Sat, Sep 25, 2010

GOP stalks historic prize to control state legislature

CORNELIUS Rep. Thom Tillis’ cell phone rings to the tune of “Sunshine,” an old ’70s protest song that could be the anthem of his campaign to make N.C. history.

“This old world, she’s gonna turn around,” sings a voice. “Brand new bells’ll be ringing.”

The world Tillis and other Republicans are trying to turn around is the state legislature. Few are more single-minded in that effort than Tillis, the second-ranking House Republican.

Seventeen months ago, the Cornelius businessman quit his job as an IBM management consultant to devote himself full time to the effort. Since then he has worn out a set of tires on his Toyota pickup, traveling the state recruiting candidates and helping them hone issues and raise money.

“Very few people have the opportunity to do something that could change the course of history for the state,” says Tillis, 50. “This election without question is the most important in North Carolina since the Great Depression.”

Some analysts say Republicans – poised for big gains nationally – are well within reach of taking control of the House for the first time in more than a decade, and the Senate for the first time in more then a century.

Democrats say that’s premature.

“They have a lot of bravado, but our internal polling is not showing that at all,” says House Speaker Joe Hackney, an Orange County Democrat. “We are quietly confident that we have the best candidates, the best campaigns and the best message. And our turnout effort is going to be pretty good.”

But Tom Jensen, director of the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling, says an enthusiasm gap could keep Democratic voters home.

“If the election was today, Republicans would get control of both houses of the legislature,” Jensen says. “But it’s an avoidable outcome if Democrats wake up and see what the consequences of not voting can be.”

There’s a lot at stake for both sides – and for North Carolinians.

The legislature that convenes in January will confront a $3 billion budget shortfall and the absence of federal recovery money to help plug it. New lawmakers will also draw legislative and congressional districts that will be in effect for a decade.

Like their GOP counterparts in the Senate, Tillis and House Minority Leader Paul Stam of Raleigh are trying to ensure that their party is the one calling the shots. Armed with PowerPoints and a battlefield focus, it’s Tillis who has helped discipline the GOP assault.

“Stam is the policy wonk, and Tillis the political war leader,” says legislative analyst John Davis of Raleigh. “Thom is a disciplinarian. He’s the one who makes the hard decisions. He says, ‘Here’s the target list. All others need not apply.'”

Polls give GOP real shot

In a regional campaign headquarters in Cornelius, Tillis pores over a printout of targeted races as if it were a roadmap to victory. He rattles off key districts, poll numbers and partisan ratings.

“I’ve got an almost ‘Rain Man’-like recall of these numbers now,” he says.

House Republicans hope the numbers add up to nine. That’s how many seats they need for control. In the Senate, it’s six.

Davis, a pro-business consultant who has tracked legislative politics for 25 years, says the Senate is “the Republicans’ to lose.” And in the House, Republicans – who have 30 unopposed candidates – can already count on at least 59 of the 61 seats they need.

GOP state candidates hope to benefit from national trends that forecast a good year for Republicans.

“If [voters] go to the polls in November and vote based on how they feel about Barack Obama, Democrats are going to be in trouble,” Jensen says.

Democrats say those GOP advantages will fade as voters begin to focus on local elections.

“The old Tip O’Neill axiom that ‘All politics is local’ applies to these down-ballot races more than anywhere else,” says Andrew Whalen, executive director of the state Democratic Party.

Republicans haven’t always taken advantage of favorable winds. Intra-party feuds and a strong Democratic financial edge have helped keep the GOP out of power since 1997.

Unified and organized

Now they’re unified – and organized. Taking a page from their rivals, they’re stressing early voting. They’ve also raised more money than in the past. Through June, the state GOP saw its fundraising nearly double since 2008 while the Democratic Party raised less than half of what it had. GOP senators and Senate candidates had at least $1.7 million in their campaign accounts, nearly as much as Senate Democratic candidates.

And a party whose phone banks called 6,000 prospective voters in 2008 has already called almost 700,000.

Tillis wears a red-and-black wrist band that says “Think Jobs.” Handing them out to GOP candidates, he tells them to snap it if they’re tempted to talk about anything besides the economy.

“We’ve got to get focused,” he says. “We’ve got to be disciplined.”

Across the state, Republicans are campaigning on a platform that includes cutting taxes, reducing spending, offering school choice and fewer regulations, and fighting efforts to make North Carolina more friendly to labor unions.

“We’re finding that the message is resonating really like no time I recall,” says five-term GOP Rep. Johnathan Rhyne of Lincolnton.

‘Not offering any plan’

Democrats say their opponents have come up short in their message and their candidates. Whalen, the party’s executive director, says Republicans are “not offering any plan.”

“They just want to point fingers and cast blame,” he says, “and that’s not what voters are looking for.”

Hackney calls Republican candidates “considerably to the right of any that we’ve seen previously.”

But Tillis and his GOP partners are undaunted. Though only in his second term, he’ll join Stam on a short list of candidates for House Speaker if Republicans win control.

“I will certainly run for a leadership position, whether it be speaker or majority leader or one of the other top roles,” he says.

For now, all he knows is that he’ll have a new ringtone on Nov. 3. He’s leaning toward “In America” by the Charlie Daniels Band.

“You never think we’d ever get together again,” it goes. “Well we damn sure fooled ya.”


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