Politics is purple in North Carolina

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North Carolina has always distinguished itself from its neighbors. In 1900, Mary Oates Van Landingham gave a speech referencing North Carolina’s location between South Carolina and Virginia, noting “where there are mountains of conceit, there are apt to be valleys of humility.”

While humble, North Carolina has historically been ahead of political trends. Former Gov. Terry Sanford was proudly progressive and the first Southern politician to endorse John Kennedy for president in 1960. Ronald Reagan’s campaign was running on fumes in early 1976 when Sen. Jesse Helms mobilized his political organization to deliver an upset victory for Reagan in the North Carolina primary. Reagan went on to win several other primaries before ultimately bowing out to Gerald Ford. However, the stage for Reagan’s later presidency was set in North Carolina.

{mosads}North Carolinians take pride in being somewhat of a political anomaly. When Democrats dominated state and local government, North Carolina sent Republican Jesse Helms to the U.S. Senate five times. While Helms was serving in the Senate, those same voters sent Democrat Terry Sanford to serve alongside him. That trend continued as Democrat John Edwards was elected to serve with Helms, then North Carolina voters made Edwards and Republican Elizabeth Dole the North Carolina delegation. Most recently, Republican Richard Burr and Democrat Kay Hagan served together.

Where is North Carolina today? We have a Democratic governor in Roy Cooper, who faces a veto-proof Republican majority in both chambers of the legislature. Republicans won six of the nine statewide Council of State races in 2016. Democrats hold a 4-3 edge on the North Carolina Supreme Court with the 2016 election of Democratic Justice Michael Morgan. North Carolina’s U.S. House delegation consists of 10 Republicans and three Democrats, while both of the state’s U.S. senators are Republicans.

North Carolina’s political “hue” then is completely within the eye of the beholder. In proclaiming this a red state, Republican lawmakers stress the number of counties carried by their candidates in local, state and national race. The North Carolina GOP points to overwhelming Republican majorities in the legislative and congressional delegation. However, one mapmaker explained that they drew a map to elect 10 congressional Republicans and three Democrats “because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.” In 2012, 51 percent of North Carolina voters chose Democratic congressional candidates, but only four of the state’s 13 member delegation were Democrats. In 2014, Democrats won 44 percent of the congressional vote but only elected three of the 13 House members.

Similarly, the GOP has won 54.2 percent of the vote statewide but gained 68 percent of the seats in races for the North Carolina Senate. In races for the North Carolina House, Republicans have won 52.8 percent of the vote while winning 62.5 percent of the actual seats. Democrats view North Carolina through blue colored lenses, pointing to statewide wins by Gov. Cooper, who defeated an incumbent Republican, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Attorney General Josh Stein. This week, they celebrated the election of the first female African American mayor of Charlotte, Vi Lyles, who won by more than 20 points in a race where Republicans invested heavily, as well as the 18 point win in the Fayetteville mayor’s race by Democrat Mitch Colvin over an incumbent Republican.

North Carolina has been a purple state since at least 1984, when Republican Jim Martin was elected governor. Democrats controlled majorities, often veto proof, in the legislature for 24 of the 26 years to follow. Running on Democratic lines, Republicans gained control of both chambers of the legislature in the midterm elections of 2010, and have expanded their majorities. Nevertheless, the margins by which both parties have controlled the legislature has not reflected the narrow divide that still exists statewide.

What do the results in other states this week tell us about North Carolina? Democrats outperformed 2016 across the board. Key issues are health care and President Trump. North Carolina Republicans will not be able to run away from either in 2018. Federal judges have appointed a special master to review the state’s legislative districts, which most believe will increase the number of competitive districts in the legislature. The Democratic National Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have indicated that they are targeting at least four North Carolina seats in the 2018 congressional election.

While these districts have been viewed as safe Republican seats, the combination of Trump and the Democratic tide emerging in 2017 will have those incumbents running much harder than usual. My lesson in this is that you cannot count either party out in North Carolina. This will continue to be a hotly contested state. Keep your eye on those unpredictable North Carolinians as you never know what we might end up doing.

Bruce Thompson II served on the national finance committee for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. He served as legal counsel to Kay Hagan’s 2008 Senate campaign and was a North Carolina advisor for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. He is now a partner at the Raleigh, N.C., office and Washington, D.C., location of Parker Poe.

Tags Barack Obama Congress Democrats Elections Hillary Clinton John Kennedy Kay Hagan North Carolina Politics Republicans Richard Burr states voters

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