If former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory wins his rematch with Gov. Beverly Perdue next year, it will be historic for several reasons. It would be the first time a sitting North Carolina governor is defeated for re-election to a second four-year term, for example. It would also be the first time in state history that a female incumbent loses a major office to a male challenger.
If McCrory were to win — which is by no means a sure thing, I should add — it’s also likely that there will be a great deal of commentary about the breaking of the “Charlotte Curse,” the apparent disadvantage that Queen City politicians have in statewide politics.
There is certainly evidence for the Charlotte Curse. The roster of promising candidates with Charlotte ties who lost recent elections for governor or U.S. Senate includes Erskine Bowles and former mayors Eddie Knox, Harvey Gantt, Richard Vinroot, and McCrory himself in 2008.
Furthermore, the phenomenon isn’t a new one. Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have always punched a bit below their weight class in politics. As far as I can tell, the only Mecklenburg native who has ever been elected U.S. senator or governor of the state was Gov. Nathaniel Alexander, who served a single term from 1805 to 1807. He also happens to be a third cousin of mine (my mother’s family has lived in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area since the mid-18th century).
Even the Nathaniel Alexander example is stretching things a bit, because at the time of his birth in 1756 the family home was actually in Anson County. In 1762 the western part of Anson became Mecklenburg County. Alexander, a Princeton-educated physician, served as a Continental Army surgeon during the Revolutionary War and later married into Mecklenburg’s influential Polk clan.
Alexander opened a medical practice in Charlotte and represented the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area in the state legislature and U.S. House before his gubernatorial victory in 1805. Two years later, Gov. Alexander, a Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican, was defeated for re-election by Federalist Benjamin Williams of Johnston County.
In modern times, of course, the most successful politician with strong ties to the area is former Gov. Jim Martin, a Georgia native who grew up in South Carolina and arrived in Mecklenburg County in 1953 as a student at Davidson College. Martin later became a chemistry professor at Davidson and began his political career with an election to the Mecklenburg county commission in 1966.
There are several interesting parallels between the two governors. Like Nathaniel Alexander, Jim Martin pursued his graduate studies at Princeton, earning a doctorate in chemistry. Both men represented Charlotte-Mecklenburg in Congress just before their successful statewide runs for governor. And once in office, both men made economic development, educational improvement, and infrastructure their top priorities.
Jim Martin was more successful, however. In his initial victory in 1984 and re-election in 1988, Martin averaged 55 percent of the vote. Martin’s success, in fact, signifies a more complex political relationship between Charlotte-Mecklenburg and the statewide electorate than you might think.
Yes, I know Gov. Martin stressed he was from Lake Norman, not Charlotte. But he had deep roots in Charlotte as its longtime congressman, and before that as chairman of the county commission.
More to the point, if you just let vote totals drive your analysis, you should conclude that North Carolina Republicans do best when they nominate Mecklenburg politicians for governor, regardless of which municipality they call home. Since 1992, Republicans have nominated two Charlotteans (Vinroot and McCrory) and three non-Charlotteans (Jim Gardner, Robin Hayes, and Patrick Ballantine). All five Republicans lost, but the Charlotteans averaged 46 percent of the vote while the non-Charlotteans got 43 percent.
Too recent for you? Well, from 1960 until the Martin era, the GOP nominated only non-Charlotteans. Even if you include the victorious Jim Holshouser, who won 51 percent of the vote in 1972, the average Republican vote share was, again, 43 percent.
In modern times, at least, Republicans running for governor have found Mecklenburg ties to be a blessing, not a curse.
— John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of CarolinaJournal.com.