North Carolina has long been home to expensive and high-profile Senate races. Only one Democrat has been elected to Senate from the Tar Heel State this century, but the races have tended to be competitive. In the height of national North Carolina Republican strength – the Bush years – Democrats made a solid push for the state in two separate Senate races. Erskine Bowles, former White House Chief of Staff and a noted deficit hawk, made two spirited campaigns that fell short of success.
While mostly forgotten today, Bowles’s two runs provide a fascinating look into North Carolina politics. As the state has shifted from red state to swing state, it’s easy to forget just how recently the coalitions have shifted.
Erskine Bowles was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he spent most of his childhood. His father Skipper was a businessman and politician. He was best known for his 1972 loss to Republican James Holshouser, which marked the first time a Republican had won a statewide race in North Carolina since 1896. Erskine would pursue a career in business, living in New York City and working for Morgan Stanley for a time before moving back to his home state in 1972.
Bowles would be best known for his work in Bill Clinton’s administration. In 1992, he was appointed to head the Small Business Administration. He would later serve as White House Chief of Staff, where he led budget negations with Congress that resulted in a balanced budget. This was an impressive and rare feat that has not been accomplished since. Bowles would leave this job in 1998 to return to Charlotte, where we worked in finance as well as with Governor Jim Hunt.
The retirement of conservative firebrand Jesse Helms created a vulnerable Senate seat in 2002. With an almost evenly-divided Senate, both parties attempted to contest as many seats as possible. Republicans felt they had a slam-dunk opportunity after they recruited Elizabeth Dole, a longtime Republican official and the widely-respected wife of Senator Bob Dole, for the Republican nomination. While Dole hadn’t lived in the state since 1959, her national figure and near-universal name recognition were key assets that Republicans hoped to capitalize on. Polls early on showed her leading by as many as 50 points.
On the Democratic side, Erskine Bowles had emerged from a three-way primary with 43.8% of the vote, beating fellow Democrats Dan Blue and Elaine Marshall. Bowles ran a spirited campaign, presenting himself as a moderate, and was able to narrow the race to a seeming dead heat within the final weeks of the campaign. However, his campaign was hampered by his ties to the Clinton administration; Bill Clinton was never popular in North Carolina and voters seemed unwilling to overlook it. Dole’s celebrity status also proved unflappable; North Carolinians – and both campaigns – respectfully referred to her as “Mrs. Dole”, while Bowles was mostly called by his first name.
While polls had shown a narrowing race, Dole ultimately won by a wider-than-expected margin of 8.6%. The residual support from “Jessecrats” – rural, Democratic voters in the east that had long supported Helms – proved pivotal. She also won Mecklenburg County, the last Republican to do so in a Senate race. Bowles did, however, perform well in traditional rural Democratic bastions in the west, southeast, and northeast.
After his better-than-expected performance in 2002, Erskine Bowles was on the Democratic radar for 2004. His strong name ID and moderate branding presented a solid opportunity to hold the Senate seat being vacated by John Edwards (D), who would become John Kerry’s Vice Presidential nominee. Bowles won his party’s nomination unopposed and began with a strong advantage in polling.
On the Republican side, five-term Congressman Richard Burr was the presumed nominee from the start. Burr didn’t have the name ID Bowles had. What he did have was a strongly conservative record as a legislator as well as solid appeal in western North Carolina. Burr argued North Carolina needed a conservative to help support the agenda of President George W. Bush, and he attacked Bowles’s associations with the Clinton administration and national Democrats.
Polls as far in as September gave Bowles a decisive advantage. However, a strong late advertising push from Burr narrowed the race to a dead heat by October. Burr would ultimately prevail by 4.6% on the coattails of Bush’s double-digit win in the state.
As in the presidential election, North Carolina swung Democratic from the 2002 Senate race to the 2004 Senate race. However, the shifts were far stronger here and proved somewhat predictive of future trends. In 2002, Bowles had lost the major urban counties of Buncombe, Guilford, Mecklenburg, and Wake. In 2004, he won all of them. He also made small gains in the surrounding suburban counties. However, his performance dropped off in much of the state’s rural areas.
It should come as no surprise that Burr, who represented the rural 5th congressional district, made gains in this area. He performed especially well in Allegheny, Surry, and Stokes counties. Burr also improved on Dole’s performance in rural counties like Columbus, Duplin, Hertford, and Robeson; with the exception of Hertford, all are now strongly Republican as of 2020.