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Previewing primaries: N.C. Senate

By John Hood
Posted Thursday, June 17, 2004

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Raleigh - While the political chatter in Raleigh seems hardly to stray from the topic of who is after whom in the North Carolina House of Representatives, the future control of the North Carolina Senate hasn't drawn as much attention. It should have.

Also important will be three Triangle open seats that lean to the Democrats.

Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, a Dare County Democrat, has been firmly in control of the chamber for a decade. Some have called him the single most powerful person in state government, very much including the governor. But it is possible that Basnight's hold on the reins of power in Raleigh may slip a bit in 2004, and it is even conceivable that the team will get away from him altogether.

It's both the show horses and the workhorses among Democrats that have lately been tugging at their bridles, resentful of Basnight's tight control. Meanwhile, the 23 Republicans in the chamber believe they have a good chance of achieving a majority. These are all matters of perspective. One thing is clear, however: there will be a number of interesting primary contests July 20.

In the East, freshman Sen. Clark Jenkins of Edgecombe faces a spirited primary challenge from three Democrats, including state Rep. Charles Johnson and former Rep. Shelly Willingham. Race is a factor, it seems, as Jenkins is white but most of the Democrats in his district are black. In a nearby district that also contains a significant African-American constituency, Sen. Robert Holloman of Hertford must defeat former Bertie County Commissioner Patricia Ferguson and Halifax County's Sammy Webb. Similarly, Fayetteville's Sen. Larry Shaw will try to fend off D.J. Haire and Eronomy Smith in his safe Democratic seat. And race may play a role in a Mecklenburg open seat where former Sen. Fountain Odom is waging a comeback bid against fellow Democrat and city councilman Malcolm Graham, a rising political star in Charlotte's black community.

Also important will be three Triangle open seats that lean to the Democrats: a sprawling district north of Raleigh that has six Democratic candidates, a Durham-Chatham-Lee district with three strong Democrats, and a Raleigh district being vacated by Sen. Eric Reeves. In that last one, you have the makings of a traditional primary: an up-and-coming liberal (Raleigh councilwoman Janet Cowell), a moderate New Democrat with business ties (real-estate broker Carter Worthy), and a longtime activist with ties to Democratic interest groups (attorney Jack Nichols).

The Republicans don't lack for primary drama of their own. Wake County Sen. John Carrington faces a surprising challenge from Raleigh councilman Neil Hunt. In the Piedmont, freshman Sen. Andrew Brock of Davie faces a Republican rematch with county commissioner Gus Andrews of Rowan, while in a Union County district being vacated by Sen. Fern Shubert (she's running for governor) a county commission chairman, Paul Standridge, is running against a former local GOP head, Eddie Goodall.

A critical GOP primary to watch in one of the Senate's few true swing seats has Tommy Pollard squaring off against Harry Brown in Jacksonville. Pollard is a controversial former legislator and state official who clinched the nomination in 2002 but lost to Democrat Cecil Hargett. Brown is an auto dealer who ran for the legislature in 2002 as a Democrat and says he'd be the better Republican standard-bearer in the fall.

I count 24 seats as safely or moderately Democratic and 22 seats as safely or moderately Republican out of 50. That leaves only four swing seats for the fall: those held by Hargett, Democrat Scott Thomas of Craven, Republican Hugh Webster of Alamance, and Democrat Walter Dalton of Rutherford. One Democrat, Joe Sam Queen in the mountain counties ringing Asheville, must defend a moderately Republican seat, while Republican Sen. Tony Moore is paired up with Democratic colleague John Kerr in a down-East seat that leans Democratic.

Thus, depending on the outcome of the July 20 primaries, it's not hard to envision a 26-24 Democratic majority, a 25-25 tie, or even a 26-24 Republican majority. Only presidential elections in Florida get closer than that.

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[i]John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation, publisher of Carolina Journal.com, and host of the statewide program "Carolina Journal Radio."[/b]

 
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