Opinion: How North Carolina Democrats Can Reclaim Power
They’ll have to organize and work as they never have
If North Carolina Democrats want to confront the reasons why they landed in the position they did last week in Raleigh—marginalized, overpowered, the victims of a legislative coup d’état that stunned the nation—they should look hard at how Republicans gained the advantage. Gerrymandering, of course. But before that, burned rubber.
“In 2008, we had a good campaign. We held our own and were ranked the eighth-best house Republican caucus in the nation, because we didn’t lose any seats.”
That was Republican N.C. Representative Paul “Skip” Stam of Apex, the House’s Speaker Pro Tem, who decided not to seek re-election this year. I was interviewing him over the phone around Labor Day 2013 for a profile on then-N.C. House Speaker and current U.S. Senator Thom Tillis. At the time, North Carolina had recently wrapped up its first legislative session under the new Republican supermajority, which had taken office that year along with Republican Governor Pat McCrory.
I was tracing how Tillis, a minor public official in Cornelius a decade before, had risen to a position of such prominence, and North Carolina Republicans along with him. After the 2008 election, Democrats had firm control of both legislative houses and a Democrat, Bev Perdue, in the governor’s mansion. Two years later, the Republicans retook the legislature. I wanted to know how, and Stam was happy to explain.
“So in ’09, we hired Scott Laster (as House Caucus chair), and Thom ran the political advisory functions,” he told me. Stam and Tillis “both helped recruit candidates. … We each raised money, although he raised more than I did. We both went around the state in August, September, October (2010), going to newspapers, television stations, civic clubs, telling people all about our wonderful candidates. I got to about 30 places. He probably got to more than I did.
“We divided it somewhat geographically. If I got a request to go to Gaston County, I would defer and ask them to call Thom. Likewise, if he got a call from Durham or something, he’d refer it to me,” Stam said. “We picked up 16 seats (in the House). We ended up with more than we thought we’d have. We ended up with 68 (out of 120 total). Most people thought we’d get 63, 65.”
Another source told me that during the pivotal autumn of 2010—when control of the North Carolina legislature flipped to the Republicans for the first time since Reconstruction—Tillis burned out a set of tires on his pickup as he drove from town to town. It was a relentless ground game conducted against token opposition, and the Democrats realized how effective it had been only after it had already steamrolled them.
You’ll notice what Stam didn’t mention during our conversation. There was no talk of morality, of the power of the people, of letting their voices be heard, of empowerment or a call to act as the moral defibrillator of our time. No one questions the Democrats’ ability to churn out stirring rhetoric, or the passion to compel people to carry signs, yell slogans, and allow themselves to get arrested.
What mattered to Stam, Tillis, and other legislative Republicans was results, and the process they knew they needed to achieve them. So, with a hard-nosed, ruthless pragmatism and knowledge of how the system worked, they hit the bricks and won what they wanted, what they knew was the only thing that mattered: power.
Since 2010, and especially since 2012, the North Carolina General Assembly has acted as perhaps the most partisan, ideologically driven political body in the United States. They wouldn’t have had the chance to assume that role without the legislative seats they worked for, and which voters granted them, in 2010. That happened to be a Census year. The new legislature got to redraw district lines to their advantage, which preserved their power—unconstitutionally, as federal courts have ruled. But it’s far more difficult to undo gerrymandering in the courts than to block it at the polls.
If talk about candidate recruitment and voter demographics makes your eyes glaze over, that’s understandable. That also places you at the mercy of the people willing to grasp those tools and use them. Howling in outrage over the General Assembly’s power grab last week, an effective kneecapping of an incoming Democratic governor conducted via surprise special session, may make for catharsis and good television. And don’t misunderstand—it was egregious and undemocratic, a shameless nullifying of the people’s will.
But without an organized, well-funded, persistent effort by Democrats—and even independents and genuine conservatives who understand how badly the legislature violated basic democratic norms last week, and have since early 2013—all the protests in the world will add up to noise lost in the wind. Planting a flag on the moral high ground may win sympathy. It generally doesn’t win elections. “I can hear protesters chanting in the building,” N.C. Senator Jeff Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat, tweeted Thursday. “Appreciated, but if we can’t channel this into a solid effort in 2017, it means little.”
And that’s the most immediate lifeline: A federal court ruled on November 29 that the General Assembly must redraw 28 legislative districts because it unconstitutionally relied on race to draw the original lines—and that the state must hold new legislative elections in 2017, usually an off year.
So that sets up three steps the Democrats have to clear. A handful of flipped seats in 2017 could break the GOP supermajority, which would give Roy Cooper’s vetoes a fighting chance of sticking. Then the party could concentrate on narrowing the gap in 2018 and, maybe, recapturing control of one or both houses in 2020, the next Census year. Otherwise, the Republicans will hold onto power—and feel free to do whatever they want to do without fear of political reprisal—indefinitely.
It’ll be incredibly difficult. It’s no secret that the areas outside North Carolina cities are Democrat-hostile, or that they carry outsized power relative to their population. It’ll take more than wear on the treads, in other words, to give bereft communities devastated by manufacturing losses reason to vote Democratic. Candidates will have to make a convincing case, over and over, that new kinds of jobs are the way forward, and that decisions like McCrory’s when he refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act hurts poor and working-class people the most. And that will take levels of organization, dedication, and empathy that Democrats haven’t developed in the years since 2010.
But they’re going to have to try, and try harder—and more important, smarter—than they ever have. The Democratic Party is on the verge of obliteration in North Carolina, at least as an effective force in state politics, and that’s more than just a partisan consideration; the GOP has proved, last week and in the last four years, that it views politics as a kind of bloodless war in which all is not just fair but assumed as the spoils of victory. It’s established a model for states throughout the country, a horrifying thought when coupled with a Trump Administration and GOP-controlled Congress.
What’s done can be undone. But wars are won by fighting, not marching, and Democrats face the starkest of choices after last week: fight or die.