RALEIGH, N.C. (AP)—Gov. Beverly Perdue struggled to find her way politically in her first two years in office when she and fellow Democrats in the Legislature made unpopular decisions to cut spending and raise taxes while saddled with a free-falling economy. It led to whispers in her own party that she could face a primary challenge before a tough re-election bid next year.
But the new Republican majority at the General Assembly became what she needed to mend her ailing political fortunes. Her willingness to take on the GOP burnished her credentials as a fighter among rank-and-file Democrats and may create an opening for her to attract other voters in 2012.
"We're with you Bev. When I voted for you in 2008, I really knew little about you," wrote David Childers, a 59-year-old Democrat and attorney from Mount Holly. He wrote to Perdue last month the day after she issued an executive order to free up federal money and end a standoff with Republicans. The money was used to make sure 47,000 workers -- most of them jobless for over a year -- kept getting unemployment checks.
Childers continued: "But now I know this: You have guts and courage."
The emails, received mostly in June by the Governor's Office and obtained by the AP through a public records request, indicate Perdue is benefiting politically in the short term from her showdowns with GOP legislative leaders, who are completely in charge of the General Assembly for the first time in 140 years. She has issued a record 15 vetoes this year, including the first-ever veto of a budget, which was ultimately overridden by Republicans with help from a few conservative Democrats.
"I'm one leader who believes in standing up for the people of North Carolina," Perdue said June 12 when she vetoed the budget. "Let them say what they want to say, but they are taking North Carolina backwards."
Even Democrats who don't always see eye to eye with Perdue on issues have praised her public stands and said rumblings about a primary challenge have recently dried up.
"She showed a lot of vigor," said Jim Neal of Chapel Hill, a U.S. Senate candidate in 2008 when Perdue ran for governor. "People love a fighter and she's been able to project that, and I think she's become quite genuine."
Republican leaders say Perdue has vetoed bills only to satisfy liberals in her party and shroud a bad administration. The GOP managed to override five more vetoes last week, including those on bills restricting abortion and capping certain awards in medical malpractice lawsuits.
"When given the chance to lead, Gov. Perdue treated the entire process like a political campaign," state GOP Chairman Robin Hayes said, alleging her actions "are nothing more than dishonest demagoguery to score political points in an attempt to save her floundering re-election campaign."
In the days leading up to her decision on the budget veto, Perdue received more than 800 emails on the topic, with all but a handful urging her to block the spending plan from taking effect. Hundreds of the emails were messages generated by environmental advocates who argued the budget would damage the state's ability to preserve clean water and air.
Others were written by teachers who lamented cuts to the public schools. Others just wanted a firm voice from the governor.
"You should still VETO the budget bill to make a great statement and show people that no matter the odds, you will stick to your guns and will not sell out yourself or the people of this state as the Republicans have," wrote C.D. Moore, 36, of Charlotte, a registered Democrat. "Many people who may have questioned your reign before are now seeing the great person you are and that you are a great governor for this state."
Perdue's vetoes should help increase her support among Democratic base voters. It will also give her a boost among teachers, trial lawyers and abortion-rights groups whose electoral support is critical for any Democrat running for governor, said John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University.
However, Dinan said some of her vetoes, such as blocking a bill requiring voters to show picture identification, could work against her in the eyes of unaffiliated voters, which comprise 24 percent of the state's electorate.
Perdue spokeswoman Chrissy Pearson said last week the governor's actions had nothing to do with the next election, but rather challenging what she believes is an extreme GOP agenda.
"This is a woman who won't back down from a good fight," Pearson said, but "I think more North Carolinians know what Bev Perdue stands for compared to this time last year."
While Perdue would prefer a Democratic Legislature, she's been able to give voters a more clear definition of what she stands for by battling Republicans, said Mac McCorkle, a former Democratic consultant whose clients used to include Perdue and former Gov. Mike Easley.
"In gross political terms, there's always some benefit to fight a clear opponent," he said.
How much the cheers will boost her prospects before next year's election -- a likely rematch with Republican and former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory -- is unclear. Perdue's campaign raised $1.3 million from January to June, while McCrory's committee raked in a little more than $1 million, according to drafts of fundraising summaries released by their campaign committees.
Some people wrote in the emails that they hoped she would be a one-term governor. A message from a Richard Fisher of Clyde urged her to sign the budget and rescind her order extending unemployment benefits.
"You are making it hard for the working man that is trying to take care of his family," he wrote. "Do your job and this doesn't include seeing that everybody that is too lazy to work is taken care of. Look out for the ones who are paying taxes and your salary."
Cyndi Price, a registered Republican from High Point, wrote Perdue thanking her for extending unemployment benefits for people like her husband, Jim, a construction industry worker laid off in December 2009. His benefits ran out in February before Perdue signed an executive order to extend them.
Price, 53, said in an interview she voted for McCrory in 2008 but she didn't know how she was going to vote next year. She wants elected officials like Perdue to focus on getting people back to work.
"I know that I am paying a lot more attention to the candidates," Price said. "I don't know all the answers (but) until unemployment drops substantially, nobody wants to hear the rest of it."