SCOTT MOONEYHAM: Dems Fare Well in Independent Country
North Carolina Republicans can attribute this year's election results to an unpopular war in Iraq or, looking west to the mountains, to a heated congressional race in which an attractive Democratic challenger created a coattail effect.
Maybe the explanation is adequate. The party in the White House often struggles in mid-term elections, and President Bush's popularity and the continuing unease over Iraq obviously shaped the 2006 elections. In western North Carolina, Heath Shuler certainly pulled along some fellow Democratic candidates while upending incumbent Republican Charles Taylor in the 11th Congressional District.
But by dismissing Democratic wins and margins with such easy reasoning, Republicans may be overlooking a more significant electoral shift.
A close look at the 2006 election results shows that North Carolina's unaffiliated voters, who typically lean Republican, appear to have cast ballots as never before for Democrats. And it is only the GOP's traditional reliance on independents -- and conservative eastern Democrats dubbed "Jessecrats" -- that has led to past Republican success in the state.
Democrats, after all, continue to enjoy a plurality in North Carolina, making up 45.5 percent of registered voters. Republicans weigh in at 34.5 percent, while unaffiliated voters are 20 percent of the electorate.
Looking at election results in counties where independents make up an even larger percentage of voters, a trend emerges: Democrats typically did better than their performance statewide.
Many of those counties lie in the 11th District where the Shuler-Taylor race attracted voters' interest in a year when election ballots in other parts of the state produced a collective yawn.
But even in this race, Shuler performed best in the counties with large unaffiliated blocks. In Buncombe County, where 25 percent of registered voters are independents, Shuler took 59 percent of the vote. In Polk County, where unaffiliated voters make up 27 percent of the electorate, he took over 55 percent.
Outside of the 11th District, Republican Congresswoman Virginia Foxx beat Democrat Roger Sharpe by a 57-43 percent margin. But in Watauga County, where independents comprise 28 percent of registered voters and Republicans enjoy a plurality, she lost.
Even in Republican Patrick McHenry's cakewalk in the 10th District, the one county where he struggled -- Burke -- has a significant unaffiliated registration.
Far from the mountains, coastal New Hanover County also has one of the largest percentages of unaffiliated voters, at 24 percent. There, Democratic state Sen. Julia Boseman destroyed Republican Al Roseman, winning 63 percent of the vote in what had been predicted to be a close race.
The effect was also seen down the ballot. Democrats took sheriff races in Polk and Watauga counties. They seized control of county commissions long held by Republicans.
Of course, the results may prove nothing more than an anomaly. In 2008, independents may show that they are exactly that, switching sides yet again. But this election offers some evidence that Republicans can no longer count on them to tip races to their side.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at smooneyh@ ncinsider.com
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