RALEIGH — It’s hard to imagine that 2010 will be remembered, at least in North Carolina political circles, as anything other than the year of the Republicans.
For the first time in more than a century, Republicans won majorities in both chambers of the North Carolina General Assembly.
The electoral victories came amid continued financial woes for the state and as a former North Carolina governor became the first ever to plead guilty to a felony for acts while in office.
Democrats in North Carolina and elsewhere began the year with the political landscape tilted against them.
In North Carolina, Republicans put together a state-level money-raising and candidate-recruiting organization that finally rivaled that of the Democrats. Tom Fetzer, a smooth former Raleigh mayor and political consultant, became the GOP’s attack dog. As chairman of the state Republican Party, he didn’t disappoint, relentlessly pounding on Gov. Beverly Perdue and the Democrats.
Political insiders expected that the state Senate — where a number of longtime Democratic incumbents were retiring — would be up for grabs. By Labor Day, it became apparent that the Democrats’ grip on the House was in jeopardy, too.
Republican activist and businessman Art Pope led an independent expenditure campaign that went after vulnerable legislative Democrats with mailers and TV ads attacking their voting records.
On Election Day, the results were stunning. Republicans in the House completely reversed their 16-seat disadvantage, winning a 68-52 majority. In the Senate, Republicans went from holding just 20 seats to a 31-19 majority.
The Republican tide, though, promised the emergence of new leaders. A small-town lawyer from Rockingham County, Phil Berger, had pushed his way through earlier internal strife among Senate Republicans and led their election effort. By election night, he stood poised to take over Marc Basnight’s position.
In the House, a two-term retired IBM executive from the Charlotte suburb of Cornelius, Thom Tillis, was chosen by fellow House Republicans as their guy to become the next House speaker, to replace Democrat Joe Hackney.
Republicans’ election success may have been helped along by Democrats’ legal problems.
The federal investigation into the activities of former Gov. Mike Easley ramped up in January, when former Easley administration lawyer Ruffin Poole was indicted on 51 criminal charges related to public corruption and tax evasion.
By spring, Poole began cooperating. He pleaded guilty to a single charge of tax evasion.
Just after the election, it was Easley’s turn. In a plea deal, he essentially pleaded no contest to a single campaign-finance-related felony in exchange for no prison time and a $1,000 fine.
Perdue, meanwhile, had her own legal problems. After fessing up to a few dozen unreported airplane flights, the state Board of Elections eventually fined her campaign $30,000.
Perdue also saw little letup in the financial problems that had been plaguing state government since she took office.
The governor and legislature were able to stem some budget-cutting with federal stimulus dollars.
Still, the federal aid was set to end in the next budget year, and $1 billion in taxes were set to expire. Legislative Republicans and Perdue pledged that they would allow them to do just that, leaving a $3.5 billion budget gap to close. Perdue promised substantial government streamlining as a result.
Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.