Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Why is N.C. Senate delegation so anonymous?

Time was when North Carolina probably had one of the most recognizable Senate delegations in the country. That's purely conjecture on my part, but in 1973 and 1974, North Carolina was represented in the U.S. Senate by two persons often in the news. One was U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin, a Democrat, who was well-known in Washington and recently famous nationally for his role in chairing the Senate's investigation into the re-election campaign of President Richard Nixon. It was Ervin's Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities that exposed much of the dirty tricks of the 1972 presidential election and the break-in at the Watergate Hotel, and which led to the constitutional confrontation that resulted in Nixon's resignation after the Supreme Court ruled he had to give up the White House tapes that showed his own involvement in a coverup.
And the other was U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., locally famous in his own right as a popular conservative broadcaster on WRAL TV in Raleigh and the first Republican to be elected to the Senate from North Carolina in the 20th Century. Helms went on to become even more famous, mastering the rules of the Senate, tieing it into parliamentary knots from time to time and helping elect Ronald Reagan to the White House. He rejuvenated the conservative cause nationally and transformed electoral politics with his fund-raising and advertising methods.

It's been a while since the state's Senate delegation was so recognizable. And with the retirement of Helms from the Senate seven years ago, the state's delegation is the least recognizable in the nation.

So says Tom Jensen, analyst at Public Policy Polling. A surprising 33 percent of poll respondents have no opinion about our current senators, the largest 'no opinion' in the nation. West Virginia, whose senators have a combined 75 years in office, has the least, at 10 percent. (Just for the record, one of the West Virginia senators was born in North Carolina, but that's another story.)

One reason for the state's poor showing may be that no politician from this state has been able to hang onto a Senate seat for longer than one term. Since Ervin the names of one-terms have been Democrat Robert Morgan, Republican John East, Republican Jim Broyhill (an appointee after East's suicide), Democrat Terry Sanford, Republican Lauch Faircloth, Democrat John Edwards and now Republican Richard Burr. After Helms left, Republican Elizabeth Dole served a term and last election lost to Democrat Kay Hagan.

Here's what Jensen says today about the high rate of no opinion about our senators:

1) Other than Jesse Helms, we just don't keep Senators around in North Carolina. He's the only one to be reelected since 1968. So voters just don't have time to become all that familiar with the folks they elect and then defeat six years later. The other two states at the top of this list- Colorado and Delaware- each have a Senator who was appointed rather than popularly elected. And the state with the most well known delegation- West Virginia- has two Senators with a total tenure of more than 75 years. There's not much doubt that longevity matters.

2) The other reason is that whether we think of ourselves as such or not, we are a big state! And Senators in big states tend to have a harder time getting the voters familiar with them because there is so much more ground to cover. It's no coincidence that beyond the two states with appointed Senators the next three states with the least well known delegations are New Jersey, Ohio, and Illinois, all among the 11 most populous states.

Unless Richard Burr and Kay Hagan can break the state's recent trend, get reelected, and stay around a while North Carolina will continue to have one of the most anonymous- and ultimately least powerful- delegations in the US Senate. We sure aren't building much seniority.


Anonymous said...

I think part of the reason is that Burr, especially, and even Hagan in the short time she has been there have focused on being effective and working hard for NC instead of focusing on seeing themselves on the nightly news. I for one, would rather have a workhorse Senator than a showhorse Senator

Anonymous said...

Let's start over and throw these bums out of office!!!!

Anonymous said...

It's called the people electing who they think will represent them. If they don't we elect someone else. These people are not meant to make a career being a senator. I like the idea of term limits. Most of these people are corrupt!

Anonymous said...

Sadly, our N.C. senators, except for the two you mentioned, have been singularly unimpressive. South Carolina has showed us up with Lindsey Graham, who distinguished himself and his state with his principled (and surprising) position on the selection of members of the Supreme Court.

Nell said...

While there is something to the claim that large states' delegations are more likely to be less well known, Illinois is currently a state with an appointed Senator.

Dick Durbin is the second-ranking member of the Senate majority, and his former junior Senator was pretty well known...

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Anonymous said...

I agree with Anon 5:47.

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