10.30.08

My Front Row Seat in the Nation's Strangest Swing State

A one-time Senate candidate on how politics replaced basketball in North Carolina--and Elizabeth Dole's strange demise.

A one-time Senate candidate on how politics replaced basketball in North Carolina—and Elizabeth Dole’s strange demise.

North Carolina is swinging in the balance as America’s most quixotic battleground state. Obama and McCain are deadlocked and Sen. Elizabeth Dole is flailing fire and brimstone at the little-known state senator who’s poised to end her 40-year career as an inside-the-Beltway icon. This year, politics is the new basketball in North Carolina. And it’s shaping up as a Carolina blue election.

It may be freezing outside tonight, but the campaign trail is hot. The state has not delivered a victory to a Democrat presidential candidate in 32 years and has yet to recover from Sen. Jesse Helms’ 30-year reign of terror. Helms’ retirement in 2002 paved the way for Elizabeth Dole, recently-retired as president of the American Red Cross, to establish residency at her mother’s home in Salisbury and mount a successful campaign to succeed Helms. John Edwards is back and there are no more delusions about Chapel Hill becoming the southern White House. Suffice it to say that there’s more pent-up venom in a battle-weary Yellow Dog Democrat than a diamondback rattlesnake coiled up in a woodpile.

Florence Nightingale unleashed her fangs yesterday. The Dole campaign lit up the airways with a stinging commercial suggesting that Democrat challenger Kay Hagan was other-than Godly.

Florence Nightingale unleashed her fangs yesterday. The Dole campaign lit up the airways with a stinging commercial suggesting that Democrat challenger Kay Hagan was other-than Godly and Democrats are seething. Kay is in fact an active member of the First Presbyterian Church in Greensboro. She attends Sunday School class regularly. She has served as a church elder. Dole’s attempt to smear her as a secularist is none other than just that. Local television and YouTube should be running a Hagan counter-attack ad tomorrow. I expect Kay will express outrage at anyone who would impugn her faith and then pivot back to her message emphasizing Dole’s voting record, absences from the state and high points of the 2008 Democrat Party economic playbook (i.e., knot a Bush around Dole’s neck.)

Politics is akin to the art of seduction tempered by the science of calculation. This advertisement should come as no surprise to the Hagan campaign. Dole fired a shot across the bow over two months ago in a press release excoriating Hagan for her plan to attend a fundraiser at the home of an advisory board member to the Godless Americans PAC. The ad is a calculated gamble by Dole and we won’t know for several days how many voters her trap seduces. The Dole campaign has a clear target: non-secular black voters. That’s why Dole has also been running commercials over black gospel and R&B AM radio stations drawing attention to the Hagan family’s membership in a country club which was segregated until about ten years ago.

At the end of a wrenching campaign season such as this, it is hard to maintain perspective. Stepping back in time one year, the outlook for North Carolina Democrats was bleak. The Obama campaign was dealing with the furor of the LGBT community over the inclusion of an "ex-gay" singer in Obama’s “Embrace the Change” gospel tour in South Carolina. Every member of North Carolina’s Democratic A-team had snubbed the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s overtures to run against Elizabeth Dole. Even relatively-unknown state senator Kay Hagan had dropped out of contention a week before.

The only challenger for Dole’s seat was me, a surprise first-time candidate. I’m inherently cynical when it comes to pundits and polls. It seemed clear as day to me that a senator performing as poorly as Elizabeth Dole could be had. On October 19, 2007, at a Carnegie Hall reading of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling revealed that Dumbledore was gay. The next morning, I confirmed in a live blog that I am too. It took but ten days for DSCC head Chuck Schumer to coax Kay Hagan into a change of heart.

