Sara D. Davis/AP Photo
North Carolina Rep. Bob Etheridge, who has held the seat since 1996, suddenly looks vulnerable.
North Carolina Rep. Bob Etheridge, who has held the seat since 1996, suddenly looks vulnerable. Sara D. Davis/AP Photo
On paper, Bob Etheridge should be feeling a lot like George Allen and Martha Coakley right now. Like Allen, a Virginia GOP senator who called a videographer "macaca" in 2006, and Coakley, the Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate who capped a series of gaffes by calling a Boston Red Sox legend a "Yankee fan" earlier this year, Etheridge has attracted national attention by making a politically unwise outburst within range of a camera.
A poll out Thursday suggested some pretty severe immediate damage to the reputation of the North Carolina Democratic incumbent. But it's worth keeping in mind that Renee Ellmers, the Republican challenger to Etheridge, remains an underdog with a significant climb ahead of her, albeit a climb that looks less steep than it did last week.
It's probably going to take more than a one-minute video to dislodge Etheridge, who wasn't on most lists of vulnerable Democrats this election cycle. He has held the seat since 1996, usually wins with more than 60 percent of the vote, has an enormous fundraising advantage ($730,000, to $72,000 for Ellmers), and has a well-established reputation in the district, one that will not be overridden by one slap and grab of an unwanted questioner.
Etheridge apologized relatively quickly, and while there's been quite a bit of coverage in the North Carolina press, there's little sign that any local media entity will attempt to use the incident to define the incumbent, as the Washington Post defined George Allen with 130 stories and editorials that mentioned "macaca" in that 2006 Virginia Senate race.
Still, Scott Elliott, a Rolesville, N.C.–based political blogger and poll junkie, sees some parallels to one of North Carolina's most surprising upsets, which was part of the wave of the 1994 Republican Revolution: "There is precedent in this area of North Carolina for a Democrat to fall under similar circumstances. Fred Heineman beat David Price in 1994 in the nearby fourth district when hardly anyone had that race on their radar. The fourth district is more Democratic than the second district, and Price was as equally entrenched as Etheridge is this year — if not more so."
Yet North Carolina's fourth district has proven to be tougher than it looks for aspiring Republican congressmen. Yes, the district technically scores R+2, thanks in large part to Bush's 54 percent to 46 percent victory over John Kerry here in 2004. But Etheridge's lowest share of the vote in the past decade was 62 percent that year.
That said, there was something odd about Etheridge's most recent victory, with 67 percent. North Carolina's voter turnout surged between 2006 and 2008, and the fourth district generated eye-popping numbers— its turnout swelled from a bit more than 129,000 votes to more than 292,000. But even with the first African-American major-party nominee at the top of the Democratic ticket, and with African Americans turning out in record numbers, Etheridge's vote share increased by only 1 percentage point, going from 66 percent in 2006 to 67 percent in 2008. In other words, the electorate added voters who opposed the incumbent as quickly as it added presumably pro-Etheridge African-American Democrats.
As in many other places in the South, white voters in this part of North Carolina have been getting more Republican. Elliot thinks that, in the 2010 election, lower African-American turnout will shave about 10 percentage points from Etheridge's 2008 victory margin, and that lower turnout among whites will cost him perhaps another 6 points.
In some ways, Etheridge fits the profile of other Blue Dog Democrats who have found themselves politically endangered this cycle. His town-hall meetings on the health-care bill weren't among the noisiest, but they were characterized as "a little testy." (Etheridge voted for Obamacare.) Surprisingly for a North Carolina Democrat, he has a lifetime rating of "F" from the National Rifle Association.
Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling finds that 42 percent of North Carolina voters support the health-care bill, compared with 50 percent who oppose it. Meanwhile, 47 percent say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by President Obama; only 30 percent say they would be more likely. The generic House ballot within the state splits perfectly evenly, with 44 percent each for the Democrats and Republicans.
And then there is Ellmers, who appears to be the most appealing Etheridge rival in years. (In 2008, Ellworth's token opponent was construction supervisor Dan Mansell, who spent all of $21,861 on his bid.) Since she is a first-time candidate, it is tough to evaluate how Ellmers will play on the trail; she beat two no-name, almost-no-funds Republicans in the primary with a mere 9,000 or so votes. But her career as a nurse gives her instant credibility on the health-care issue, and she quickly put out a video that called on Etheridge to explain his treatment of the questioner, declaring, "If a teacher at my son's school treated one of his students this way, it would raise serious questions and he would be suspended."
The top of the ticket should prove a modest help to Ellmers, though it probably won't be a decisive factor. Incumbent Sen. Richard Burr has polled modestly for much of the past year, but he beats either of his potential Democratic opponents healthily.
Before Thursday afternoon, race-watchers heard persistent rumors of a PAC that had surveyed the district prior to the shoving incident and found Ellmers trailing by a modest single-digit margin. Then SurveyUSA and the Civitas Institute released the results of a new poll showing Ellmers in the lead by a margin of 39 percent to 38 percent. "Twelve percent said they would vote for Libertarian Tom Rose and 11 percent said they were undecided," the poll found. "Five out of six voters in the district had seen or heard about Etheridge's on-camera confrontation with two college-aged students who asked him if he supported the Obama agenda. Of those voters who had seen it, 45 percent said the video made them less likely to support Etheridge now, including 32 percent of Democratic voters." Other polls by local television stations are expected in the coming days.
The question now for Ellmers is whether this is a short-lived poll effect or whether she can capitalize on the district's sudden reevaluation of its congressman. In an ironic echo of his repeated query in that video, North Carolinians are now asking, "Just who is Bob Etheridge?"