Taking a Quick Look at the Tea Leaves
It's dangerous business, this looking at the results of a single election - a primary at that - and deciphering what it all means for the future.
The danger never stops pundits and politicians from engaging in the exercise, and so it was after last Tuesday's primary.
Nationally, writers and TV commentators declared that the tea party movement had come up short. In North Carolina, low turnout was translated to mean voter apathy, particularly among Democrats.
The turnout was low in the state. Just over 14 percent of registered voters showed up at the polls on Tuesday. Nearly as many Republicans as Democrats voted, even though the top-of-the-ballot race, U.S. Senate, was a foregone conclusion for the GOP.
That lack of interest in a contested Democratic U.S. Senate primary - especially when compared to similar circumstances in 2002 when more voters turned out - led to predictions of Democratic apathy come the fall.
Those predictions ignore some pretty significant differences between 2002 and 2010.
This year, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall led a crowded Democratic primary field but failed to gain the necessary 40 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff against former state Sen. Cal Cunningham.
Marshall was the best-known candidate entering the race, the only candidate to win a statewide election. By the time voters went to the polls, she was still the best-known candidate. Cunningham, the favorite of the party establishment, had run some TV ads, but not enough to overcome the name recognition of Marshall.
In 2002, Marshall was probably the least known of three major Democratic candidates hoping to take on another GOP nominee who had become a foregone conclusion, Elizabeth Dole.
Back then, former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles had both the party backing and money to establish himself as a front-runner. Former state House Speaker Dan Blue was relatively well-known.
The result was more voter interest, more TV, more people at the polls.
The polls had barely closed Tuesday before the delving into tea party success and failure also began.
Given the fractious nature of the movement, determining who is and isn't a tea party darling seemed difficult enough.
Longtime incumbent Republican Congressman Howard Coble stomped all comers, including some who tried to decorate themselves with tea leaves. Bill Randall, a Republican running to challenge 13th District Congressman Brad Miller, qualified for a runoff after being endorsed by something called the Tea Party PAC. Tim D'Annunzio did the same in the 8th Congressional District after falling out with state Republican Party officials. D'Annunzio pumped $950,000 of personal money into his campaign.
Meanwhile, just five incumbent state legislators were beaten on Tuesday, only one of them a Republican.
Anyone who claims they can tell what that means in relation to tea party activism should probably go into the coastal land sales business.
A wiser course would be to wait until the fall to try to decode it all.
As is always the case, the months between now and then will be an eternity in politics.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association in Raleigh. Contact him at email@example.com.
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