If Democrats manage to oust Pat McCrory in 2016, they’ll be making history. No North Carolina governor has lost a reelection bid in a really, really long time. An analysis of gubernatorial races in all 50 states since 1963 revealed that incumbents in six states had a perfect track record, with no one being defeated in a reelection bid: Connecticut, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, and Wyoming. (With Republican Tom Corbett’s loss last November, Pennsylvania is off the list and the ‘perfect track record’ belongs to only 5 states. Connecticut and Vermont were also almost stricken from the list, but the incumbents there were just barely reelected.
North Carolina’s record goes back a bit further than 1963, though. And perhaps it’s not as impressive as it seems: until 1977, North Carolinians didn’t even have the opportunity to reject their incumbent governor, as the ‘one and done’ rule was in the constitution, as it was throughout most of the South. The State of Virginia continues this legacy, the only state with such a strict term limit law still on the books.
Since we amended the constitution, every governor with the opportunity to seek reelection has done so, except one. Despite some grumbling from his political foes about a second term, Jim Hunt won reelection in 1980 by a landslide, even while Ronald Reagan carried the state and Republican John East was elected to the U.S. Senate. In a bad year for Democrats, Republican Jim Martin was elected governor in 1984 after his opponent Rufus Edmisten made an impolitic remark about barbecue. In 1988, Martin defeated Bob Jordan, a good man but someone who couldn’t build a case against the incumbent’s record.
In 1992, Hunt made a triumphant return to office, and despite the Republican ascendancy in the South in 1994, he managed to outmaneuver his opponents in the legislature with Clintonesque triangulation, easily winning a second term against Robin Hayes in 1996. Hunt was succeeded by fellow Democrat Mike Easley, a typical centrist Southern Democrat who won reelection in 2004. In 2008, in a good year for Democrats, Bev Perdue won the election, becoming the state’s first woman governor, but in a matter of months became widely unpopular following difficult decisions regarding the recession-era budget. Facing almost certain defeat in 2012, she chose not to seek reelection.
Before 1977 and going back to the Reconstruction period, then, only incumbent governors who did not win election to office in their own right – i.e. succeeded to the office upon the death of the governor – were able to seek reelection. The last incumbent governor who sought a new term of office and was denied was Thomas Michael Holt, governor from 1891 to 1893. Holt became governor following the death of Gov. Daniel Gould Fowle, a fellow Democrat whose ghost is said to haunt the Executive Mansion in Raleigh. Holt was defeated for renomination by Elias Carr, who was governor from 1893 to 1897. If we consider Holt the last incumbent governor to lose, we’d have to go all the way back to 1892.
What about the last incumbent who lost in a general election? In that case, we’d have to go back all the way to 1865, when William Woods Holden was defeated by Jonathan Worth. (Holden, a Republican, later returned to the governorship, was impeached and became the first U.S. governor in history to be removed from office).
But Holden’s loss was actually a special election. OK, then. When was the last time an incumbent North Carolina governor was defeated for reelection in a regular, general election? In that case, we’d have to go all the way back to 1850, when Charles Manly, a Whig, lost to Democrat David Settle Reid. That means that the only living creature who can remember a time when an NC governor lost reelection is this turtle.
If Democrats knock off McCrory next year, they’ll be up against 165 years of history. The good news for them is that during much of that period, the state wasn’t competitive. Now it is. And that means whatever happened in the past, McCrory is going to have to fight for reelection in 2016.
John Wynne is the “conservative voice” at PoliticsNC, where he also provides polling analysis and commentary on legislative campaigns. When not writing about politics, he enjoys gardening and listening to opera. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.