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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

GOP sweeps, takes 4-3 hold of Wake Commissioners board; statewide, GOP is in command, Etheridge is losing

Posted by on Wed, Nov 3, 2010 at 1:20 AM

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Update: Republicans swept the four Wake County Commissioners races and they added one legislative district to their side of the ledger. Overall, however, Democrats won 5 House seats in Wake to the Republicans' 4; the two parties split the four Wake seats in the state Senate 2-2.

Update 2: Republicans may also have picked off one of the three Democratic congressmen with parts of Wake County in their districts. District 4 Democrat David Price and District 13 Democrat Brad Miler won easily — albeit with reduced margins from '08 — over Republican opponents B. J. Lawson and Bill Randall, respectively. Price won about 57 percent of the votes in his district, Miller about 55 percent. But in District 2, Democratic incumbent Bob Etheridge was trailing Republican Renee Ellmers by about 2,100 votes, or less than 1 percent, with almost all of the votes counted. District 2 takes in part of Southeast Raleigh and South Wake County but is mainly a rural district to the south and west of Wake County. Etheridge's embarrassing behavior when confronted last summer in Washington by two GOP operatives wielding a TV camera obviously hurt him, as did the conservative makeup of his district in a year when conservatives were surging.

***

Earlier (see below the fold) I related how Barack Obama carried Wake County by 64,000 votes in '08. But that was with a 75 percent voter turnout — a total of 444,000 votes. The '10 totals: 47 percent turnout, 278,000 votes. Much smaller turnout, and it killed the Democrats.

Consider: Sen. Richard Burr, an easy winner statewide, carried Wake by just 3,000 votes, or a margin of about 1 percent. Burr received 135,000 votes. In the county commissioners races, the Republican vote totals ranged from 136,000 (Phil Matthews) to 144,000 (Joe Bryan). The Democratic candidates ranged from 132,000 votes (Lindy Brown, who lost to Matthews) down to 125,000 (Don Mial, who lost to Bryan).

In other words, the Senate result was a narrow win for Burr, and the four Republican candidates at the county level did about the same as Burr or slightly better: All four won, but none of the four won easily.

In legislative races, only one seat turned over. Democratic Rep. Chris Heagarty, who was appointed to fill the vacancy in House District 41 caused by Ty Harrell's resignation, was unseated by Republican Tom Murry 54-46 percent. The Heagarty-Murry race was targeted by the GOP, which spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on negative mailers and ads attacking Heagarty. One Republican mailed depicted Heagarty in a sombrero calling for higher taxes in Spanish. No, really.

Otherwise, Democratic Reps. Rosa Gill, Grier Martin, Jennifer Weiss, Deborah Ross and Darren Jackson were all re-elected with relative ease, as were Republican Reps. Nelson Dollar, Paul Stam and Marilyn Avila.

Sens. Dan Blue and Josh Stein, both D-Wake, and Neal Hunt and Richard Stevens, both R-Wake, all were re-elected by comfortable margins.

Wake Sheriff Donnie Harrison was re-elected by a 2-1 margin. Wake D.A. Colin Willoughby won unopposed. In a close race, Wake Clerk of Court Lorrin Freeman held her post against a challenge by former court clerk Janet Pueschel.

***

The Wake Commissioners results look like voters did not treat the elections as a referendum on the policies of the GOP-controlled school board. Or if they did treat it that way, all the Burr voters liked what the school board's doing and all the Marshall voters didn't — because there wasn't much different between the outcome of the Senate race and those in the four county races.

Nonetheless, the new 4-3 Republican majority on the commissioners board means it will be no check on the school board's efforts to refashion assignment policies in Wake. No check, that is, except that the notoriously stingy GOP is unlikely to want to shell out any extra money for the schools — as the "neighborhood schools" policies espoused by the school board would seem to necessitate.

***

At the state level, Republicans took control of the Senate by a 31-19 margin by my count, and will control the House by 68-52 pending any overnights shifts. That means two things, fundamentally:

* Republicans will write the next state budget, and they are likely to slash away at state aid to schools and municipalities to overcome a reported $3 billion-plus budget gap taking shape for 2011.

* Republicans will control the legislative redistricting process, putting them in a position to maximize the number of seats their party controls in the Senate and the House for the next decade. In an election in which each party gets 50 percent of the votes, for example, clever gerrymandering of the districts can result in one party winning 55-60 percent of the seats with their half of the vote while the other party gets just 40-45 percent of the seats with their half.

