Politics & Government

Christensen: This is not Hillary Clinton’s first rodeo

Kay Hagan, left, hugs Hillary Clinton at the Charlotte Convention Center during Hagan’s unsuccessful Senate re-election campaign, Oct. 25, 2014.
Kay Hagan, left, hugs Hillary Clinton at the Charlotte Convention Center during Hagan’s unsuccessful Senate re-election campaign, Oct. 25, 2014. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The Hillary Clinton presidential campaign last week began erecting the Tar Heel portion of the Southern firewall that it hopes will block the progress of Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The campaign opened its state headquarters in Raleigh on Thursday, with other offices across the state expected to follow. Campaign workers from Iowa and New Hampshire have begun arriving, and the campaign has begun signing up volunteers to knock on doors and make telephone calls to rally support in the primary March 15.

“She’s a real Democrat,” said state House Minority Leader Larry Hall of Durham at the opening of the Clinton headquarters. “This is a Democratic primary. I want to remind people of that. She didn’t just become a Democrat. She knows what our issues are and what we have worked for, and she has been with us side by side from children’s issues to veterans issues to gun violence. We believe in her.”

Hall’s comments were an allusion to Sanders, who was an independent until last year, although he caucused with the Democrats in the U.S. Senate.

The Clintons have been in politics for a long time, which can be a liability in the year of the outsider. But it is also a strength, with the old Clinton political network being activated.

There are North Carolinians who are saddling up for their fourth rodeo with the Clintons – people such as former state Democratic chairman Tom Hendrickson, a Raleigh businessman; Richard Sullivan of Raleigh, former finance director of the Democratic National Committee; and Raleigh attorney Bruce Thompson.

They were there in 1992 when Bill Clinton and Al Gore lost North Carolina, 43.4 percent to 42.6 percent, to President George H.W. Bush, while winning the national election. The race was notable for the Clinton-Gore campaign bus ride from Winston-Salem to Kinston, nicknamed “Two Bubbas on a Bus.”

The loyalists were there again in 1996, when the Clinton-Gore ticket lost to the Bob Dole-Jack Kemp ticket in North Carolina, 48.7 percent to 44 percent, while again winning nationally.

And in 2008, they were there when Hillary Clinton made her last stand against Sen. Barack Obama in North Carolina’s Democratic primary. Bill Clinton made 89 stops in the state on behalf of his wife that year – probably more than some candidates for statewide office made. But Obama won, 56.1 percent to 41.6 percent.

The Republicans last week taunted the Clinton campaign, noting that their scorecard is 0-3 in North Carolina. But through those three campaigns, the Clintons forged close ties in the state that perhaps only former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush can come close to matching.

“A lot of the goodwill built up over their careers will benefit Secretary Clinton in this primary,” Hendrickson said. “The (pro-Clinton) core is as strong as ever, they are as loyal as ever, and they are as dedicated as ever.”

Even before last week’s launch, the Clinton network has been busy in North Carolina. Either Hillary or Bill has been in the state five times for fundraisers – two in the Triangle, two in Charlotte and one in Greensboro – raising $1.7 million.

Hillary Clinton also has been endorsed by all three of the state’s Democratic Congress members – G.K. Butterfield of Wilson, David Price of Chapel Hill and Alma Adams of Greensboro. Other endorsements include former Sen. Kay Hagan of Greensboro, former Govs. Jim Hunt and Beverly Perdue, state Treasurer Janet Cowell and Durham Mayor Bill Bell.

And Clinton appears to have significant support among Democratic voters. A High Point University poll released last week showed her leading Sanders 55 percent to 29 percent among likely Democratic voters. (The survey of 478 people was conducted Jan. 30 through Feb. 4, before Sanders’ big victory in New Hampshire.)

Base of support

A key reason is Clinton’s strong backing in the African-American community, which was not a factor in the Iowa caucuses and in New Hampshire, two states that are overwhelmingly white.

Despite a slow start, Hall said Clinton is not a wounded candidate. He noted that she leads Sanders in delegates 394 to 44, counting the super delegates, and she has split the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. She is now heading south into an area where she has a strong base of support.

Sanders has shown a wide appeal among young voters, and North Carolina is rich in colleges and universities. But Hall countered that Sanders is not exactly a fresh face, having run for office 22 times.

The Clinton campaign in North Carolina expects to see a lot of its candidate in the window after the March 1 multistate primary and the state’s March 15 balloting. She won’t need a road map.