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Mountain Senate race once more in the state political spotlight

fr jimdavisTwo candidates battling for the state Senate seat representing the seven western counties are heading into the homestretch of what could be a close and hard-fought race.


The race between N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, and challenger Jane Hipps, D-Waynesville, could be one of the few toss-up senate races in the state this year. While Davis won by a large margin two years ago, the race is far from a shoe-in this time, with Hipps’ campaign citing internal polling that shows it’s neck and neck.

Davis, a two-term senator, said he is also treating the race as a competitive one.

“The Democrats have a credible candidate and she is working hard, so I am not taking anything for granted,” Davis said.

Hipps has been on the campaign trail full-time for several months already while Davis has spent most of the spring and summer stuck in Raleigh attending legislative sessions, not to mention he is a practicing orthodontist while Hipps is retired. 

“I can’t match her pace because I have a job and a practice still, in addition to my legislative responsibilities,” Davis said.


Outside money inside the district

Davis’ campaign topped $1 million two years ago, thanks to an influx of state party money and outside spending. The campaign tactics used on Davis’ behalf — centered on a slew of negative flyers and commercials — drew widespread criticism two years ago.

Hipps said she is bracing for a similar onslaught of “inflammatory” attack ads this go around, and is preemptively crying foul should the campaign take that turn.

“If the past races for this Senate seat have been any indication, false advertising is a question of not if but when,” Hipps said. “It’s a shame that some candidates cannot run on the facts alone but instead use advertising with grave distortions.”

Davis has countered that he has no control over campaign advertising that was — or will be — done on his behalf by outside groups or the party.

“I have no control over that. That is out of my control and what they say and how they say it is not up to me,” Davis said.

Hipps not only criticized the nature of campaign ads and flyers put out on Davis’ behalf two years ago, but also questioned the sheer volume of money spent in Davis’ race.

“Over a million dollars bought this Senate seat, and the millionaires, large corporations and special-interest groups have been rewarded with tax breaks,” Hipps said.

“The race there in 2012 is the classic example of what can be done with large amounts of outside money,” added Rob Schofield, director of Research and Policy at the left-leaning NC Policy Watch.

Davis said he doesn’t know how much campaign support to expect from the state party, or if the flyer campaign will be launched again this time.

“I have no idea what is happening with regards to that,” Davis said.

The campaign coordinator for the Republican Senate caucus also wouldn’t say, on grounds it would divulge campaign strategy.

Hipps doesn’t know how much financial help she will get from the state Democratic Party either.

“I am not counting on them for any money,” Hipps said.

For his part, Davis does not intend to spend at the same level as he has the past two campaigns.

“People know what they are getting with me. I have been there for two terms and run two campaigns, so it is not so important to try to educate the electorate,” Davis said.

Campaign finance reports for the third quarter — when fundraising and spending cranked into high gear — won’t be available until early October.


An oopsy ad

One of the attack-ad flyers put out by the state GOP on Davis’ behalf two years ago has backfired. The flyer showed the picture of an African-American male flanked by prison wire and jail bars, warning voters that child rapists and murders like this man would be set free if Davis’ opponent was elected.

The reference was to the Racial Justice Act, a new state law allowing death row inmates claiming racial bias in their sentences to have their cases reviewed.

The picture of a dangerous criminal chosen for the ad was deeply flawed in hindsight, however. The man, Henry McCollum, turned out to be innocent. 

McCollum — a black teenager in the recently desegregated South with an IQ in the 60s, classifying him as mentally disabled  — landed on death row in 1984 at the hands of cops who forced a false confession from him. Despite declaring his innocence, he stayed there for 30 years until just two weeks ago when DNA evidence and the confession by the actual killer and rapist came out.

McCollum was used as a poster child for keeping bad criminals on death row — but instead was a poster child for the Racial Justice Act itself. McCollum was freed thanks to a case review undertaken by the North Carolina Innocence Commission, tasked with reviewing potentially race-motivated convictions.

Hipps equated the attack ad two years ago to “race baiting.” Hipps said her heart goes out to McCollum, an innocent man whose face was “plastered across the state” as part of last-minute partisan propaganda by the Republican Party.

But Ray Martin, political director at N.C. Republican Senate Caucus, defended the ad.

“It wasn’t wrong. To say Snow (Davis’ opponent) voted for the Racial Justice Act, which was basically a backdoor moratorium on the death penalty, isn’t wrong,” Martin said. “There are hundreds of other people convicted of first-degree murder and rape who could have potentially been set free.”

Davis, however, agreed with Hipps that the choice of death row inmates for the flyer was unfortunate.

“I am glad it turned out that his innocence was proven beyond a doubt and I expect him to be pardoned,” Davis said.

But he added that it wasn’t the N.C. Republican Party’s fault and they had no way of knowing the convicted death row inmate chosen for the ad was actually innocent.

“I expect most people on there profess their innocence. This man being convicted wrongly had nothing to do with the Republican Party. It had to do with law enforcement officers not doing their job,” Davis said.

No matter how the mountain Senate race shakes out, it won’t have a huge bearing on the ruling party in Raleigh. Republicans have 33 seats in the N.C. Senate, currently compared to only 17 held by Democrats. Democrats have no hope of unseating enough Republicans to gain majority control, according to political observers on both sides of the aisle.

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