Exile on Jones Street: Sudden death amid election season

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by Kirk Ross

If you were looking for an ending with a twist this primary season, you probably got it with the news that the tightest congressional primary of the bunch ended with the sudden death of a candidate.

Keith Crisco, former state secretary of commerce, died Monday after a fall in his home. He was trailing Clay Aiken in the Democratic primary by roughly 400 votes and according to his campaign staff was likely going to concede on Tuesday. He didn’t get the chance.

Unless the last remaining votes somehow change matters, Aiken’s win will be made official later this week and he’ll face Renee Ellmers in the general election for the 2nd US Congressional District.

There will be a lot of focus on the race not just because of Aiken’s fame and the fact that he is openly gay, but because NC-2 is slightly less gerrymandered than most of the other districts in the state.

Ellmers has the power of incumbency and the numbers are in her favor, but it’s far from a done deal. Aiken will be able to raise money. If there’s even a slight chance he could win, he’ll start drawing some serious star power down to campaign for him. And the spotlight on Ellmers will be a little brighter than would be with a more conventional opponent.

Like a lot of races, NC-2 will turn on the turnout of young and middle-aged women. If you’re a Democrat and have ever been to a Clay Aiken concert, then you have a right to be a little optimistic.

Ellmers, you may recall, was able to knock out incumbent Democrat Bob Etheridge who probably still regrets his flash of anger over an ambush interview that played into the hand of the GOP in the heavily anti-Washington mood of the 2010 cycle. Ellmers beat Etheridge by less than 1 percent of the vote. The General Assembly helped her out considerably with a shiny new GOP-leaning district for 2012.

Like most of the rest of the delegation, she’s looking at pretty good odds, but the risk is there that if Aiken, who won thanks to a solid turnout in Wake County, can get some momentum, the race will tighten.

Rah-rah

In NC-2 and elsewhere the races will turn on enthusiasm, or more precisely, the lack of it. A new Gallup poll of voter engagement shows a steep drop in enthusiasm for 2014 the midterms compared to 2010, when a similar survey presaged huge gains for the GOP. That year, which saw the GOP take control of the US House, the difference in “net enthusiasm” showed a 34 percent gap between Republican and Democratic voters. This year, the gap remains, but it has closed considerably as voters in both parties say they’re thinking less about the races than in years past. The gap is now closer to the ratios in midterms prior to 2010 and the numbers so far do not seem to indicate a wave election for either party. Without that kind of big trend, candidates up and down the ballot will rise and fall with their ability to move the needle on turnout in their individual races.

Shoo-ins

If you’re keeping score, please note that there’s no opposition this fall for 20 out of 50 state Senate seats and 58 out of 120 state House seats. But not every incumbent had a cakewalk to re-election. Three House members — Robert Brawley, Annie Mobley and Roger Younts — and one sitting Senator — Clark Jenkins — won’t be returning to Jones Street.

The fall also includes one major rematch in former Senate powerhouse Marc Basnight’s old district on the northern coast. Former Democratic Senator Stan White will face off again against Republican Bill Cook, who beat him by just 21 votes out of more than 87,000 cast.

Cook went on to introduce a notorious bill that would have eliminated the tax exemption for parents whose children register to vote where they go to college. The bill failed in part because it ran afoul of settled law on student voting and in part because it was just plain mean. Wonder how the young men and women at Elizabeth City State University feel about that? We’ll see in November.