Brightest Day or Blackest Night for N.C. Democrats?

Although North Carolina Democrats last month retained their majority in the state house of representatives (68 seats to 52 for Republicans), Tar Heel State Democrats still had some sleepless nights over a recount in Mecklenburg County. There, the most powerful of all Democrats in the state house, Speaker Jim Black, held a microscopic seven-vote edge over conservative Republican Hal Jordan.

Last week, Democrats breathed easier when the State Board of Elections unanimously agreed to certify Black. Following the recount, Black led Jordan by about 30 votes. While officials did find a precinct that mistakenly allowed hundreds of people to vote even though they did not live in Black’s district, the board ruled that it found nothing to indicate that the margin would not hold up despite the glitch.

Earlier this year, state politics were jolted when Michael Decker, whose change from Republican to Democrat flipped control of the house in 2003, admitted taking a five-figure bribe and named Black as a co-conspirator. The speaker heatedly denied any wrongdoing but soon found himself in a hard-hitting campaign for survival against political newcomer Jordan. Comic book aficionados point out that GOP hopeful Jordan has the same name as secretly does durable DC Comics superhero the Green Lantern, who fought evildoers with a magical power ring that he regularly recharged while reciting the oath: “In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight. Let those who worship evil’s might, beware my power, Green Lantern’s light.”

Now, the public will see whether state Democrats have their “brightest day” or “blackest night” with the return of Black, who has, fairly or unfairly, become a North Carolina poster child for corruption.

Stars Fall in Alabama

Although Republican Gov. Bob Riley was handsomely re-elected last month, Democrats nonetheless made major dents in what has been considered reliably red Alabama. In three statewide races, Democrats scored dramatic upsets over “name” GOP candidates.

When he won the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor over George Wallace, Jr., lawyer Luther Strange was considered a sure winner in the fall. Handsome and well-connected to the state’s business community, Strange was rated as someone to watch for the future.

But something odd happened to Strange: He lost the November race to Democrat Jim Folsom, Jr., namesake-son of a former governor, who is himself a former lieutenant governor (1986-92) and governor (1992-94).

Former State Rep. Perry Hooper, Jr., namesake-son of the state’s first-ever Republican chief justice, appeared to be on the upward political path earlier this year when he won a hard-fought primary for state public service commissioner over former State Sen. John Amari. Hooper, however, was beaten last month by Democrat Susan Parker.

Drayton Nabers, who became chief justice when fellow Republican Roy Moore was removed for defiance of an order by fellow justices to remove a monument bearing the Ten Commandments from the judicial building, had easily won the GOP primary for a full term over close Moore ally Tom Parker. But Nabers went down last month at the hands of Sue Bell Cobb, who became the state’s first-ever female chief justice and the first Democrat to hold the office since 1994.

Some Alabamians I talked to made the case that all three candidates, while running as conservatives, had “establishment” pedigrees and did not appeal to evangelical conservatives. This seems accurate, except possibly in the case of Hooper, who had a solid conservative background as legislative point man for former Republican Gov. (1986-92) Guy Hunt and state chairman of Jack Kemp’s presidential bid in 1988.

Others were quick to note that Strange, Hooper and Nabers all had to win spirited nomination battles and that their former opponents gave them only perfunctory assistance after the primary, which put them at a disadvantage. Such a scenario was common in Southern states a generation ago, when the Democratic primary was tantamount to the November election. Republicans won some of their earliest elections in the South after divisive Democratic nomination battles. Now that they are in the political driver’s seat in most Southern states, Republicans are experiencing the burden of holding fierce nomination battles of their own.

Some Light in Buckeye Blues

In the Democratic earthquake in Ohio—the aftershocks of which will be felt for years—Democrats unseated Republican Sen. Mike DeWine, won the governorship and every statewide office but one and gained at least five seats in the state house of representatives (their biggest single election gain in the state house in 25 years). The lone statewide office won by Republicans was state auditor, for which conservative State Rep. Mary Taylor finally edged out Democrat and fellow State Rep. Barbara Sykes. Taylor won in part by showing a damaging video clip of Sykes acknowledging she supported unpopular Republican Gov. Robert Taft’s tax increase.

Her victory made Taylor the sole Republican in a statewide, non-judicial office and, as auditor, according to the Columbus Dispatch, “a Republican will be the fiscal watchdog of Gov.-elect Ted Strickland’s Democratic administration.” The late James A. Rhodes played this role as state auditor under Democratic governors in the 1950s and went on to win the governorship himself in 1962. Another “ rare bright spot for Republicans,” as the Dispatch put it, was the election of Justice Terrence O’Donnell and appellate Judge Robert R. Cubb to the Ohio Supreme Court. Their wins give the GOP all seven seats on the state’s highest court for the first time since 1921.

With so little good news for Republicans, many might initially think that State Republican Chairman Bob Bennett would either be forced out or decide to relinquish the party helm that he has held since 1988. But the dean of all state party chairmen, no matter what party, signaled last week that he plans to seek one more term when his present term runs out in January. As Bennett told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, speaking of the GOP defeat: “In a very real sense, in some ways, we needed this. We need a reminder that our service to the people is at their discretion.”

Turnabout Fair Play in Montana

With Democrats capturing new majorities in nine state legislative chambers across the country, it was not a good year for Republicans at the state level. But last week, Republicans got some unexpectedly good news from Montana: They actually picked up control of the state house of representatives.

“Stunning” is an accurate way to describe the events that led to the news that Republicans would hold a majority, which they have just now learned. Before November 7, the Montana house was tied, with each party having 50 seats. Now, the breakdown is 50 Republican seats, 49 Democratic, and one Constitutionalist. The Republicans got their 50th seat only after a race in the 58th District (Laurel) ended in a tie between Democratic State Rep. Emilie Eaton and Republican challenger Krayton Kerns, and the hand recount of ballots, which was completed last week, gave Kerns the seat by three votes—and Montana Republicans rule of the state house by one vote.

These developments that yielded Republican rule of the Montana house came just days after a 25-to-25 tie in the Montana Senate was broken only when Republican Sen. Sam Kitzenberg switched to the Democrats, giving them control of the upper house of the legislature. Kitzenberg told the Glasgow (Mont.) Currier: “I’m not leaving the Republican Party. They’ve left me. They’re so conservative and so narrow-minded, if you’re not conservative enough, they take you out. They have no toleration for moderates. If anything, I waited too long to make this decision.”