Politics & Government

Charlotte mayoral race and looming 2016 contests promise plenty of political drama

Three primaries – including two in not-so-far-off 2016 – will set the tone for the new year in North Carolina politics.

And new dynamics in Raleigh could alter the often testy relationship between Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and the GOP-controlled General Assembly, particularly the Senate.

Just because 2015 is an odd-numbered year doesn’t mean it will lack for political drama. Consider:

A crowded race

As if four mayors in the past two years isn’t enough, you can expect a crowd for Charlotte’s mayoral contest.

Democratic Mayor Dan Clodfelter signaled his plans to run earlier this week. His neighbor, former Mecklenburg County commissioners Chairwoman Jennifer Roberts, announced her intention to run in May.

Three Democrats on the City Council, Michael Barnes, David Howard and Vi Lyles, are in various stages of planning a race.

“If everybody actually runs who is talking about running, we’d have a dozen people running,” says Dan McCorkle, Clodfelter’s consultant.

In a city grown increasingly Democratic, the next mayor likely will be decided in the party’s Sept. 15 primary.

Clodfelter plans to outline his vision for Charlotte in a Jan. 13 “State of the City” speech, which also could serve as a campaign blueprint.

Filing for office starts in July.

Burr is on the clock

National publications already are speculating about North Carolina’s next U.S. Senate race.

Politico says Republican Sen. Richard Burr is in “a surprisingly good position to win,” but The Hill put him on a list of 10 incumbents who could lose.

In any case, the 2016 race will begin early in 2015, as Burr cranks up his re-election campaign this month and Democrats hunt for a challenger.

Democrats know that whoever runs will need an early start.

For one thing, there’s the money. Last year’s race between Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican Thom Tillis was the nation’s most expensive, costing well more than $100 million.

And an early start could help winnow the field. In 2010, Democrat Elaine Marshall was forced to spend time and money in a runoff against Cal Cunningham.

Several Democrat names have been mentioned, including Hagan, former U.S. Reps. Heath Shuler and Brad Miller, state Sen. Dan Blue and Treasurer Janet Cowell. Democrats will jockey this year for the May 2016 primary.

“The key for Democrats is to try to identify a candidate sooner and try to avoid a primary,” says Burr strategist Paul Shumaker. “Democrats put themselves at a major disadvantage in 2010 with a runoff.”

Accelerated presidential race

Thanks to state lawmakers, the 2016 presidential race will gear up sooner than ever in North Carolina.

In 2013, the General Assembly passed a law that ties the N.C. presidential primary – traditionally in May – to South Carolina’s.

With South Carolina tentatively scheduled to hold its primary Feb. 13, 2016, North Carolina could vote as soon as three days later, according to Josh Putnam, a political scientist at Appalachian State University and an expert on the primary process.

If the national political parties do as they’ve done before and threaten sanctions for crowding the early calendar, North Carolina could move back, perhaps joining other Southern states in a March 1 “SEC” primary.

All this is designed to make North Carolina a more relevant player in the presidential selection process and bring a lot of visits by presidential candidates in 2015.

One potential candidate, Republican Mike Huckabee, already is scheduled to visit Charlotte, on Jan. 29.

“It will be an attractive state for candidates to come into,” Putnam says. “They may kill two birds with one stone and visit South Carolina and then do Charlotte or Wilmington.”

Relationship-building

When McCrory held a news conference on teacher pay at the governor’s mansion last summer, it was N.C. House Speaker Tillis and key House members by his side – but not a single senator.

McCrory has had a running feud with the Senate, which is run by fellow Republicans. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger accused him of “staging media stunts and budget gimmicks.” One Republican senator threatened to subpoena McCrory’s budget director.

Now McCrory has lost his biggest ally with Tillis’ move to the U.S. Senate.

Whether the governor and senators can patch up the feud will go a long way in determining how many of McCrory’s priorities – including a billion-dollar transportation bond – actually get passed.

Some Republicans like to think the marriage can be saved.

“It’s never perfect,” says GOP consultant Dee Stewart. “But my view is that the common goals and challenges facing all our Republican leaders are greater than any perceived or real divisions.”

Governor’s race underway

The governor’s office is another 2016 race that will ramp up in 2015.

McCrory and Attorney General Roy Cooper already have been waging a war of words for at least a year.

Cooper is the leading Democratic candidate for governor in a field that includes Durham attorney Ken Spaulding.

Last fall in Charlotte, Cooper called McCrory and the GOP legislature “extremists.” McCrory later described Cooper’s use of the phrase “reckless and immature.”

This year they’ll both be sharpening their attacks, and filling their war chests.

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