The Rundown: A Tough Row to Hoe for Incumbents

Article Published: Mar. 4, 2010 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011

What has 18 legs and wants to set local education policy?

No, it's not a joke. It's one of the many surprises to emerge from the final filing day for political candidates in Watauga County.

A mini-stampede converged on the local election board to swell the ranks of school-board hopefuls to nine - in an election that can only fit the top three- but that's a topic for next week.

Yes, that means a "Survivor" run-off in May in which the bottom three vote-getters get kicked off the electoral island.

And, yes the "18 legs" comment is one of my first weak attempts at political humor this season.
You can expect several groan-worthy gems every week, so buckle in.

But that's all misdirection because this week, we are examining statewide and regional races.

Here's this week's ever-evolving skinny on the state of state races in the High Country.

U.S. Senate
Could Republican Sen. Richard Burr go the way of Elizabeth Dole?

That question is, no doubt, keeping Democratic hopefuls Elaine Marshall, Cal Cunningham and Ken Lewis scurrying across the state, lining up endorsements and money.

According to the left-leaning Public Policy Polling, Burr now leads slightly in the polls against all takers (50 percent against Marshall's 34 and Cunningham's 51 percent).

PPP reports: "Burr leads right now by margins similar to what Elizabeth Dole had at this time in 2008, and she ended up losing badly to a candidate [Kay Hagan] who had begun the campaign with virtually no name recognition."

But wait. In the money race, Burr is a Lamborghini to the rest of the pack's John Deere mowers.
As of the end of February, Burr had raised $6.7 million. Lewis, who is polling lower, actually out-raised his fellow Democrats. Lewis stands at $327,047; Cunningham, a Lexington lawyer, at $320,058; Secretary of State Marshall trails the trio at $304,864.

Of course, these numbers do not reflect the upcoming reporting period in March so expect huge changes. There are four other candidates on the Democratic side, but let's be honest, it's likely going to come down to Marshall and Cunningham.

Meanwhile Burr's approval rating has slipped to the mid-30s. Look for his fortunes to rise or fall with the fate of the healthcare debate.

U.S. House (5th)
Although he faces a $1.1 million campaign juggernaut in incumbent U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, Watauga farmer and radio-host Billy Kennedy unearthed a few boosts to his bid to unseat the three-term Republican.

After emerging from the filing period without a Democratic rival, Kennedy received a national endorsement from the influential blog Blue America. The backing enabled the blog to help raise almost $11,000 for Kennedy as of Wednesday. Since Kennedy is a relatively new candidate, there are no financial reports from last year - the next reports will be due in March.

Foxx, on the other hand, raised $427,038 in the last filing period and has a whopping $1.175 million on hand.

Meanwhile Foxx faces a fly in her ointment after Alexander County resident Keith Gardner entered the Republican primary last week.

Color me completely wrong if Gardner manages to raise more than $100,000. Die-hard Republicans will rally strongly around Foxx in hopes of staving off Kennedy's challenge.

The odds on Kennedy? To quote my favorite political philosopher, Yoda: "The dark side clouds everything. Impossible to see the future is."

On the one hand, conventional wisdom states that demographics and geography stand against Kennedy as of right now.

While Watauga County has failed to support Foxx on her home ground in the last two elections, the rest of the 5th District is painted in the brightest shades of red. My guess is the western portion of Forsyth County will be Kennedy's waterloo unless he can find a way to drive a wedge between Foxx and the stalwart evangelical bloc arrayed with her in that region.

However, Kennedy may find the key to victory in the growing number of unaffiliated voters - voters who have defected from both parties and are tired of - prepare the cliche - "politics as usual."

A recent statewide poll showed 31 percent of voters may back challengers this year, flying against the conventional wisdom of safety in incumbency. Only 13 percent were likely to vote for incumbents.

One disquieting stat for Foxx may be in the finding that 42 percent of Republicans polled say they will vote for challengers.

Like distant rolls of thunder, already, a quiet battle of words has begun among the respective campaign staffers.

Last week, Kennedy campaign manager Lainey Edmisten stated in an e-mail, concerning her candidate's clear field, "We believe this is the first time since Steve Neale gave up the 5th District seat in 1994 that there is no Democratic primary for the nomination."

Upon reading the quote, Foxx communication director Todd Poole shot back with this e-mail: "Just so you know the Dems didn't have a primary in 96, 98, 2000 or 2002... The reason was because they knew that [sic - they] couldn't beat Burr."

Meee-oooww! The claws are about to emerge all around.

State Senate (45th)
Incumbent State Sen. Steve Goss will have a much easier time until May then many of his fellow incumbents as two young Republicans duke it out for the party nod in the four-county 45th.

While Boone resident Dan Soucek is likely to carry his home county of Watauga and Jeffrey Elmore of North Wilkesboro likely has Wilkes tied up, Ashe County may prove to be Soucek's salvation.

During his 2008 House race against incumbent Cullie Tarleton, Soucek came within 332 votes of besting Tarleton in Ashe. If he can repeat that showing in May and Alexander County splits the difference, we would have a repeat of the 2008 race - two Wataugans facing off (the last time, Goss, a Democrat, handily outflanked Boone dentist Jerry Butler).

No matter who emerges to face Goss, they will likely find campaign contributions hard to come by as most Republicans will likely be focused on keeping Burr and Foxx in office. My guess? The state GOP leadership has probably written off the 45th.

State Representative (93rd)
Ashe County may also play a key role in the two-county House race. Democratic incumbent Rep.

Cullie Tarleton will have to shore up strong support outside his Watauga County home base as he faces Republican attorney Jonathan Jordan of Jefferson. Tarleton will need to retain the 6,396 he garnered in 2008 and gain several hundred insurance votes to stave off a challenge by the hometown boy.

As far as I can tell, Jordan is somewhat of a political newcomer but this may be a bountiful year for newbies.

Judging from his press releases, Jordan will attempt to place Tarleton and his legislative cohorts at the scene of the crime that is the strangled economy.
I smell a negative campaign coming.

It's a Date!
The primary election will be held on May 4 followed by the general election on Nov. 2.
Voter registrations deadlines for the primary and general elections are April 9 and Oct. 8.

Look for more attempts at punditry next week when I wade into the ever-murky waters of county-level politics.

For the latest updates on all things political, see the latest issue of the Watauga Democrat.

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