When Republicans control redistricting, they generally start by packing as many African-American voters into as few districts as possible, creating a few majority-black districts with overwhelming Democratic majorities that are surrounded, however, by a lot of Republican districts in which the GOP has solid, but not overwhelming (i.e., not wasteful) majorities. Off last night's results in Wake, for example, I can imagine a Republican redistricting plan that would turn the 5-4 Democratic edge in House seats into a 5-4 or 6-3 Republican edge — without a single additional Republican vote being cast.

In that vein, Democrats were bemoaning their loss in the state Supreme Court election. Nominally nonpartisan, the election was between Democrat Bob Hunter and Republican Barbara Jackson. Jackson's narrow victory, more than one Democrat said to me, virtually eliminates the chance that the court would block an extreme GOP gerrymandering scheme on constitutional grounds.

I've moved my earlier post below the fold.

Thinking about what's at stake on the ballot today, i go immediately to the Wake Commissioners elections. It feels like a Republican year, but if the Democrats' story about an effective ground game is true at all, it will be true in Wake, where Dems have been working the phones and ringing doorbells for weeks trying to crank up their base. I was told a few weeks ago that polls showed the Republican candidates in Wake ahead, with only Steve Rao close among the Democrats. I suspect the gap has closed some since then, however.

The Wake Commissioners have three Democratic holdovers (Stan Norwalk, Betty Lou Ward, James West), so unless the Republicans win all four seats on the ballot today, the Democrats will continue to have a majority. Because voting is countywide for every "district" seat, however, a four-seat sweep by the GOP is just as possible this year as the three-seat Democratic sweep was in '06.

If it's a close election countywide, though, and I believe that it will be, I do think Rao has the strongest chance of breaking out and being the only Democratic winner. He's run an effective campaign, he should have some additional support from Indian-American voters in Western Wake who ordinarily trend Republican, and Tony Gurley, his GOP opponent, is saddled with baggage because of having stolen the chairman's position this year.

If it's really close and a second Democrat wins, it could be Commissioner LIndy Brown holding her seat against Tea Party Republican Phil Matthews. Brown may get some extra votes in Garner, her hometown, for protecting the regional library there and for the sheer fact of having shown up at every public meeting in her district for the last four years.

I rate Jack Nichols' chances against Commissioner Paul Coble as slightly worse than Brown's against Matthews, but I may be underestimating the effectiveness of Nichols' somewhat understated campaign to "restore sanity and civility." It struck me as less compelling than "stop the right-wing Republicans before they wreck the schools," but that's just me. Finally, Commissioner Joe Bryan, running as a newly saved convert to conservatism, seems safest of all against Democrat Don Mial.

Is a Democratic sweep impossible? Well, Barack Obama carried Wake County by almost 64,000 votes in '08 — 250,891 to 187,001. The Democratic votes are out there somewhere. Too bad Obama didn't campaign again in Raleigh.

Barring some kind of Gurley-style swindle, even a single Democratic win puts the chairman's gavel back in Democratic hands — probably Brown's if she wins, otherwise Ward's, I'd guess — and puts a potential roadblock in the way of the GOP-controlled Wake school board. That said, if Brown is the only Democrat who wins, she's pretty much said that the commissioners shouldn't mess with school board issues — i.e., that stuff's really controversial, and Brown isn't going to wade into it ... especially having shown that the route to re-election is to NOT wade in.

On the other hand, if Rao wins, he's been the most straightforward of the Democrats in criticizing the school board's direction while suggesting adeptly that there are middle-of-the-road solutions to be found. Put Rao on the Wake Commissioners with holdover Stan Norwalk, and you have a potent combination intellectually and politically. Add Nichols to that mix, with the fall of Paul Coble thrown in for vast symbolic impact, and it would be a strong Democratic board capable of reining in the school board and/or cutting a deal with dissident GOP school board member Debra Goldman.

***

That's what I'm looking at first and foremost tonight. One other thought on the Wake elections: If the Republicans sweep the Commissioners races, I'd look for the next Wake referendum to be, not a school board issue, and certainly not a 1/2-cent sales tax increase for transit issue; instead, it will be a vote on whether to raise the sales tax 1/4-cent with the money going to the school system.

The 1/4-cent plan would be paired with some sort of scheme to have more charter schools — well-heeled ones for the suburbs, church-basement types for Southeast Raleigh.

In state elections, the general view seems to be that the N.C. Senate will go Republican and maybe the House as well. If either chamber is controlled by the GOP, the next state budget (2011-12) will have to be balanced without any significant tax increases. That almost certainly means cuts of $2-3 billion, much of which will come out of state aid to the K-12 public schools.

Once again, charter schools will be served up as the antidote by the GOP. They are cheaper, since charter school funding includes nothing for a building, only for operations. If the parents have money, they make up the difference. If not — church basements.

More later.

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