SCOTT MOONEYHAM: 'Blue Moon' Election
If elections were controlled test-tube experiments, you could remove the Iraq war, Mark Foley and Republican scandals in Washington from the mix to gauge the effects of state House Speaker Jim Black's legal woes on political contests here.
Of course, elections aren't science experiments. And most political analysts expect national trends aligned against Republicans to overshadow Democrats' in-state image problem created by the corruption probe enveloping Black.
But voters, not analysts, decide elections.
Until Tuesday night, no one will know how these variables, whether the product of Washington or Raleigh, will play out with the electorate.
In North Carolina, though, the "blue moon" election -- with no presidential, gubernatorial nor U.S. Senate race topping the ballot -- should translate into fairly low turnout, with between 35 and 40 percent of registered voters expected to cast ballots.
Turnout could be even lower in areas without highly competitive congressional or legislative races to pull voters to the polls.
And just two congressional contests in North Carolina have the look of competitive races.
In the mountainous 11th District, Republican U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor is trying to fend off a formidable challenge from Democrat Heath Shuler, a former University of Tennessee and NFL quarterback.
Shuler is trying to paint Taylor as the poster child of Washington corruption. Taylor is playing up the importance of his congressional experience and key position on the House Appropriations Committee.
In the 8th Congressional District in the southern Piedmont, Republican incumbent Robin Hayes went into the race with a hefty fund-raising advantage over Democrat Larry Kissell. Kissell, a high school teacher and former textile executive, has used Hayes' contradictory positions on trade treaties to attack the Cannon textile company heir.
Focus on Legislature
Without marquee match-ups topping the ballot in much of the state, attention will focus on legislative races.
Democrats hold majorities in both General Assembly chambers, enjoying a 63-57 edge in the House and a 29-21 advantage in the Senate.
In the House, just 55 of the 120 seats involve contested races.
Republicans have tried to make hay with Black's problems -- the investigations into his campaign finances; the guilty plea to federal conspiracy charges by the man whose party switch helped him hold onto power in 2003; the mail fraud conviction of his appointee to the lottery commission.
The place where the scandal seemed to be having the greatest effect: Black's own district in and around Charlotte.
IBM sales consultant Hal Jordan has presented Black with his most formidable challenge in years. The Republican has run ads pointing out that two dozen newspapers around the state have called on Black to resign as speaker. Black, though, hasn't budged, saying that his tenure has been good for his district and good for public education.
Even with Black's woes, many Republican House members privately concede that the best they are likely to do is prevent Democrats from widening their margin.
Still, Republicans are eyeing a handful of races involving Democratic incumbents that could fall their way: Rep. Alice Underhill, D-Craven, taking on Republican Michael Speciale in District 3; Rep. Marian McLawhorn, D-Pitt, facing former Sen. Tony Moore, who switched from Democrat to Republican a couple of years ago, in District 9; Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, being challenged by former Rep. Alex Warner, another Democrat-turned-Republican, in District 45; Rep. Phil Haire, D-Jackson, facing Marge Carpenter in District 119; and Rep. Bruce Goforth, D-Buncombe, going up against Republican Eric Gorny in District 115.
But Republicans could also lose open seats created by the retirement of Reps. John Sauls, R-Lee, in District 51, and Wilma Sherrill, R-Buncombe, in District 116, and the primary defeat of Rep. Stephen LaRoque, R-Lenoir, in District 10. Rep. Bonner Stiller, R-Brunswick, also faces a tough challenge from Democrat Allan Dameron in District 17.
In the Senate, the number of tight races are likely to be smaller.
The GOP's best chance to pick up a seat may be in District 2, which includes coastal Carteret, Craven and Pamlico counties. Democratic incumbent Pete Bland, the longtime sheriff of Craven County who was appointed to the Senate seat earlier this year, takes on Republican Jean Preston, a retired teacher and longtime House member from Carteret County.
The District 2 race between Democrat Pete Bland and Republican Jean Preston may represent the GOP's best chance to pick up a seat. The district includes coastal Carteret, Craven and Pamlico counties, a region which has seen strong growth in moderate Republican and independent voters over the past 15 years.
Republicans are also targeting two seats held by first-termers -- Julia Boseman in District 9 in New Hanover County and John Snow in District 50 in the far western mountains.
But they may find it difficult to hold onto one of their current seats, that held by Sen. Keith Presnell in District 47, another large mountainous district. Presnell faces the man he beat in 2004 to take the seat, Joe Sam Queen.
For the second straight election, voters will chose appellate court judges in nonpartisan races.
Four seats are up for election to the state Supreme Court, including chief justice.
Chief Justice Sarah Parker, named to the state's top judicial post earlier this year after serving for 13 years on the court, is being challenged by Superior Court Judge Rusty Duke of Greenville.
In the other Supreme Court races, incumbent Mark Martin takes on Rachel Lee Hunter; Patricia Timmons-Goodson, after serving eight years on the Court of Appeals, faces her initial election after an appointment to the Supreme Court, taking on former appeals court colleague Eric Levinson; and two other Court of Appeals judges, Ann Marie Calabria and Robin Hudson, face off.
On the state Court of Appeals, incumbents Bob Hunter and Linda Stephens are seeking re-election.
Hunter is being challenged by Kris Bailey, general counsel to State Auditor Les Merritt; Stephens faces Wake County District Court Judge Donna Stroud.
The appellate court races are supported by a system of public financing in which candidates can receive public money by agreeing to forego private fund-raising after raising initial qualifying donations.
Supporters say the new system prevents special interests from influencing who makes decisions at the appellate court level.
Critics, though, say removing the partisan label from the candidates simply gives voters one less piece of information. The intervention of a so-called 527 group backed by Democrats in the waning days of the campaign also may serve to punch a gaping hole into the public financing scheme.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at email@example.com
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