Perdue's Departure Highlights Obama's Tough Path in N.C.

Perdue's Departure Highlights Obama's Tough Path in N.C.

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - January 27, 2012

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue shook the 2012 outlook for Democrats on Thursday with the unexpected announcement that she will not seek re-election in November. It was a particularly unwelcome surprise to President Obama's re-election campaign. Bucking recent electoral map history, the Obama-Biden ticket carried the Tar Heel state in 2008, and Democrats hope to do it again -- which is one reason the party's nominating convention was steered to Charlotte. But Perdue’s decision underscores how difficult it will be to repeat that feat this time around.

The first-term Democrat said she wanted to focus on education initiatives -- and the sales tax increase that would pay for them; a re-election fight would "only further politicize the fight to adequately fund our schools.”

Perdue was considered among the most vulnerable governors heading into the 2012 elections, and her term in office has been plagued by low poll numbers (including job approval ratings), tenuous relations with the new Republican legislature and an investigation into her campaign's finance filings. Her chance at success in November has looked increasingly bleak.

Democrats insist polling had nothing to do with Perdue’s decision not to run again, but that politics was getting in the way of governing. "The absolute vitriol and the toxic sort of hate directed her way by Republican activists and sort of Tea Party extremists is enough to make anyone a little hesitant to do this," said one Democratic source in the state.

The news had Republicans doing virtual celebratory cartwheels. A vulnerable Democrat retiring the year her state is to hold the party's nominating convention is a savory story line for the GOP, which hopes to claim the Tarheel State on its path to winning 270 electoral votes. "It’s now clear that the past four years of having a Democratic governor in North Carolina have been a failure," said RGA Executive Director Phil Cox in a statement Thursday.

Some analysts suggest Perdue bowing out might actually help Obama: Democrats could put up a new candidate for the open race instead of playing defense (they are eyeing Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton). Democratic operatives, though, say Perdue came to this decision on her own and not at the bidding of the White House or the Democratic Governors Association.

Obama made history by winning North Carolina in 2008, becoming the first Democrat to do so since Jimmy Carter in 1976. But his margin of victory was also the narrowest: He defeated John McCain by just 14,000 votes. With many things going for him -- an unpopular Republican president and a faltering economy among them -- North Carolina was still an incredibly close race. And with the president's image battered now by virtue of incumbency and a still struggling economy, what would encourage Democrats about his chances of winning here again?

For starters, the ground game: Organizing for America, the president's campaign arm, never left its Raleigh office after the last election. OFA has three other offices across the state -- in Charlotte, Greensboro and Fayetteville. Republicans typically cite the Obama infrastructure here as strong (though they tend to question the number of bodies on the ground and insist that their nominee, once decided upon, will have similar resources). Keeping staff in the state after the campaign ended allowed OFA to maintain grass-roots contacts, says Ed Turlington, a Raleigh attorney and Democratic activist. "The president and his campaign have a proactive strategy [in North Carolina]. They are swimming in their lane," he says.

Right now, the campaign workers are concentrating on registering people to vote. Obama has something of an advantage in that regard. According to the state board of elections, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 800,000. Last cycle, the Obama camp made strides from 2004 in registering voters in the primary, but energizing these blocs and getting them to the polls on Election Day 2012 will be a different and difficult challenge.

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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