The race has turned out to be such a crowd-pleaser that Linda Bloodworth-Thomason couldn’t have penned a better script. The starring cast was a black presidential candidate, an ex-gay soul singer, Dumbledore, a gay Senate candidate, and a pair of ruby red slippers–a gift from Hagan, who promised to send Dole back to her husband’s home state of Kansas. All this in the state that sent Jesse Helms to five consecutive terms in the Senate.

neal-cartoon

By March, as Kay and I were battling for the Democratic nomination, the big tent began rolling into town unexpectedly. Spirited regional organizers for the Obama campaign had 20 offices up and running before Hillary opened her first. Soon you couldn’t cross the street without bumping into a Clinton, Obama, or an Obama surrogate like Rep. John Conyers, Mayor Cory Booker, and Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery.

Those of us down-ballot were suffocating. Obama and Hillary had sucked the oxygen out of the air. Kay and I were in a dead-heat in most polls, but half the voters didn’t know anything about us. The DSCC was nervous. In the month before the primary, it contributed more to the Hagan campaign than it had to all but one other primary campaign in history. In a year when turnout was twice what was projected, every TV commercial was a coveted asset. To an outsider with no media budget, it was a death knell. Kay won the primary by 3 to 1. Obama thumped Hillary pretty much as expected. The same folks who once said that Dole was invincible will tell you that I lost because I’m gay. I know better, now as before. And Kay’s the last hope to prove them wrong beyond reasonable doubt.

Up until yesterday, the dynamic of the Dole/Hagan senate race had changed on a single political ad. It was a brilliant tactical commercial aired by the DSCC. Cut to two elderly men in rocking chairs on the porch of a country store. They’re jawboning back and forth about whether Liddy Dole is ranked the 92nd or 93rd most effective member of the Senate. Subtly, their exchange draws attention to Dole’s age (she’s one year older than John McCain.) Dole’s been playing defense ever since on a battlefield which keeps expanding.

Kay is more polished than she was six months ago, projecting confidence and comfort with her message. She’s a spitfire while Dole is a throwback to a white-glove era of southern gentility. Dole speaks in a honey-laced drawl and works a crowd like the hostess at a ladies’ tea party. She’s a lonely warrior, paired alongside her 85 year-old husband. It’s sort of sad, for Dole is nobody’s fool. She has been a pioneering woman during her 30 years on the national stage. But her heart and energy are as absent from this race as she has been as our senator. This is not the same Elizabeth Dole who stampeded former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles in 2002. She has taken the white gloves off. The Liddy of old is gone. Whether she holds back Kay will turn on whether historians describe yesterday’s salvo as a Hail Mary or the Halloween Surprise.

Obama and Biden made Raleigh the site of their first joint campaign appearance. Ever since the cast of characters on the set in North Carolina has been dizzying. Sarah Palin wore boots and jeans, not Manolo Blahnik’s, in the mountainous west on Sunday; Joe Biden donned a blue suit and repp tie in Greensboro on Monday. Usher was in Charlotte Tuesday, and Edie Falco is Bama Da Binging all over the state. Still more celebs: Hank Williams, Jr., headlined for John McCain in Fayetteville ( nee Fort Bragg) Tuesday afternoon. Yesterday, Barack spoke to a throng in Raleigh while Michelle addressed the General Baptist State Convention in Fayetteville. Bidens’s sister, Ashley Judd, and Mike Huckabee are also dropping in this week. The Palin Show—there’s a rerun this Saturday in Raleigh. You betcha North Carolinians are going to tune in.

Tuesday night, I pulled up a chair in a Pakistani café a mile or so from my home. There across the table was Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr. As we ate, three people stopped by to introduce themselves—to me. Nobody noticed the would-be Libertarian spoiler across the table, who a couple of million Americans will vote for on Nov. 4.

Bob moved on to his next gig. I can't wait to see what's in store for tomorrow.

Jim Neal was a candidate for the U.S. Senate in North Carolina’s Democratic primary last May. He finished second to nominee Kay Hagan. He lives in Chapel Hill, NC.

Cartoon credit: The Charlotte Observer.