Take-aways from a stunning election

The analysts and pundits are busy painting the milestones in Tuesday's election with a broad brush. Who could argue?

Electing an African American president is a stunning moment of change.

Putting the first woman in the N.C. governor's mansion topples a quaint but abhorrent barrier.

Ousting a rock star Republican U.S. senator for an almost unknown challenger highlights Tar Heel voters' sudden preference for Democrats at nearly every level.

Nobody really knows what voters have in mind when big changes happen at the ballot box. Yet for North Carolina, there are clear take-aways from this election – simple, straightforward lessons about the political landscape here.

You can play the race card in North Carolina, but not the faith card.

In 1990, Republican Sen. Jesse Helms' campaign used the infamous – and despicable – “white hands” television ads to whip up the fears of white voters against his African American opponent, former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt. He played the race card. It worked.

In 2008, Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole's campaign aired the “godless American” ad at her opponent, state senator and Democrat Kay Hagan. It was indecent, an attempt to paint Hagan, a church elder, volunteer and Sunday School teacher as a non-believer. The faith card backfired. Voters thumped Dole Tuesday.

That's a strange moral line, but a firm one in this state. Beware to any politician who crosses it.

It's public education, stupid!

Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory's race against Bev Perdue tested familiar political tensions: East versus West, urban versus rural, Charlotte Republican versus Eastern Democrat. It was a tight contest. McCrory ran a strong, issue-based campaign – far stronger than Perdue's.

McCrory brought an expertise in transportation and a vision for other urban issues that is unsurpassed in the state. He tried to shake the so-called Charlotte curse: the persistent failure of candidates from the state's largest city to win statewide office.

Yet that wasn't what defeated McCrory. More likely, it was his limited grounding in public education and a particularly narrow political view of the role that resource plays in the state's prosperity, plus the Obama tsunami.

Public education is the ladder that has lifted countless North Carolinians to a better life. Belief in the value of that resource traverses geography, parties and background. For many voters – Republican or Democrat, urban or rural, East or West – education is the deciding card for governor.

Perdue ran a campaign that confounded even supporters. She either did not or could not make clear the principles she would use to lead. Yet she brings an expansive view of education, and experience in it.

McCrory's vision for state transportation reform was dead-on. But by itself, it was a dead-end.

Fundamental change takes time.

If you remember the last time North Carolina voters picked a Democrat for president, you might also remember when the state was divided into schools for white people and schools for black people. I do.

Desegregation in the 1960s converted Southern states such as North Carolina to Republican strongholds. The Democratic party's support of that change fostered resentments.

Tar Heel voters last went for a presidential Democrat in 1976. Twice they have rejected an African American for the U.S. Senate.

Tuesday, if the numbers hold, North Carolina picked Barack Obama in a squeaker.

What do those two things have to do with each other?

Repeat after me: Change takes time. Change takes time. Change takes time.