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The bottom lines

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It’s uncertain if Jim Neal, the Chapel Hill investment banker, posed a threat to defeat state Sen. Kay Hagan for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination. Early on, two polls by well-regarded Survey USA—taken for Durham TV station WTVD—showed a close race. But Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling always had Hagan far ahead, as PPP’s communications director, Tom Jensen, reminded the media this morning in a note, the gist of which stated the group correctly predicted the outcome of every state race, including the double-digit Obama blowout.

The final tally was Hagan over Neal by a 61-18 margin, with three other minor candidates trailing, certainly bolstering PPP’s claim. PPP may have known better than Survey USA which Democrats in North Carolina really were “likely” voters, which would account for its greater polling accuracy as to Hagan’s apparently early lead.

But let’s not forget the power of money. Neither Hagan nor Neal was known to most voters until about a month ago, when Hagan cranked up her TV advertising, something Neal couldn’t afford. Hagan raised $1.5 million in this campaign as of mid-April and spent $1.2 million; Neal—who jump-started his campaign last fall by loaning himself $120,000—raised just $367,000 (including the loan). Neal was thus outspent about 4-1.

Neal was so little-known, in fact, that it’s difficult to tell how much his campaign was affected by the fact he is the first openly gay candidate to compete seriously for a statewide office. The media showed little interest in Neal’s candidacy, since he was so short of funds. So his sexuality, in the few stories anybody wrote about him, was barely mentioned.

Neal did have a lot of gays, lesbians and their straight advocates helping him. What he didn’t have, unfortunately, was a lot of rich ones. Bottom line: You can’t seriously compete in a statewide race even with a few hundred thousand dollars against an opponent who raises a seven-figure sum. Not unless you’re Andy Griffith.

And if a few hundred thousand isn’t enough, one lonely hundred thousand is even less, as demonstrated by Winston-Salem Councilman Dan Besse in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor. Besse, who has a sparkling reputation as an environmental activist and was backed by the Sierra Club and the N.C. Conservation Council political action committee, among others, had raised just $146,000 as of mid-April. Not a bad number, and maybe enough to run for Labor Commissioner, but not nearly sufficient to compete against state Sen. Walter Dalton of Rutherford County, the powerful budget committee chair, who raised $1.3 million.

Final result: Dalton wins with 45 percent of the vote; Besse finishes fourth and last with 7 percent.

Meanwhile, Besse backers shunned Durham attorney Hampton Dellinger, who was thoroughly progressive on the issues but lacked Besse’s long record of activism. Dellinger, through family connections and a history of working in other Democrats’ campaigns, put together a $1 million campaign treasury, which helped him win second place with 34 percent of the vote. (Canton Mayor Pat Smathers took third with 14 percent.)

Now imagine if Besse’s supporters had joined forces with Dellinger, adding Besse’s glittering endorsements to Dellinger’s money. It might’ve been a different campaign, with progressives united behind a single candidate, and yielded a very different outcome. Bottom line: There’s no law against running in a statewide primary you can’t afford to be in. But that doesn’t mean progressives should throw away their votes on you.

As one wag said last night, it was pretty bad timing by Ann Akland to challenge Vernon Malone in the state Senate District 14 Democratic primary when Barack Obama was also running.

Akland, who is white and lives in Knightdale, is Wake County’s foremost advocate for mental-health reforms. She was an Indy Citizen Award winner in 2002. But she was no match for Malone, a veteran leader in Raleigh’s African-American community, not with Obama pulling out a record black vote.

Almost 49,000 votes were cast in the District 14 race; compare that to the 39,000 cast in the District 16 Senate race (West Raleigh-Cary), where turnout is traditionally high. In 2004, the last time District 16 had a Democratic Senate primary, just 11,000 votes were cast. Senate 14 has never had a Democratic primary.

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