Politics 2004Week of July 26

TAR HEEL TALES Although conservative firebrand Vernon Robinson’s stunning first-place showing in the Republican primary for Congress in North Carolina’s 5th District was by far the top political story in the Tar Heel state primaries last week, there were some other major developments in the state. As long anticipated, former Charlotte Mayor and two-time gubernatorial candidate Richard Vinroot topped the six-candidate primary for the GOP nomination to oppose Democratic Gov. Mike Easley with 31% of the vote. Under North Carolina law, however, if no candidate gets 40% of the vote, the top two vote-getters meet in a run-off the following month. Thus, “establishment” Republican Vinroot will square off against the more conservative State Sen. Patrick Ballantine of Wilmington, who got 29% of the vote. Reagan Republican and former State Party Chairman Bill Cobey came in third (27%) in the race. To be sure, Ballantine campaigned more as a fresh face than as a staunch conservative and most on the right were dismayed that he and not Cobey made the run-off. A former House member (1984-86) and state secretary of environment, Cobey was, as former State Republican Chairman Jack Hawke put it, “the closest thing to a political heir to Jesse Helms in this state.” With a solid following among conservative former Democrats in Eastern North Carolina, the 67-year-old Cobey had the strong endorsement of former Sen. Helms and such other leading lights on the right as former Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer. In the 10th District being vacated by nine-term Republican Rep. Cass Ballenger, the run-off will be between Catawba County Sheriff David Huffman (30%) and State Rep. Patrick McHenry (26%). Businessman Sandy Lyons, who had the strong endorsement of Ballenger, placed third (20%). The run-off August 17 is sure to be heated, although the leading candidates were all conservatives and had few disagreements on issues. During the primary, Huffman hit hard at Lyons and at one point suggested that Lyons, a West Point graduate, did not earn the medals he had claimed while in the U.S. Army. This prompted Lyons to retaliate with statements from his commanding officer defending his military record and Ballenger denounced former friend Huffman for “scurrilous and baseless” attacks. Both Ballenger and Lyons are soon expected to endorse the 28-year-old McHenry, a solid conservative who had the backing of such groups as the Conservative Victory Fund (the nation’s oldest conservative political action committee). The winner of the run-off is sure to emerge triumphant this fall in a district that has been firmly Republican since 1960. The only House race in North Carolina decided outright last week was in the 1st District (Rocky Mount), where the resignation last month of Democratic Rep. Frank Ballance for health reasons necessitated a special election on the same day as the primary. The winner of both was former State Supreme Court Justice G.K. Butterfield, a black Democrat. In racking up the third Democratic win in a special U.S. House election this year, Butterfield defeated Republican security consultant Greg Dority and also overcame three other Democrats to win the primary for the full term. GEORGIA ON THEIR MINDS Even many young adults in Georgia and certainly most middle-aged and elderly voters probably never thought they would see the day when the Republican primary was tantamount to election in the Peach State. After all, Georgia Republicans had never fielded a nominee for governor until 1966, never elected a governor until two years ago, and first sent a Republican to the Senate in 1980. But times change and now, the Republican nomination fight to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Zell Miller is, in effect, the election to succeed him. Moderate-to-conservative Rep. Johnny Isakson won the three-candidate primary for the Senate outright, rolling up 53% of the vote to 26% for former National Restaurant Association President and stalwart conservative Herman Cain and 21% for Rep. Mac Collins. Both Cain and Collins (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 95%) ran to the right of Isakson (ACU rating: 66%), with Cain’s TV spots linking the more moderate congressman to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. Cain also contrasted his uncompromising pro-life position with the stance of Isakson, who in his losing 1996 Senate race vowed that he would not interfere with a woman’s right to choose. As the former chief executive officer of Godfather’s Pizza and “a conservative who happens to be black,” Cain made many new friends and won high marks for his speaking skill in his first-ever race for office. At least one Republican state legislator I spoke to before the primary predicted: “Herman won’t win this time, but he’ll be an outstanding candidate for lieutenant governor in ’06. Just watch him!” Isakson is a near-cinch to defeat the Democratic nominee, who will be chosen in a run-off next month. Liberal one-term Rep. Denise Majette led the Democratic primary with 41% of the vote, but must face runner-up (21%) Cliff Oxford, a businessman who had the backing of former President Jimmy Carter. At least five better-known Democrats had declined to run in the primary. In the closely watched, seven-candidate Republican race to succeed Isakson in the 6th District (suburban Atlanta), the top two-vote-getters who will square off next month are State Senators Tom Price (34%) and Robert Lamutt (29%). Placing third (22%) was State Sen. Chuck Clay, a past state chairman and a grandson of Gen. Lucius Clay. Price, a physician, had the backing of most “establishment” Republicans in the district, while businessman Lamutt underscored that he is a political maverick who (unlike Price) voted against tax increases favored by Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue. Lamutt also had several key endorsements from figures on the right, including Republican National Committeewoman Carolyn Meadows, a heroine to local conservative activists, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who represented the solidly Republican district from its initial creation in 1992 until he resigned from Congress six years later. To the surprise of just about everyone, State House GOP Leader Lynn Westmoreland will have to go through a run-off August 10 for the Republican nomination to succeed Collins in the 8th District. Although Westmoreland topped the primary field, he fell short of a majority and will have to square off against runner-up Dylan Glenn, onetime Bush White House staffer and deputy chief of staff to Gov. Perdue. Glenn, an African-American who has lost two previous races for Congress, relocated to the 8th to run and had considerable national GOP backing. While considered a strong conservative, Glenn worked for Perdue when he called for a record-high state tax increase, while Westmoreland led the anti-tax forces in the House. In the 4th District (Atlanta) relinquished by Majette, which is 52% black, controversial former Rep. (1992-2002) Cynthia McKinney scored one of the most dramatic political comebacks anywhere this year by rolling up more than half the vote over five opponents in the Democratic primary. Pilloried in the press for her harsh criticism of Israel and her stunning suggestion that George W. Bush knew about the 9/11 attack before it occurred, the congresswoman was defeated for renomination in ’02 by fellow black Democrat Majette. (Following McKinney’s defeat, her father, former State Sen. Billy McKinney, blamed the results on outside influence from Jews.) Among the Democrats she defeated were State Sen. Liane Levitan, who is Jewish, and former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard, an avowed lesbian.