The former senator and 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, they say, was like a political comet. He seemingly appeared out of nowhere, inspired awe with the intensity of his talent, blazed through a single term in the Senate, then disappeared from the radar almost entirely.
“The guy is truly an exceptional story, but for someone who is so well-known nationally, he has very little standing in the party in this state,” says John Davis, president of the North Carolina Forum for Research and Economic Education (NCFREE), a business-backed organization that conducts political research. “You simply do not hear his name associated with the work in the vineyards and making a difference in terms of fundraisers or endorsements.”
Insiders agree that even if Edwards decided to endorse Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination, he would have no discernable political organization to fire up on their behalf.
“He developed some, but not really deep ties,” said Gary Pearce, a Raleigh-based consultant who worked on Edwards’ 1998 Senate run. “He pretty quickly began looking at a national ticket and worked hard on building more of a national political organization rather than one in the state.”
Among North Carolina Democrats, there is a feeling of pride about Edwards’ role on the national stage but at the same time there is an unmistakable sense of detachment. Unlike most statewide politicians, he did not patiently work his way up the office-holding ladder. He had almost no involvement with the state party prior to winning his Senate seat in 1998, a race where his ability to self-fund made him an especially attractive candidate to take on a vulnerable first-term Republican.
“I think most North Carolina Democrats are very proud of John Edwards, of his campaign for president, of the influence he has had, but he had not been involved in politics before he ran for the Senate, he had not voted in the 1994 election and perhaps a couple others as well,” said Congressman Brad Miller, who represents a Raleigh-area district. “He’s probably gone to more political events in Iowa in the last four years than in North Carolina, which is understandable.”
That nationally oriented approach began almost immediately after Edwards arrived in Washington, where he was quickly recognized as a rising star. He started running for president just four years into his first term, which limited his ability to establish connections in North Carolina’s 100 counties and raised questions about whether he was merely using his Senate seat as a stepping stone.
“A lot of people in North Carolina feel that he didn’t tend to North Carolina issues when he was running for president and there’s some resentment of that, even among Democrats,” said Clyde Frazier, a professor of American politics at Meredith College in Raleigh.
“Sure, there’s always carping and complaining about that, there was a fair amount of that,” added Pearce. “There was also among some people, not those people, some excitement that there was the possibility of having a president from North Carolina.”
Still, it wasn’t immediately clear that Edwards could even win reelection in 2004. And while he explored a presidential run, his delay in committing to run for a second term was frustrating to some in the party who worried that Democrats could lose the seat if he didn’t make his intentions known so that possible successors could begin assembling their campaigns. Democrats ultimately lost the eat that year to Republican Elizabeth Dole.
“He would have never gotten reelected, his approval rating was under 50 percent,” said a veteran Raleigh-based Democratic lobbyist. “You would never have called him part of the party apparatus; he’s never even been remotely part of it.”
John Davis of NCFREE suggests that Obama and Clinton shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for a game-changing Edwards endorsement.
“It would carry no weight,” says Davis, who also edits The Almanac of North Carolina Politics, a 750-page tome that profiles North Carolina politicians. “He didn’t help carry any state in the Southeast, his own home county or even his home precinct in 2004.”