Elizabeth Dole wasn't supposed to be in trouble this election.
After all, she holds the U.S. Senate seat once occupied by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who held the post for 30 years. And he succeeded Sen. B. Everett Jordan, D-N.C., who had held the post for 14 years. It was the seat of stability in N.C. senatorial races for more than four decades.
It wasn't like that other seat – the one with the revolving door.
That one, now held by Republican Richard Burr and up for election in 2010, has been a turnover seat for three decades. That turnover trend began when then-77-year-old Sen. Sam Ervin announced he would not run for re-election in 1974 because of advancing age.
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Ervin's decision touched off a tradition of another new senator elected every six years – Robert Morgan, then John East, Jim Broyhill, Terry Sanford, Lauch Faircloth, John Edwards and, four years ago, Richard Burr.
But in the Helms seat, things looked to be different. Dole, a polished campaigner and expert fundraiser who knew her way around Washington and ought to be able to get all kinds of things done for North Carolina, would surely solidify her hold on the Helms seat. It seemed unlikely she would have trouble with re-election, especially with her more moderate appeal than the divisive Helms.
That's the way it looked last year when Democrats had a hard time finding a good candidate to challenge her. They tried former Gov. Jim Hunt, Gov. Mike Easley, U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, state Rep. Grier Martin and for all I know Dean Smith, too.
Funny thing: State Sen. Kay Hagan was interested in the seat, but put off her plans when it looked like a high-profile Democrat would run. Then they had to coax her back into the race when the only willing candidate appeared to be Chapel Hill businessman Jim Neal, an openly gay candidate without much political experience.
Better-known candidates had avoided the race partly, I think, because they saw what Erskine Bowles went through in his races for the Senate: In federal elections, the tradition has often favored Republicans, and a well-financed Democrat could squander a lot of money and not get anywhere.
But Hagan saw what other Democrats didn't: Dole was vulnerable – and not just because of an unpopular war or an unpopular president. She was vulnerable because a lot of North Carolinians thought, right or wrong, that Dole wasn't spending that much time in the state and that she wasn't paying attention to things folks thought were really important.
Dole missed a prime opportunity early on, when strong local oppositions developed in rural northeastern North Carolina to the Navy's proposed jet landing field near the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. It was a classic confrontation between ordinary citizens and a powerful government.
Many mistook it as a local dispute, nothing more than a NIMBY reaction. But national environmental groups, as well as farmland preservation advocates, saw it as an important test of whether the nation's environmental laws and property rights mean anything. It was the perfect chance for a politician to stand up for powerless people.
While Dole's staff listened to complaints and tried to arrange some accommodation with the Navy, the senator did not forcefully oppose the outlying landing field until two-thirds of her term had passed. Sen. John Edwards, Gov. Mike Easley and Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue all expressed sympathy for local opponents, but none was willing to stand up to the Navy and say No – not until the issue had been all but decided in court. Now Dole is opposing an outlying landing field in other areas of North Carolina, and no doubt folks in those counties appreciate it.
But by coming late to the realization that the Navy was flat wrong in its original proposal and that local opponents and environmentalists were right, Dole missed a golden opportunity to be a major player in state affairs and a champion of the people – and in better position to defend her seat.