Magazine article Politics Magazine

How the West Was Won: A Highly Targeted Mail Campaign Helped Democrat Bev Perdue Win a Key Republican District in North Carolina

Magazine article Politics Magazine

How the West Was Won: A Highly Targeted Mail Campaign Helped Democrat Bev Perdue Win a Key Republican District in North Carolina

Article excerpt

For 16 years, Democrats in North Carolina seemed to have the key to electing governors even while the state was reliably Republican at the federal level. Democrats nominated business-friendly candidates from the eastern part of the state who made public education the centerpiece of their campaigns. They built a strong coalition made up of African-Americans, white business leaders in the rural east and more progressive urban/suburban voters along the 1-85 corridor (which runs 150 miles from Charlotte to Greensboro to the Research Triangle Park).

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The formula had worked consistently since 1992, and the 2008 race seemed to be shaping up the same way. In May, Democrats nominated two-term Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue, a former Senate Appropriations chair who called New Bern, the birthplace of Pepsi cola, home. Her campaign touted her job as a public school teacher and her commitment to education. Following the May primary, most Democrats were confident.

A strange thing happened, though, along the 1-85 corridor. Republicans nominated Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a moderate who had earned the respect, and envy, of Triangle progressives for pushing through light rail and even raising taxes to do it. He could compete for the urban/suburban vote that more conservative Republicans had historically lost to Democrats. In a twist of fate, McCrory also benefited from Obama's campaign for change, since he could position himself as the outsider running against an establishment that had been plagued by recent scandals.

McCrory's rhetoric began to echo that of the Obama campaign, calling for new leadership and a new direction. He accused Perdue of being too close to big donors who served on the Department of Transportation Board and had been accused of conflicts of interest. By mid-summer, polls showed the race tightening and, by early fall, several had McCrory leading.

Enter Service Employees International Union (SEIU). North Carolina is one of the least union-friendly states in the country, with laws prohibiting collective bargaining by public employees and a history of brutal repression of union organizers. In May, though, the State Employees Association of North Carolina (SEANC) formally affiliated with SEIU), making it the largest public employees' union in the South.

After years of serving as the whipping boys of state government, with few pay raises and reduced benefits, SEANC retaliated in the early part of this decade with hardball political tactics--attacking its opponents and heavily supporting candidates it considered friends. Now, with the backing of a national powerhouse, the union hoped to pursue an aggressive agenda for state workers. Its top legislative priority is to repeal the law that bans collective bargaining. Labor leaders know that it's a tough fight in the state's relatively conservative legislature, but it will be an impossibility if the governor wielding the veto pen is a Republican.

With Perdue's numbers falling and McCrory's spiking, SEIU jumped into the fray. It spent heavily with a contribution to the Democratic Party to boost the ground campaign, it joined and independent expenditure with the National Education Association and the Democratic Governor's Association, and it put together its own direct mail campaign.

By mid-September, the TV war was raging, with both sides pounding on each other and large sums of money being spent by independent expenditures. SEIU was looking for a way to make a serious and strategic impact on the race. Our polling from mid-summer showed a tight race, with Perdue leading McCrory 47 percent to 40 percent. But by Labor Day, new polls showed the race tied and some had McCrory leading.

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Polling Suggests a Surprising Target: The State's Rural West

SEIU originally wanted to focus a mail campaign in the Charlotte area. …

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