One on one with D.G. Martin

A winning “wedge” issue — but for whom?

“We haven’t got a single Democratic candidate for governor who feels the way we do about the lottery,” complained my anti-lottery, liberal-Democrat friend after church one recent Sunday. “And it looks like all the Republican candidates are against the lottery-like us.”

“So,” he asked, “what are we going to do?”

When I asked him if he would really think about voting Republican in the governor’s race this year if their candidate opposed the state lottery, he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, it’s real important to me.” Then he asked, “Why are both Democrats, Easley and Wicker, for the lottery?”

He had a good question. The lottery is a regressive source of revenues for the state — it takes a lot of money out of the pockets of poor people. You would think that the Democrats, perennial champions of the underdog, would be fighting it tooth and nail.

But several things have pushed the Democratic candidates to embrace the state lottery, including: (1) the “lesson” of South Carolina’s recent gubernatorial race; (2) the need for a funding source for beneficial new programs; and (3) the advice of the experts who run major political campaigns, these days.

According to conventional wisdom, the lesson from South Carolina is that the lottery issue can win an election for a Democratic candidate for governor of a conservative Southern state, where a Republican would otherwise win.

South Carolina is more conservative than North Carolina. (“Take the African-American voters out of South Carolina, and the state is more conservative even than Utah,” a smart national pollster told me recently.) What’s more, a Republican had occupied the governor’s mansion for 12 years.

But the Democrats found that they could use the lottery issue as a “wedge” to divide the Republicans and then conquer them.

Here’s how it issue worked.

Almost every person in the so-called Religious Right opposes state-sponsored lotteries — and all gambling — on moral grounds. As John McCain found out in February in the South Carolina presidential primary, the Religious Right is a strong part of that state’s Republican coalition. It’s hard to win a Republican primary down there without the support of the Religious Right. So any Republican candidate for governor in South Carolina is pretty much trapped into opposing a lottery — whatever his or her personal views might be (and regardless of what the majority of the state’s people want).

But not all Republican voters in our neighboring state opposed a lottery. Many of them who are not a part of the Religious Right thought the lottery was a good idea — a way for the government to raise money without taxing them.

The Democratic candidate’s advocacy of a state lottery drove a wedge into the Republican base of support. Just enough pro-lottery Republicans voted for the Democratic candidate to tilt the election in his favor.

Here in North Carolina, the Democratic candidates for governor probably think that the same dynamics will be operative this fall.

The second reason North Carolina Democrats have embraced the lottery has to do with our state’s finances: In the wake of recent tax cuts, there is almost no money available for new programs. And long-term commitments to worthy programs such as Smart Start expansion and increasing teachers’ salaries have already claimed any surplus that there might have been.

Both Democratic candidates want to be able to propose other new programs to help people and improve the economy. But where is the money to come from? Not from new taxes. No North Carolina gubernatorial candidate could hope to win with a tax increase as part of his or her platform.

So where can you find money for new programs without raising taxes? That’s right: a state lottery.

The third reason these candidates support a lottery is that their political experts are telling them it’s a good issue — a winning issue. One of the Democratic candidates originally opposed a state lottery. But he changed his mind recently, after his experts convinced him that he couldn’t win if he stuck with that position.

Now if the Democrats are really going to nominate a pro-lottery gubernatorial candidate, what is my anti-lottery Democratic friend to do? Maybe he’ll hold his nose and vote Democratic.

Or maybe he won’t. The Democrats may learn that the lottery wedge issue can work in reverse, too.

Some anti-lottery Democrats may vote against their pro-lottery candidate for governor in November. In a close election, this loss of support could be crucial, especially if the Republicans are able to put their lottery differences aside and not let the wedge issue divide them, as it did in South Carolina.

Remember, in South Carolina, the Democrats were trying to take the governorship away from the Republicans. It’s usually easier to overlook the differences that might otherwise divide political groups when they’re on the outside, looking in — as the Democrats were in South Carolina in ’98 and the Republicans are in North Carolina this year.

So the pro-lottery North Carolina Republicans may put aside their differences with their anti-lottery candidates this year and wholeheartedly support their nominee — just to get back in power. And some anti-lottery Democrats may help them out, by voting Republican.

How will it all turn out? I sure don’t know — because, when the lottery is a major dividing issue, all bets are off.

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