As Trump Heads to North Carolina, Recent History Explains Why Dem Hopes for State Look Bleak
This weekend Donald Trump will visit North Carolina, where he will address the state Republican Party convention in Greenville and make a bid to consolidate the GOP’s effort to push North Carolina from battleground state status to solidly red. The move is a direct challenge to the Democratic Party and its vision of America. It would be fair to say that for the last twenty years, Democrats have been obsessed with the Old North State. No state has raised Democratic hopes of a “new majority” built on a “coalition of the ascendent” more than the booming and diversifying state of North Carolina. And yet nowhere in America, or arguably the world, have the Left’s fantasies been dashed to a greater degree. Since the year 2000, North Carolina has been where Democratic hopes and dreams have gone to die—and with Trump’s trip, Republicans appear set to build on the gains they have made.
Democratic Nightmares, Republican Dreams
In the year 2000, North Carolina had a Democratic Senator, a Democratic Governor, legislature, and 9 of 10 statewide offices were held by Democrats as were five of 12 Congressional seats. In 2020, while North Carolina has a Democratic governor, Republicans hold both Senate Seats, half the state offices, and have controlled both Houses of the legislature since 2011. Their margins look set to expand further with redistricting. The GOP increased its majorities in both houses of the legislature in 2020, and won every statewide judicial race, transforming the State Supreme Court from a 6-1 Democratic majority to a 4-3 one, vital for redistricting. This involved unseating the incumbent chief justice. And of course, Donald Trump defeated Joe Biden in the Tarheel State in November of 2020, while incumbent Republican Senator Thom Tillis was also reelected.
These latter two races can almost be left aside because Democrats have won a net total of two federal (i.e. presidential or senate races) since 1998, both in 2008 when Barack Obama very narrowly won the state over John McCain, and Democrat Kay Hagan defeated Republican Senator Elizabeth Dole. Other than those two November 2008 races, Republicans have won every federal election for more than 20 years, even if the polls showed Democratic leads.
This was not the way it was supposed to be for Democrats. North Carolina, for Democrats, represented the future of their party. Obsessed with the idea that they represented the educated, the prosperous, the growing cities and suburbs, they looked to North Carolina’s Research Triangle surrounding the cities of Charlotte, Raleigh, and Durham as if it was designed just for them. In 2004, they disregarded political wisdom, and even the most rudimentary background checks to nominate North Carolina’s first term Senator John Edwards as their Vice Presidential pick. These efforts hit a brick wall of reality in November, when George W. Bush defeated the Kerry-Edwards ticket 56-44 in North Carolina, a margin virtually identical to that in 2000. To add insult to injury for Democrats, Republican Richard Burr won Edwards’ old Senate seat by a 51-47% margin.
Democrats were determined to avenge their 2004 loss in North Carolina four years later. With Barack Obama on the ballot, unprecedented African American turnout, and a bankrupt McCain campaign which all but conceded the race, Barack Obama made history, becoming the first, and as time would show, only Democrat to win the state since Jimmy Carter in 1976, carrying it by 14,000 votes. Democrat Kay Hagan made history in a different way, defeating incumbent Republican Elizabeth Dole by more than 360,000 votes, after Dole had run an ad attacking Hagan, a Sunday school teacher, for taking money from an atheist lobby group only to have Hagan counterattack with one of the most effective ads ever run in a Senate contest. History would show that Hagan’s victory said more about Dole than her own strength, as she would lose in 2014 to Thom Tillis.
At the time, Democrats celebrated 2008 as a new dawn in North Carolina. In their view, North Carolina, like Colorado and Virginia which also voted Democratic that year for the first time in a decade, was on its way to becoming a solidly “blue” state. History did not work out that way. 2008, it would turn out, would be the aberration. Democrats won 10/12 statewide races that year, counting the federal ones, and both houses of the legislature, but the storm was coming.
It arrived in 2010. Democrat Beverly Purdue, who had won the 2008 gubernatorial election over Republican Charlotte mayor Pat McCory in a narrow upset, proved a disaster, becoming one of the most unpopular governors in the country. The voters struck back. Republicans swept both houses of the legislature for the first time since 1870, gaining control of redistricting. North Carolina is one of the few states which does not allow the governor to veto redistricting maps. When the governor gained a veto in the 1990s, Democrats, believing that a Republican might be elected governor but Republicans could never win legislative majorities, deliberately denied that power to the office. As late as 2009, Republicans proposed the creation of an independent redistricting commission only to have Democrats, complacent in their belief that tomorrow always belonged to them, reject it out of hand. They would come to rue that day after 2010.
