Thursday, May 02, 2002

The Vote-Getter

An old political operative once said to me: "What matters is the vote. What makes a good politician is the knack for getting votes." That said, I received an email today from a former North Carolinian assessing the vote-getting abilities of Sen. John Edwards. He writes:

I'm a native North Carolinian who's watched the political scene in the Tar Heel State for a good while now. In regard to Edwards, a few points:

The campaign he ran in 1998 against the incumbent, Lauch Faircloth, was quite impressive. I've watched Democrats lose U.S. Senate seats in North Carolina for decades (with the exception of Terry Sanford's win in 1986), and the Republican advantage in such contests has usually be pronounced. It's not that Republicans win by large percentages; it's that the political demographics, time after time, have made it difficult for Democrats to amass enough support to put them over the top. Conservative Democratic voters in rural eastern North Carolina are critical. Edwards, to his credit, carried eastern North Carolina and even picked up significant numbers in GOP-leaning urban areas in the west, in places like Charlotte and Greensboro (the part of the state that I'm from).

Edwards is a good example of a type of Southern politician I'd call the Boy Scout: clean-cut, respectful, seemingly dutiful to all the proper virtues. It may sound like simplistic shorthand, but those qualities appeal to a lot of voters (and to a lot of jury members in tort cases, apparently). Boy Scout types have tended to do well in state politics in North Carolina.

In a 1998 interview, I asked Edwards what current member of the U.S. Senate he might model himself on. He named Bob Kerrey of Nebraska. That is a particularly interesting and telling choice. Kerrey, it's true, was iconoclastic on issues such as entitlement policy and on the campaign trail certainly adopted centrist rhetoric. But in the broader scheme of things, his voting ratings were clearly left of center. Edwards' approach and voting record in the Senate tend to mirror that, although I'll grant that Edwards' "populist" rhetoric has a sharper edge than Kerrey's.

It will be interesting to see whether Edwards decides in 2004 to seek a second term in the Senate or to abandon that course and run full-throttle for president. If he does seek a second term, maybe his decidedly liberal voting record won't dog him as badly as Terry Sanford's did when he went down to defeat to Faircloth in 1992. But even with all the national publicity surrounding him, Edwards would quite likely face a tough contest.

There has been no real "populist" strain in North Carolina Democratic politics. The most prominent liberal "populist" was a forceful Democratic governor named Kerr Scott, a farmer elected in the late 1940s on a pave-the-rural-roads platform. Scott filled a vacancy in a U.S. Senate seat by nominating Frank Graham, the legendary liberal president of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (my undergrad alma mater) who had served on Harry Truman's Civil Rights Commission.