What went wrong for North Carolina's Democrats? | The Election Page | Indy Week

Elections » The Election Page

What went wrong for North Carolina's Democrats?



On Election Day, Pat McCrory is coasting, and not just on money, although he's fine on that count, too.

The Republican gubernatorial candidate has roughly six times more cash than his Democratic counterpart, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, whose defeat has seemed pre-ordained since he announced his candidacy. And the seven-to-19-point polling lead McCrory has enjoyed for the bulk of the race foreshadowed the events of today: North Carolina Republicans—barring a major upset—will control both chambers of the General Assembly and the Governor's Mansion.

Most political observers consider a 2012 Democratic resurgence in the Legislature as unlikely as a Dalton victory, leaving Democrats with a simple but prickly question: Why?

What happened to the Democratic powerhouse that commanded the General Assembly for more than a century, despite the state's abundance of conservative-minded voters?

According to political analysts and party officials, this year's defeats for state Democrats have very little to do with the events of 2012.

"To some degree, this was baked in the cake with what went wrong in 2010," said Steven Greene, an associate political science professor at N.C. State University.

That's the year the GOP ranks, seizing on a rancid state economy and conservatives embittered from a 2008 drubbing, flushed the General Assembly with Republicans at a pivotal moment: Lawmakers were preparing to redraw the state's voting districts following new census figures, granting an all-important power to Republican majority conservatives.

There's little else for Democrats to blame, said John Davis, a longtime North Carolina political consultant from Raleigh.

"There's a simple formula," Davis said. "Money plus maps equals a majority. That's about it."

Davis is a popular speaker and trusted source for political reporters. He's also a realist. He prefers numbers, not sentiment, when he talks about elections.

He said Republicans' 2010 victory—which happened as a national census ensured newly drawn voting districts, coupled with the windfall of campaign donations that bolster incumbents—struck a mortal blow to this year's crop of Democrats.

"They had all the advantages Democrats always had," Davis said.

Former House Speaker Joe Hackney, an Orange County Democrat, retired in 2012 after the GOP redrew House District 54 to include only Chatham and Lee counties—excluding Hackney's Orange County stronghold.

Hackney said Democrats enlisted strong candidates and leaned on high-quality consultants, but Republican cash and new voting districts gave the GOP a clear edge.

"The answer is 2010 went wrong," Hackney said. "That's the reason we're in the situation we're in. Go back and you can reanalyze that, but I think it has very little to do with the 2012 election. It's the minority status that we're in right now."

If that is reality for North Carolina Democrats, they weren't saying so as they gathered outside polling places on a chilly Election Day in the Triangle.

Many maintained they could seize a majority in the General Assembly or upset McCrory, a conservative so popular he nearly won the governor's race in 2008, when Democrats dominated the election.

Yet others, such as Orange County Democratic Party Chairman Matt Hughes—who spent much of Tuesday at polling places—acknowledged the challenge they faced. "Special interest money goes with the majority, and I think that certainly makes it harder," Hughes said.

Republicans dominated campaign funding in 2012. At last report, McCrory's campaign had spent nearly $10 million; Dalton counted a comparatively paltry $3.6 million. But the campaigns were not the only groups responsible for the cash blitz.

The Republican Governors Association spent nearly $7 million shredding Dalton's credentials. A liberal group supported by the Democratic Governors Association spent $2.7 million backing Dalton.

Court races, so key to a Democratic effort to overturn the Republicans' controversial redistricting, were expensive too, with Republican interests doling out a reported $1.6 million on a banjo-plucking television ad for conservative Supreme Court candidate Paul Newby.

And in Senate District 18, Republican challenger Chad Barefoot had spent a staggering $778,000 by October's end in an effort to unseat Democratic mainstay Doug Berger, according to state Board of Elections reports. Berger's re-election campaign spent just under $237,000.

Meanwhile, high-profile candidates such as McCrory, who has maintained a steady campaign presence since 2008, were significantly more known than the likes of Dalton, even though he has served as lieutenant governor.

"McCrory has been campaigning for five years," Hughes said. "So if you think about it, he has a little bit of an advantage."

Hughes added that the redistricting, reviled by Democrats, put them at a major disadvantage by packing incumbent lawmakers into districts with other incumbents.

"They're good maps for Republicans, but they're not sound maps," Hughes said.

But conservatives say the Republican redistricting is fair, arguing Democrats used the same process for decades to bolster their re-election chances.

"What the heck have they been doing the last 100 years?" asked Ted Hicks, Durham County GOP chairman. "I'm not saying [the lines are] perfectly drawn now and I'm not saying they've been gerrymandered, but hearing Democrats say that is kind of like the pot calling the kettle black."

North Carolina Democrats and the party in general are paying for pushing a leftist agenda that clashes with the typical voter, Hicks said, adding, "President Obama has taken the country just too far to the left and there are some repercussions."

Peter Feaver, a Duke University political science professor, says it's more complicated than that for North Carolina Democrats.

"There already has been a lot of lamentations over the current governor's time in office," Feaver said of Gov. Bev Perdue, who chose not to seek re-election. "She struggled and that hurt the party. When your top Democrat in the state is struggling, that hurts everybody else."

President Obama's re-election bid, troubled by an economy growing too slowly for some voters, also plays a part, Feaver said.

Yet the key to a state Democratic rebound could be an influx of Yankees and Calfornians.

John Davis points out the state's voting is becoming increasingly clustered in urban, politically moderate areas settled by a growing population of non-Southerners. Davis said half of the state's voting is centralized in 13 of the state's 100 counties.

That includes left-leaning voters in Wake, Durham and Orange counties where, in 2008, Obama dominated. He won those counties with 56 percent, 75 percent and 71 percent of the vote, respectively.

"The great hope for Democrats is truly this new urban voter in North Carolina," Davis said. "There is great potential for Democrats in the future."

Comments (11)

Showing 1-11 of 11

Add a comment

Add a comment