Between 2011 and 2012 the new Republican legislature fought a war against Governor Purdue, who vetoed laws relating to voter ID, pro-life causes, and taxes. She could not, however, prevent new legislative district lines from going into effect. The new lines were aggressive, but not unprecedented when compared with the existing Democrat-drawn maps which had produced a 7-6 Democrat majority in the Congressional delegation on a 54%-45% Republican popular vote in 2010. With North Carolina gaining a seat, even an independent commission prioritizing the Democratic definition of “fairness” likely would have produced a map producing a 6-8 result for a net gain of two Republican seats. The eventual GOP map produced a 10-4 result, with the two parties splitting the tossup races. The map was, by the standards of the arguments of “partisan asymmetry” Democrats tried to advance in the Supreme Court in 2018, about as fair as the map it replaced. The actual Democratic problem was that not enough North Carolinians wanted to vote for them.
The real Democratic anger over North Carolina was similar to that which drove the recall against Scott Walker in Wisconsin. It was that in both states Republicans had the temerity to not only win, but to treat their victories not as temporary aberrations in “blue states” but as mandates from the voters to institute the conservative policies they ran on. “Gerrymandering,” “Voter ID,” and restrictions on union bosses, were “attacks on democracy” because they were attacks on the ability of Democrats to reverse the results of the 2010 elections and retake their control.
Democrats went all out in 2012. They held their national convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Obama campaigned extensively. Nonetheless, November brought disappointment. Not only did Barack Obama lose to Mitt Romney by 90,000 votes, or 50-48, but Republicans picked up the governorship, lieutenant governorship, and other offices while holding both houses of the legislature. Two years later, in 2014, they defeated Democratic Senator Kay Hagan.
If Barack Obama was not able to do the job, then clearly Hillary Clinton would have no trouble against Donald Trump, or so Democrats reasoned in 2016. They were convinced Trump would play poorly with white suburbanites, while turning in a historically poor performance among nonwhite voters. That was not to be. 2016 was a repeat of 2012. Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton 50-46%, doubling Mitt Romney’s margin to 173,000 votes, while Republicans gained a 6-4 majority on the Council of State, and Richard Burr won reelection 51%-45% in a race perceived as a tossup. The only light for Democrats came when State Attorney General Roy Cooper edged out Governor Pat McCory by a margin of 11,000 votes.
The 2020 Republican Triumph
The 2016 election of Donald Trump was transformative. All of the arguments Democrats had made against Republican rule in Wisconsin and North Carolina since 2011 – that it was based on gerrymandering and “voter suppression”, that it represented a temporary aberration, that it was a right-wing hijacking by a minority – were now applied to the entire nation after Donald Trump became President. North Carolina, was, one could say, the birthplace of the modern Democratic party, or at least the birthplace of its excuses for failing to win elections.
That is why what happened in 2020 is probably particularly ominous for Democrats. In 2018, Democrats had what was perhaps their best election in North Carolina since 2008. With no Senate or Presidential race, Democrats focused on local issues, and very nearly won control of the State House despite having argued that doing so would be mathematically impossible in court. Yet they took all the wrong lessons from their success. In 2020, they assumed victory, and concluded that only Republican “chicanery” could stop it. With a “popular” Governor Cooper running for reelection, they expected Biden to win an easy victory, and Biden’s campaign hinted they were more confident in North Carolina than in Florida. National commentators ate this up. The Economist, FivetThirtyEight, Larry Sabato, and Inside Elections all rated North Carolina “Lean D” in the Presidential race.
Again, pundit predictions and Democrat hopes were dashed. On Election Day, Donald Trump led by just under 90,000 votes, eventually winning by 72,000. Confused and shocked, the media refused to call the state for more than a week in an act of spite. If anything, Democrat party officials were more shocked. Not only did Biden lose, despite having led the last 9 polls. Governor Roy Cooper won reelection by an underwhelming margin over Lt. Governor Dan Forrest by a mere 51%-47%. Rather than gaining seats, it was Democratic incumbents who barely held on. Incumbent Attorney General Josh Shapiro survived by a mere 14,000 votes, while Elaine Marshall, Secretary of state for two decades won 51%-49%. They were the exceptions. Elsewhere it was a massacre for Democrats. Republicans won all three Supreme Court races and all State of Appeals races, defeating four Democratic incumbents.
