 437,000) in a year when Barack Obama and other Democrats carried it decisively.
For a lot of reasons, he’ll have a tough time doing that again. He has signed controversial legislation and seen lawmakers pass even more (see Charlotte airport). And who knows how many voters in heavily Republican north Mecklenburg are mad about the state’s contract to toll Interstate 77.
McCrory would face tough competition from Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, who has been running unofficially for months. Also running is attorney Ken Spaulding, a Durham Democrat.
In fact, analysts at the Cook Political Report call McCrory the most vulnerable of the eight incumbent governors seeking re-election in 2016.
“His biggest challenge in his first term has been his own party, specifically the Republican-controlled state legislature,” they wrote. “To win re-election, the Governor will have to distance himself from some aspects of the GOP’s legislative agenda and convince voters that he has made good on his promises to guide the state toward economic recovery.”
Cook calls the race a toss-up.
Jim is the Observer’s political writer.