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The race to watch

RALEIGH — Nearly 13 years ago, I walked back into the cramped legislative office space of The Associated Press and posed a question to old colleague Dennis Patterson.

I had just come from my first meeting of the state Senate’s Finance Committee.

“Let me make sure I’ve got this straight: Senate Republicans have about as much power as a local dogcatcher?” I asked.

“Yep. You’ve got it,” he said.

The meeting was an eye-opener for me.

What I failed to understand before stepping foot into the Legislative Building, and what most North Carolinians today fail to grasp about their locally elected legislators, is how little political power those folks enjoy unless they are part of the majority party in the two chambers of the legislature.

The power isn’t just a result of having more votes. The majority party controls the agenda, the process, the flow of legislation.

That control – and the tremendous power that the North Carolina legislature exerts over the state budget and public policy – is why for political insiders the most watched race in the state today won’t be the U.S. Senate contest. In fact, it won’t be any individual race.

It will be the collective counting of state House and Senate seats to see who is in charge of the legislature.

After today, Democrats could be the dogcatchers. Republicans stand a solid chance of taking control of both legislative chambers for the first time since Reconstruction.

Right now, Democrats enjoy a 30-20 majority in the state Senate and a 68-52 majority in the House.

But as I wrote at the beginning of September, Democrats had a bad summer. A soft economy didn’t get any better. When you control the legislature, the governor’s mansion, the Congress and the White House, blame will tend to move in your direction.

It’s a sure bet that Republicans will pick up seats in the House and Senate. Some Republicans believe that the Senate will swing from 30 Democratic seats to 30 Republican seats. Most Democratic watchers concede that they’ll emerge from today with no more than 26 Senate seats and 62 House seats.

There is some thought that Republican momentum has slowed or stalled in the weeks since Labor Day. Employment numbers and the stock market have ticked up a bit.

But from a fundraising standpoint, the state GOP has been on nearly equal footing with the Democrats, something that hasn’t happened since legislators went full bore into the political money chase in the early 1990s.

And in some respects, Democrats have seemed paralyzed.

Aggressive state GOP chairman Tom Fetzer has gone around the state accusing Democratic politicians of all manner of bad deeds. Conservative Republican businessman Art Pope has financed an avalanche of mailers and TV ads critical of Democratic legislative incumbents.

The Democratic response: a feeble call a week before the election for a boycott of Pope’s Roses and Maxway stores.

If Democrats somehow survive with their legislative majorities intact, it will indeed be testament to all politics being local.

Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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