RALEIGH — A preliminary analysis of state and local results from North Carolina’s 2002 elections suggests that North Carolina is continuing its move toward political parity, said John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation. “Republicans made significant gains on Tuesday, but the end result was to catch up to, but not pass, the Democrats,” said Hood, who analyzed the election returns for the Raleigh-based think tank.
“We now have a U.S. senator of each party, a 7-6 split in the U.S. House delegation, a Democratic governor but an overwhelmingly Republican judiciary, a narrowly divided Republican state House, and a narrowly divided Democratic state Senate. This is a fairly accurate reflection of the political balance in North Carolina.”
Hood pointed to the little-noticed outcomes in county commission races across the state to illustrate how competitive North Carolina has become. Going into the 2002 elections, Democrats controlled 62 of 100 county commissions. According to the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, the GOP had a net gain of 7 commissions on Tuesday, leaving the counties as closely divided between the two parties as ever before in state history.
North Carolina’s largest counties, Mecklenburg and Wake, led the trend Tuesday by returning to Republican majorities similar to those enjoyed by the party in the mid-1990s.
Hood said that one likely explanation for the historic turnover in county commissions was the General Assembly’s decision in September to take local tax reimbursements away from local governments in exchange for a new local-option sales tax. Most commissions felt compelled by the state’s fiscal pressure to impose the new tax, often just weeks before Election Day.
“Basically, state government got the taxpayers’ money but county commissioners got the boot — from outraged taxpayers,” Hood said.
Additional evidence for the existence of parity lies in the closeness of legislative contests. If Republicans had gained only 299 additional votes, in just two key districts, it would have won a more solid 63-57 majority in the N.C. House. If Democrats had gained only 862 additional votes, in four other key districts, it would have gained a 63-57 majority of its own.
Similarly, if Republicans had gained 3,739 additional votes in four key districts — only 0.2 percent of the total votes cast in contested races statewide — it would have won a 26-24 majority in the N.C. Senate.
As it is, Hood observed, Republicans actually won 27,000 more votes in contested Senate races than the Democrats did.
“Of course, they didn’t win these votes in the right places,” he said.
In other findings:
• Republican Elizabeth Dole’s margin of victory was far larger than some were led to expect by widespread press reports of a “tightening race” in the last three weeks of the campaign. “The idea that Erskine Bowles was ever within striking distance of Dole was an invention of the national news media,” Hood said. “It was never supported by independent polling or the tenor of the race here in North Carolina.”
• Lessons from Tuesday’s results for the lottery debate in North Carolina were mixed, Hood said. While a referendum passed to allow a state-run lottery in Tennessee, Democratic governors in South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama who had tried to use the issue to build political bases in their states all lost their re-election bids. “If the lottery is such a winning issue for state politicians,” Hood asked, “why didn’t it prevent gains by anti-lottery candidates in North Carolina legislature races or help pro-lottery governors survive in the South?”
For more information on the 2002 elections in North Carolina and around the country, visit the John Locke Foundation’s daily news and commentary web site, which can be found at CarolinaJournal.com