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Candidate quality is not the only reason for Republican victories

RALEIGH — A couple of weeks ago, a Republican state senator sat down with the motley crew of journalists and former journalists with whom I typically enjoy Wednesday lunch at the Legislative Building cafeteria.

Discussing the recent election, he thought it noteworthy that Republicans had done so well in state legislative elections, winning just about every competitive race on the way to substantial House and Senate majorities, while picking up only one congressional seat.

“You guys recruited better candidates,” I replied, referring to the GOP legislative candidates.

He happily agreed with that assessment.

It was a hasty, easy answer, though. The reasons for Republican success in legislative races, and the lack thereof, in congressional races are more complicated than good candidates.

Congressional incumbents of both parties benefit from substantial fund-raising advantages over challengers. And spending campaign dollars effectively in meandering congressional districts, for a newcomer trying to make himself or herself known to voters, isn’t an easy task.

This year, spending by party and independent groups helped close the gap. Still, three North Carolina Democrats — Mike McIntyre, Heath Shuler and Larry Kissell — survived relatively close congressional races. Bob Etheridge was the one Democrat who didn’t.

Republicans in North Carolina were also better organized than ever in an effort to capture legislative majorities.

Still, by and large, the incoming class of freshmen Republican legislators is better qualified to hold public office, having stronger political backgrounds, than the Republicans who lost congressional races in the state.

For whatever reasons, congressional races seem to attract plenty of political neophytes, people who believe there is no need to pay political dues before launching a bid for Congress.

The lunchtime conversation prompted me to reflect on the three state legislators who, during the time that I’ve covered the legislature, have gone on to be elected to the U.S. House.

Former state Sen. Brad Miller, a Democrat, was elected to Congress in 2002. His old state Senate colleague, Republican Virginia Foxx, followed him two years later, as did former state Rep. Patrick McHenry, also a Republican.

With all due respect to Foxx and McHenry, I doubt either, had they remained in the state legislature, would be in line for a significant leadership role in the new Republican-controlled state legislature.

Truly talented politicians — like presumptive state Senate leader Phil Berger, presumptive House Speaker Thom Tillis and their likely lieutenants — are consensus-builders. Foxx and McHenry have never demonstrated much of an ability in that direction.

I suppose that’s good news for North Carolina.

But if other states’ experiences are similar to North Carolina’s, if our best politicians and consensus-builders stay home, maybe that explains why Congress seems such a dysfunctional mess.

And why wouldn’t they stay home? Why would someone interested in helping shape public policy in significant ways want to wade into the hyper-partisanship and political preening that dominates Washington?

Of course, you probably won’t earn many guest spots on CNN or Fox News sticking around Raleigh.

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

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