Exile on Jones Street: Lessons from the election

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kirk rossby Kirk Ross

One day in the last month of the last legislative session in a lobbyist-packed, standing-room-only hearing room, the House appropriations committee in charge of the budget for agriculture, environment and commerce dug into a mess of a bill.

It was yet another omnibus stuffed full of whatever chits had to be handed out to win over whomever had to be won over. The committee was told to move fast by its energetic young chairman, Wake County Rep. Tom Murry.

When one committee member complained about a provision, Murray both acknowledged the flaws of the provision and how little it could change in one quick, neat sentence.

“It’s not my dog,” he said. “I’m just walking it.”

Murry, a rising star in the House, was defeated for re-election Tuesday in a close race. He lost in the kind of tightly drawn exurban/suburban district that more moderate Republicans were expected to hold.

Instead, he joined three other members of the House GOP caucus who will suddenly have much clearer schedules come January.

The WNC duo that fell were, like Murry, looking at solid careers in Raleigh. But the region’s traditional distrust of Raleigh and the facts on the ground in education spending were stacked against them. A third colleague barely escape the same fate.

In the grand scheme of things the losses don’t change the balance of power all that much. But who went down and why underlined a couple of key points.

One is that the redistricting may have created more, new GOP districts, but the margins in many are thin enough that under the right conditions and with the right candidates they can flip. That’s what happened in Buncombe and Wake counties and almost happened in several other hotspots.

Another point is that rural counties depend on education funding. While most of the people in the state now live in urban areas, most of its counties — about 80 of them — are still rural. With the decline of manufacturing, in many of those counties the school system is the largest employer. All through the election cycle, legislators got an earful not just about the impact to students and teachers, but about the economic reality of cuts to education.

But one of the most important point, probably not lost on the House and Senate members breathing easier after a scare last night, is that governing is not a bunch of talking points. Even with the firewall redistricting put around them, the heat over many of the decisions of the past two years scorched some hides.

The losses in the House didn’t crack the GOP’s supermajority, but they did leave open the potential that such a thing could happen two years from now when presidential cycle turnout and another hotly contested US Senate race could drive even more change.

With the wins last night, Democrats need to pick up two more seats in 2016 to eliminate the GOP’s veto proof majority in the legislature. With an already interesting governor’s race brewing, expect the supermajority or its demise to become part equation.