RALEIGH – Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue’s 11th-hour decision not to seek re-election turned her party upside down and fashioned a three-month financial and political sprint among her would-be successors for campaign money and endorsements.
Heading toward Tuesday’s primary, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton appears to be banking on the theory that the top fundraiser in the race also has the inside track to win by getting his face on TV more than his chief rivals.
“When you can raise the funds, obviously, it amplifies your voice and it amplifies your message,” Dalton said this week. “You want the people to know what you are about.”
Former U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge and N.C. Rep. Bill Faison also have run their own television commercials, but they’re counting on performances in April televised debates, endorsements and grass-roots campaigning to cancel out Dalton’s financial advantage.
Like Dalton, Faison and Etheridge hope to eclipse the 40 percent threshold needed for the top vote-getter to avoid a runoff, which would be held June 26 or July 17.
“On Tuesday I think there’re going to be a lot of people surprised by what exactly happened,” Faison said in an interview.
Three other Democrats — Bruce Blackmon of Buies Creek, Gary Dunn of Matthews and Gardenia Henley of Winston-Salem — also are running for the party’s nomination and the chance to take on Republican Pat McCrory, who appears comfortably ahead in the GOP primary race against five lesser-known candidates. McCrory, Perdue’s 2008 general election rival, has put out an education platform, held a fundraising event with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and largely avoided the other GOP hopefuls.
With a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage taking up so much public discussion, the competitive Democratic primary and other down-ballot races have failed to grab the attention of voters.
“It has been something of a surprise in that so many folks, so many people have not focused really on the races,” Etheridge said in an interview. But now, he added, “people have started focusing and we’ve campaigned hard.”
Dalton, a Rutherfordton attorney and former state senator, benefited from $600,000 in his campaign coffers a few weeks before Perdue’s Jan. 26 announcement. He also had a campaign structure already in place since he was running for re-election as lieutenant governor.
“We were given a very fast track because of the lateness of the hour when the governor decided not to run,” Dalton said, adding that “as we went forward we knew fundraising was critical.”
Campaign finance reports filed with the State Board of Elections this week show Dalton having raised $1.4 million this election cycle compared to $310,000 for Etheridge. Faison has given his campaign committee personal loans but he paid most of them back in January had only spent about $110,000 as of April 21, his campaign report said.
Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic consultant who used to work for four-term Gov. Jim Hunt, said he believes the financial and organizational advantage Dalton has will be difficult for Etheridge or Faison to overcome.
Dalton “had a structure in place, a fundraising staff, it was a fresh network of people,” Pearce said. Etheridge, he added, “had to recreate it from nothing. When you’re running for Congress, it’s a totally different fundraising universe.”
Etheridge, from Harnett County, argues his fundraising has been about even with Dalton since getting into the race in February and says he’s matching Dalton on the air in the campaign’s final days. He’s emphasized his credentials — more than 30 years as an elected official, including eight as state schools superintendent and 14 in Congress — and endorsements showing support from educators and other current and former elected officials.
Etheridge said his education record and in the U.S. House as proof he can get things done even if he had to work with a Republican-led Legislature but that he’s willing to live with tough decisions. Etheridge said he has “a message of having done something, rather than having done talked about what we’d like to do.”
Dalton has talked about his own accomplishments in education while in the Senate and as lieutenant governor. He parlayed them into a “great jobs grow from great schools” campaign theme and said he will focus on recruiting jobs in emerging industries and retraining workers for those jobs.
Faison, an attorney and Orange County House member who irked some Democrats by criticizing Perdue before she bowed out, said he’s disappointed that Dalton and Etheridge have failed to issue the kind of “Jobs Plan” that he released and called for a temporary sales-tax increase to restore tens of thousands of jobs he said last year’s GOP budget has or will eliminate.
Dalton and Etheridge also have said they support the tax increase, just like Perdue plans to put in her budget proposal next week, and have explained their own jobs proposals, but Faison responds they are hollow or already been found to be ineffective.
“Neither of them have the leadership skills or the creativity to come up with a jobs plan” or create one based on the assistance of experts, Faison said. He said he decided against spending larger amounts of his personal wealth into the campaign because he doesn’t believe bringing in that amount of cash by one person is good for the political process.
While Faison has been vocal about his differences with the other two and took a more aggressive tone in the campaign’s final weeks, the trio has been largely civil and generally agrees on public education and their opposition to Republican policies and McCrory. Four years ago, Perdue and State Treasurer Richard Moore engaged in bitter campaign that was three years in the making.
Former U.S. Rep. Tim Valentine, an Etheridge supporter, quipped this week: “There’s one thing to say about the Democratic primary this year that none of us expected to be the situation: That Democrats, for a change, will not be in the race long enough to tear each other’s eyeballs out. So we’ll see how that works.”