North Carolina Politics 2020: A punt from the 10-yard line
For one last time, let's all talk about some guys that we cared about a lot over the last few months so that, finally, we can truly be free.
Hello! It’s Jeremy. If you don’t know who I am, I’d very much like to know how you ended up here. But seriously, if you don’t know, I’m a longtime journalist, writer, and podcaster who now works for Our State magazine, with previous TV and magazine stops around North Carolina and West Virginia.
What’s this, you ask? Why, I don’t know. Not yet. My best answer is: It’s an experiment of sorts. Sometimes I get some weird stuff up in my brain. Some of it’s too long for a tweet. Sometimes I just don’t want to go through the effort to craft it into a palatable freelance pitch. Sometimes, I just want to write. So, I’ve decided that spamming you is the most effective way to beam my thoughts into your head. If this seems like your jam, mash that subscribe button. Tell your friends. If we all enjoy this, maybe I’ll start doing it on the reg. If not, I’ll just go back to reciting poetry to the squirrels in my backyard.
As for today, look, we’re all tired of politics and elections and ballots and polls, right? Well, before you turn your weary gaze away from our inebriated democracy for a bit, please consider this to be a postmortem of the protagonists from the North Carolina political season that was.
Look, everyone thought ol’ Cal had this one in the bag, but no, he had to go out and commit the worst possible unforced error in politics:
You mean to tell me that a guy who could tip the balance of power in the U.S. Senate is throwing some hot dogs and burgers on his Kenmore grill and calling that barbecue? No. NO.
I’ve been around long enough to know that one of the easiest North Carolina tropes to plug into is the eastern vs. Lexington-style barbecue debate. It literally doesn’t hurt anyone. I prefer one style! you say. And someone else says, No, you are wrong, the other style is best. And then you say, Agree to disagree. And your opponent says, Yes, what a great state this is, what with the sweet tea and lighthouses and all. And then you deploy the traditional online conversation coda: the raised hands emoji.
What you do NOT do is associate North Carolina “BBQ” with Bubba Burgers and Hebrew National franks prepared on a gas grill you got at Sears. This seems silly, but barbecue really is a third rail in state politics. Decades ago, Rufus Edmisten stated “I’m through with barbecue,” and then (allegedly) lost a governor’s race over it.
In any event, most people ignored the next tweet in the thread, which implored you to buy some Cal Merch, and in light of the more consequential scandal that followed the barbecue one, this was an unfortunate turn of phrase:
Now that he’s gonna be around for six more years, do you think we should start pronouncing the ‘h’ in his name? Do you think he would like that?
Perhaps you have seen this ad, which contains an actual banger of a song:
I’ll admit, I’ve been singing this in private, which really makes me disappointed in myself. This mindless pandering doesn’t work on me, right? I’m not supposed to be swayed by a ridiculous jingle, RIGHT? Certainly I will not connect emotionally to a bluegrass tune that extols a “tough old judge” and shows Hamburglar-style criminals running away, deathly afraid of a kindly-looking man in a flowing black robe.
I am here to tell you that I am not above this. I sing this man’s name once a day.
It’s exceedingly dumb and sort of dangerous to boil the race for a very consequential office down to a single cheeseball :30 ad, especially in light of the stakes here. But I have to admire the Ain’t Broke Don’t Fix It calculation Newby made. So much has changed politically in eight years, and yet his 2020 plan was to run the EXACT SAME COMMERCIAL that got him reelected in 2012. Back then, my former colleague Stuart Watson tried to follow the money and hit a wall, but not before getting Newby to admit that the whole point of the ad was to get you to sing his name, which then might get you to overcome the much stronger name recognition of his opponent:
Republicans backing incumbent Justice Paul Newby are worried about name recognition, especially since the challenger carries a very recognizable name: Sam Ervin IV. Known to his friends as “Jimmy,” Ervin is a judge on the state Court of Appeals and carries the name of his famous grandfather, Senator Sam Ervin, who chaired the Watergate Hearings.
“I mean, let’s be honest about it,” Justice Newby said in an interview with NBC Charlotte recorded earlier this month in Raleigh. “The difficulty is nobody knows who the judges are and often people will react and vote--if they know--they'll vote by name.”
It worked back then and it might work again. The race is heading to a recount because in a contest where more than 5 million ballots were cast, Newby and the incumbent chief justice Cheri Beasley are only separated by a few hundred votes.
Folks, my brain is rotten.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, how can my client be the criminal mastermind of a voting fraud ring when he couldn’t engineer himself more than a third place finish in the race for Bladen County Soil and Water District Supervisor?” is a thing you may hear a lawyer say in a courtroom at some point in the future.
I don’t know what wizardry was afoot, but somehow Roy Cooper was the only Democrat running for statewide office who mopped the floor with his Republican opponent. My theory: Roy is inherently a boring politician, which is a clear and refreshing contrast to (gestures broadly toward Washington). Think about it. Is there any Roy Cooper soundbite that you can remember? Any gaffe? Is there a definitive Roy Cooper moment? No, there is not. It is a bad thing to forget about Dre. It is politically beneficial to forget about Roy.