The victory of Associate Justice Ken Newby, previously the lone Republican on the State Supreme Court over Chief Justice Cheri Beasely was particularly important. The Chief Justice assigns a three judge panel. Prior to November 2020, Beasely had the ability to assign three Democrats to expediate any challenge to redistricting maps, and with only 1/7 seats on the court held by Republicans it was mathematically impossible for a majority Republican panel to be formed in any event. With Newby as Chief Justice joined by two new Republican colleagues, it is almost certain that any challenge to the new district maps will be heard by a 2-1 Republican panel. While the full court with its 4-3 Democratic majority could in theory vote to overturn any decision, that would take time, likely coming after the 2022 elections when two Democratic and zero Republican justices are up. As such, Republicans very likely secured control of the redistricting process, and stand to gain anywhere from two to three new Congressional seats in 2022, which would take them halfway to erasing Nancy Pelosi’s slim majority of six in the U.S. House of Representatives.
On paper, Democrats gained two Congressional seats, and one seat in the State Senate, while losing three in the State House in 2020. These results represented a disaster. The Democratic dominated State Supreme court had redrawn the maps for all three bodies, providing Democrats, who had always claimed that North Carolina was a “blue” state which only GOP gerrymandering kept out of their hands, with their best chance to prove their argument. The result was that they fell on their faces. The popular vote for US House was a virtual tie, while Republicans won the popular vote 50-49% in the State House and 51-48% for State Senate.
If anything, the existing Democratic position in North Carolina looks increasingly shaky. Republican rising star Mark Robinson won a stunning upset to defeat State Representative Yvonne Holley for Lieutenant Governor by a margin of 52%-48%, almost the same margin by which Democrat Cooper won the governor’s race. Robinson, a Republican who is now the highest ranking African American ever to hold statewide office, had never run for office before. A former U.S. Army Reserve officer, Robinson was an outspoken conservative who spoke at the NRA convention after his opposition to canceling a gun show under pressure went viral. He also aggressively opposes abortion. With 2.8 million votes, Robinson even outran President Trump.
It was another Republican, 5-term incumbent Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler who received the accolade of winning the most votes ever cast for a Republican with 2.9 million. Troxler had spent his first three terms as the solitary Republican on the Council of State. After 2020, that Council would have a 6-4 Republican majority. Troxler defeated Jenna Wadsworth, the Soil and Water Supervisor of Wake County, who advertises her pronouns and support for BLM on her social media profiles. Campaigning on prioritizing environmental considerations over those of Agriculture, her loss likely came only as a shock to herself and her supporters.
Key to Troxler’s victory, and Donald Trump’s, was success in extending the inroads the Republican party had already made into majority-white rural areas into non-white ones. Most prominently, the Republicans in 2020 made large gains in the southeastern part of the state, especially in areas inhabited by the Lumbee tribe around Robeson county. The country is a mere 30.6% white, yet Donald Trump won it 59%-40%. Even John Kerry had managed to win it 53-47% in 2004, while Mitt Romney had lost it 58-41% in 2012. Resentment over lockdowns, and a Democratic party which seemed to have lost interest in rural America no matter the color of the inhabitants produced shifts almost as dramatic as those seen in Miami or along the Texas border. President Trump himself held a rally in Robeson County on October 24th, 2020 to celebrate his support for federal recognition of the Lumbee tribe. In a completely surreal scene, members of the tribe hammered away at traditional drums with every Trump applause line.
When Donald Trump travels to North Carolina this week, he will be visiting a state that is an extraordinary Republican success story—a state, which, as Democrats have been so quick to tell the world since 2000, looks like America. It is a growing, rich, diverse state, combining traditional industry with technology. It’s a state where electorally, while often close, Republicans have won almost everything every year, and where Democrats, rather than confronting their actual record, have retreated into a bubble where Republican “gerrymandering” and “voter suppression” explain why they can’t win even when the maps and rules are in their favor as in 2020. And now, it is a state where Republicans are set to make even further gains in 2022, potentially paving the way to retaking the House of Representatives from Nancy Pelosi. North Carolina is not just a microcosm of America, but of Donald Trump’s America. Democrats remain in denial of that fact at their peril.