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Whenever a Democrat asks me about beating Liddy Dole next year, I ask this trivia question: Who was the last Democrat from North Carolina to win a U.S. Senate seat in a presidential election year?

The answer: Sam Ervin. 1968. Almost 40 years ago.

And Ervin won not as the Watergate folk hero – that was later – but as a die-hard segregationist who voted against LBJ’s Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Since then, Democrats have won only three Senate races. We’ve lost 9. That’s a .250 batting average.

The only years we won were off-years: Robert Morgan in 1974 (the Watergate landslide), Terry Sanford in 1986 (another good Democratic year) and John Edwards in 1998 (the year Republicans overplayed their hand in Washington).

So all the candidates who are looking to run against a vulnerable-looking Dole – Brad Miller, Kay Hagan and Grier Martin – need to look hard at reality.

This is not to say we can’t win. Dole has been a weak Senator – and a no-show in North Carolina.

And North Carolina is trending Democratic in national races – President and Senate. Growth is making this a battleground state.

But the key word is trending. Are we there yet?

The other unanswerable is whether the Presidential candidate next year will help or hurt a North Carolina Democrat. Edwards helps. Hillary and Obama probably hurt.

But fortune favors the bold. Some bold Democratic candidate may step out, win the election and soar to national prominence. Then he or she will immediately be on the watch list for the national ticket in 2012.

Not a bad gamble.

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