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High noon in Mayberry

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The big winner in the state-level North Carolina elections: State Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, the Manteo Democrat and good friend of Andy Griffith. Democratic gubernatorial nominee Bev Perdue, who'll be a gooood governor, Griffith assures us, is a cog in Basnight's Senate Democratic caucus machinery, as is U.S. Senate nominee Kay Hagan and Lieutenant Governor nominee Walter Dalton.

The biggest loser? Gov. Mike Easley, who unaccountably threw in with Hillary Clinton against Barack Obama just when Obama was pulling away from her in North Carolina. It's probably only coincidence that Clinton's collapse began with Easley's endorsement. But the tepid applause for Easley at the party's Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Raleigh, even from the Clinton cohort, and the lusty boos from Obama's side, testify to his low esteem among the Democratic faithful.

Meanwhile, progressive Democrats lost a chance to elect one of their own to high office when they split their votes and allowed Dalton to defeat Durham attorney Hampton Dellinger in the lieutenant governor primary. Dalton won outright with 45 percent. Dellinger, his only real competition, was second with 34 percent. But Dellinger was forced to share progressive votes with Winston-Salem Councilman Dan Besse, the environmental community's favorite, who ran fourth with just 7 percent, and to some extent also with populist Canton Mayor Pat Smathers, who came in third with 14 percent.

Thus, the top Democratic nominees are all conservative, pro-business Democrats in the Basnight mold: Perdue, Hagan, Dalton.

Whether Jim Neal, the Chapel Hill investment banker, was ever a threat to Hagan's Senate nomination isn't clear. Early on two polls by well-regarded Survey USA showed a close race. Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling, though, consistently found Hagan far ahead, and the final tally was Hagan over Neal by a 61-18 margin, with three other candidates trailing.

Still, chalk up that final margin to the power of money. Neither Hagan, a state senator, nor Neal was known to most voters until 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 loaned himself $120,000, raised just $247,000 otherwise. Neal was thus outspent about 4 to 1.

Neal was so thoroughly ignored by the mainstream media, moreover, that it's difficult to gauge how his sexuality—he was the first openly gay candidate to compete for a statewide office—affected the race.

Bottom line: You can't mount an effective statewide campaign 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 Besse showed in the primary for lieutenant governor. Besse, who was backed by the Sierra Club and the N.C. Conservation Council, raised $146,000 as of mid-April. Not a bad number, and maybe enough to run for labor commissioner. But it paled against Dalton, chair of the state Senate's powerful budget committee, who raised $1.3 million, and Dellinger, who raised $1 million.

Speaking of labor commissioner, Mary Fant Donnan finished first in the Democratic primary with 28 percent, with the other three candidates in a photo finish for second, each with 24 percent. With provisional ballots still to be counted, it's not clear who's the runner-up: ex-Labor Commissioner John Brooks, Raleigh attorney Robin Anderson, or Wendell machinist Ty Richardson. Whoever it is can call for a runoff. But is that a good idea? More than half the registered Democrats voted in the first primary. In a similar, second primary for superintendent of public instruction in '04, just 3 percent of registered Democrats voted—and it cost the taxpayers $1.5 million.

Progressive Democrats did prevail in a number of down-ballot races. Most prominent, state Sen. Janet Cowell of Raleigh won a surprisingly easy victory over Buncombe County Commissioner David Young in the primary for state treasurer.

Among those celebrating with Cowell at Mitch's Tavern primary night: actor Jim Sullivan of Cary, who was the cigar-smoking "fat cat" in Cowell's TV spot, the guy laughing so outrageously at the thought of his great influence in state politics. A longtime Cowell supporter, Sullivan is past president of the N.C. State University Theater Endowment Fund and was recently featured on an Indy cover with the troupe from Burning Coal Theatre.

Cowell was one of the few Democrats to strike such an unmistakably anti-establishment note, and her TV spot was aimed directly at women, who account for upward of 55 percent of Democratic turnout.

Or so it seemed. "It was designed to appeal to all the voters," Sullivan said, smiling.

The good news for Republicans was that they managed to nominate their strongest gubernatorial candidate, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a centrist who defeated conservative state Sen. Fred Smith by 46 percent to 37 percent.

McCrory and incumbent U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole will give the GOP a formidable one-two punch on the ballot underneath presidential nominee John McCain. But GOP turnout was dismal: Just 505,000 votes were cast in the Republican gubernatorial primary, versus 1.5 million Democratic gubernatorial votes.

This story originally appeared online as "High noon in Mayberry" on May 7.

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