North Carolina — still purple but up for grabs
Two months ago, Democrats were upbeat about North Carolina: the reelection of a popular Governor who won widespread praise for handling the COVID-19 crisis; a first-rate Senate candidate who could topple an undistinguished incumbent; a right-wing Republican state legislature would be equalized, and Joe Biden was a slight favorite.
It was not to be. Gov Cooper won, but not by the decisive margin expected; the Senate candidate lost when caught in a sexting scandal; Joe Biden narrowly fell short; Republicans kept their dominance of the state legislature and elected a Trump-like Black Lieutenant Governor.
Thus, while Virginia solidified as a Democratic stronghold, with Biden winning by ten points, and Georgia flipped to blue, North Carolina remained only a hope. This election showed “progressives still have a lot of work to do,” wrote Steve Ford, the former editorial page editor of the Raleigh News and Observer.
It was as recently as 2008 when Barack Obama carried the Tar Heel state; the demographics seemed to be favorable, and surveys showed that an influx of newcomers to the state’s many attractions tended to vote Democratic. Since then — other than Roy Cooper (my son worked in his reelection campaign) — it has been all Rs.
It starts with candidates — finding more like Cooper, who grew up on an Eastern North Carolina tobacco farm. He has won statewide six times, twice as governor, is a policy progressive who doesn’t come across as an elitist.
Some of the demographics haven’t worked out quite as envisioned in the sunshine days of 12 years ago. North Carolina doesn’t have the big populous suburbs like northern Virginia or Georgia counties like Cobb and Gwinnett, once represented by Newt Gingrich and now solidly blue.
Though he lost the state overall, Biden won about 60 percent of the vote in the economically flourishing health care, high tech and financial centers of the “Research Triangle” around Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte. Some of these urban counties include what would be classified as suburbs in other states. Overall these dynamic counties represent about 40 percent of the vote.
According to the Associated Press vote count, Blacks comprised 19 percent of the North Carolina vote. If that’s right — the conventional exit polls showed it higher — it was two points or so less than what Democrats projected. Two additional points of Black turnout for Biden might have been enough to win the state for him.
The party may need an intensive Stacey Abrams-like registration drive over the next two years. Overall, North Carolina Republicans registered more new voters than Democrats this year. Trump and GOP Sen. Thom Tillis dominated the smaller, mostly rural and lower income counties in the eastern and western part of the state.
In North Carolina, among other states, Democrats have not been effective in getting across their health care message. The Affordable Care Act, with its subsidies and protections, helps poorer communities the most. North Carolina, thanks to the right-wing state legislature, is one of only a dozen states that have rejected the ACA’s Medicaid expansion benefits; voters in other conservative bastions, such as Oklahoma and Missouri, approved Medicaid expansion. Over the past decade, well over 100 rural hospitals have shut down, including seven in North Carolina; it has disproportionately hit states that haven’t participated in Medicaid expansion.
Both Trump and Tillis have sought to kill the ACA and opposed Medicaid expansion.
Yet across the Tar Heel state, lower income, largely white counties — from Graham in the West to Columbus in the East — voted solidly Republican, as did counties, like Davie and Yadkin that lost their hospitals.
Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College Political Science professor who tracks the state’s politics assiduously, says North Carolina “still is a purple state.” There is a critical Senate race in the state in 2022, for the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Richard Burr. There already are half a dozen potential Republican candidates, including Donald Trump’s daughter-in-law. Democrats need to find a candidate who is neither an elitist nor a sexting devotee.
The Republican challenge then — and in the next Presidential race — is to make inroads in the fastest growing parts of the state and — without Trump — still totally command the rural white enclaves.
Democrats have to energize the minority communities and fashion a more persuasive appeal in those non-urban areas.
In 2024 of all the states Republicans won this time, the most vulnerable probably will be North Carolina.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.