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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

NC: Fool’s Gold for Dems, or Next Blue State?

Elena Schneider explains “How Democrats got sidetracked in their swing state of the future” at Politico, and writes:

“Republicans know that they have to win North Carolina in order to win a presidential race — there’s no other path for them. There are other paths for a Democrat to become president and not win North Carolina,” said [Roy] Cooper, who is now termed out of his governorship, in an interview with POLITICO.

Cooper argued that makes victories in places like Arizona and Pennsylvania in 2022 possible, as North Carolina soaks up resources that could go elsewhere. But Cooper said he’s still making the argument “to the president on down” that North Carolina should chart the top of their priority list in 2024.

However, Schneider notes,

Yet interviews with nearly a dozen North Carolina Democratic elected officials and strategists yielded a range of problems, including a weak in-state party infrastructure, a series of less-than-inspiring federal candidates and not enough investment from national Democratic groups. Unlike a number of other Sun Belt states, growth has not been driven by one major city but by a patchwork of regionalized metro areas, all with different media markets, and North Carolina’s urban and non-white populations have not grown at the same lightning speed as cities like Atlanta or Phoenix.

“I wouldn’t say it’s the next domino that will make it blue, on a presidential level, forever in the way we see in Virginia, Arizona and even Georgia, where the demographics and population changes are truly driving this,” said Corey Platt, a Democratic strategist who served as the Democratic Governors Association’s political director. “It’s a purple state that’s center-right on economics and a bit more center-left on social issues, and so it takes the right Democrat or the right Republican to win, and federally, we haven’t been able to thread that needle.”

And then there is the problem of money. Schneider quotes former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who said that electoral victory in NC frequently “comes down to who has more money, and the stats show it….Both parties can be accused of misreading North Carolina, but I would be shocked if Democrats leave it uncontested,” McCrory said, who lost a Senate GOP primary bid in 2022. “North Carolina can swing back and forth.” Schneider continues,

It all has big implications for 2024, as Cooper drives to make it a top priority for a Biden reelection and state Attorney General Josh Stein launches bid to succeed Cooper in what could be the most expensive gubernatorial race next cycle. A potential redrawn congressional map later this year could also pad the GOP’s slim edge in the battle for the House next year, now that the state Supreme Court leans conservative.

The size of North Carolina’s swings back and forth has shrunk, meanwhile, into a smaller and smaller pool of truly independent voters, making the days of backing President George W. Bush by 12 points — even with then-Sen. John Edwards on the Democratic ticket — and Democratic Gov. Mike Easley by 13 points in 2004 feel like ancient history. Mirroring national trends, North Carolina’s urban-rural divide reveals a stark partisan split — an intractable problem for Democrats, as the state boasts the second largest rural population, behind just Texas.

When Democrats fail to turn out their core base in urban corridors, Republicans’ rural edge becomes insurmountable. In 2022, Democrats struggled with just that, despite a history-making candidate on the ballot in Cheri Beasley, a former state Supreme Court justice who is a Black woman. Instead, Democrats saw significant dropoff with young voters, urban voters and Black voters.

Statewide, African American turnout dropped by 6 points compared to 2018, another midterm year when there wasn’t a major statewide race atop the ticket. Voters over 60 made up a far larger share of the electorate  compared to millennials and Gen Z, while urban voters lagged behind the statewide turnout average, according to an analysis by Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College.

That turnout drop off, some Democrats argue, came down to cash. Republican outside groups significantly outspent their Democratic counterparts, giving now-Sen. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) about a $50 million spending edge over Beasley. Republicans, meanwhile, note that Beasley outraised Budd in candidate cash by $24 million, which should’ve helped close some of that gap, since candidates get better rates on TV ads than outside groups.

“It’s almost impossible to overcome a $53 million outside spending gap that depresses votes for the Democratic candidate,” Cooper said. “I do think resources play a huge role and will play a huge role in 2024.”

It’s the “money is the mother’s milk of politics” argument, that has also been made to explain Democratic losses of strong, qualified candidates in senate races in Ohio and Florida in 2022. But NC, FL and OH have about half the percentage of eligible Black voters as Georgia, where Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock was re-elected. Yet racial demographics fail to explain why Democrats do so poorly in the state with the highest Black population percentage, Mississippi, where systemic black voter suppression is a Republican art form.

Schneider also writes that “Democratic Rep. Wiley Nickel still believes that what works in North Carolina is to reach into that middle”:

“There’s a vast group of voters in the middle, and they don’t want people on the far right and they don’t want people on the far left,” said Nickel, who won an evenly divided congressional seat against former President Donald Trump-endorsed Republican Bo Hines. “Anyone who watched our race knows that we were running against extremism in both parties and on the issues that mattered to most folks in the middle.”

Looking forward, perhaps the winning Democratic formula for NC and other states looks something like: energized Black turnout +more money +smarter persuasion = Victory. There is substantial room for improvement in all three factors.

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