Which, honestly, made this coronavirus analogy he dropped the other day stick out all the more for me:
I now have a singular football wish: A PUNT FROM THE 10-YARD LINE. In my research, that has never happened, but never fear! I discovered two punts that happened just outside of the red zone. Here’s one:
In that case, a bad snap forced the holder to improvise from 24 yards out. But in 2014, Bill Belichick intentionally had his team punt from the Indianapolis 26-yard line late in a playoff game that the Patriots were gonna win anyway. That may be the filthiest play call in football history.
Back to the coronavirus, though. Yes, we need to smash it into submission. Masks. Social distancing. Hand washing. Being patient for a vaccine. All that stuff. And then, when the virus has been humiliated, when North Carolina has come back from a 28-3 deficit in the COVID bowl, when this epidemic is in its inconsequential garbage time, let’s ABSOLUTELY call a punt from the 10-yard line. There would be no more fitting way for this pandemic to end than with a punt through the uprights, except for maybe an old-fashioned Carolina fair catch free kick.
Everybody’s complaining that the polls were wrong again during this election cycle. But! In the North Carolina gubernatorial race, the predictions were fairly spot on: Cooper held a wire-to-wire lead over Republican Dan Forest. It took days, even weeks to settle some races. The governor’s race was called on election night.
This contest reminded me a lot of the first governor’s race I ever covered. In 2004, West Virginia was still a heavily Democratic state, and Joe Manchin was running against a Republican named Monty Warner. Warner would just scream about everything. He just talked about how terrible Manchin would be as head of the executive branch. He sent a million press releases. He showed up everywhere TV cameras went, and would unleash soundbite after soundbite in a maelstrom of righteous anger.
Manchin’s campaign? His consistent message throughout was: Shucks guys, I’m just gonna sit here on my hands until I win. Which he did. By 29 points.
That, basically, was Cooper’s strategy. One of his ads (which I saw but can’t locate) closed with a message akin to “Vote for Roy Cooper for governor, because he’s already the governor.” Conversely, other than the Forrest Gump yard signs, Dan Forest’s central message was that masks suck, lockdowns suck, in fact, it all sucks. Get into Dan Forest’s Pontiac Fiero, baby, and let’s get outta this town.
Fun fact, though: Forest is the son of former congresswoman/Charlotte mayor Sue Myrick, whose campaign ads consisted of her looking directly into a JVC camcorder and talkin’ ‘bout scary illegals. (Counterpoint: She is the only person to ever deliver a Ric Flair whoooo on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives). But Myrick had a secret weapon: Her campaign used the Jeopardy! clue font in her ads, which made her feel sort of quaint:
By the way, that font has a name — Korinna — and was in heavy use during an era of half-hour sitcoms and VHS releases. Poor Dan Forest. With a little more attention to typography, he could have been North Carolina’s Mr. Belvedere.
I know, Joe Biden lost North Carolina to Donald Trump, but he’s the only one who did campaigning here right. He went to Cook Out.
Extra points for using the walk-up window. Points off for trying to mix a black and white milkshake in his car (they’ll do that for you, Joe!).
Long ago, when I was but an aimless youth, I created an official work tumblr account that my bosses tolerated because they guessed (correctly) that nobody would ever read it. Hence, I was able to create majestic content centered around every celebrity’s least favorite Eddie Money song.
But at least once, I fell into the Donald Trump trap, back when that man would only get, say, 30 retweets and regularly called local reporters to talk about his golf courses:
And so, it came to pass that, back in 2013, I used my tumblr in an attempt to fact-check a Trump soundbite. In it, he told a colleague that his Trump National Golf Club Charlotte was the best golf course in North Carolina. In a state that contains the Quail Hollow Club and Pinehurst No. 2, that is some BOLD FLAVOR.
I used empirical data to compare his course to others, and discovered that Trump National Charlotte wasn’t even the toughest Trump National golf course. Although, when confronted for a request for more information to back up his claim, Trump said, simply, no, mine’s better, and then: “I have friends who are members of places like Augusta National and they love my course here.”
It was a stupid story about a stupid claim, but sweet tap-dancing Jesus, does it not have all of the hallmarks of every Trump Thing that we’ve had bored into our skulls over the last five years? I used to think of that moment and laugh, because it was utterly inconsequential fluff, and I read it today and it instantly makes me weary enough to crawl under my desk and assume the fetal position. I don’t know where you, dear reader, fall on the political spectrum, but come January 20th, I for one cannot wait to go into political hibernation. There’s nothing as non-partisan as a nap.
If you liked this, you might like Away Message, my podcast about North Carolina’s hard-to-find people, places, and things. Season 4 was all about the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.