The last few years haven't been kind to North Carolina Democrats. From losing the governor's mansion in 2012 to hemorrhaging seats in the legislature in 2010 and 2012, the party has been impotent to stop a Republican assault on the state's safety net, education system, and local governments.
This year, however, with an unstable slab of orange-hued leather atop the Republican ticket, Democrats see a chance to begin their resurgence. At the state party's convention and annual fundraising dinner in Raleigh on Saturday, party leaders talked hopefully about uniting supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, tying McCrory and the Republicans to Donald Trump, and breaking the Republican's supermajority in the state House of Representatives.
Inside the McKimmon Center, the effect of the Sanders movement was palpable. Ray McKinnon, a Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention, told the
INDY that Sanders supporters will be an asset in November—if party leaders listen to them. "They're not afraid of calling, they're not afraid of walking," he says. "It's just inviting them to come."
Kimberly Reynolds, the executive director of the state party, sounds confident that Sanders supporters will come into the fold.
"As Senator Sanders comes away from the primary and sends a strong message that he's united," she says, "they'll see that it's true that we're stronger together, and it's too dangerous to let Donald Trump become president of the United States."
This is crucial for the state party's future. As Reynolds points out, the primary focus this year is the top of the ticket: "We're going to be ground zero for putting a president in the White House this year."
That makes sense. North Carolina supported Barack Obama in 2008 but Mitt Romney in 2012, and polls show a close race between Clinton and Trump. More important, how the presidential race plays out with have a profound impact on the contests for governor, U.S. Senate, and several Council of State seats. If Clinton does well, the party will do well, especially if Trump and North Carolina Republicans are perceived as being one and the same.
As became apparent Saturday, that's the heart of the party's strategy: don't breathe your opponents' names without tying them to Trump.
Gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper made reference to a "Trump-McCrory administration," while Linda Coleman said that Trump, McCrory, and her opponent, Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, will "continue to promote an ideological agenda that doesn't reflect our values."
"We're seeing that Governor McCrory and Donald Trump are a lot alike," Cooper said, to boos from the crowd. "They both use this divisive rhetoric as a political tool to try to divide us."
For all of the talk about the presidential race, however, some of the most important contests will be down the ballot. Even if Cooper is elected governor, he'll be rendered powerless if the Democrats can't break the Republicans' supermajority. To do that, they'll need to net at least four seats in the House, which they think doable, or five in the Senate, which is less realistic.
Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at UNC, says that if Clinton invests in the state and Cooper continues to keep his race close, North Carolina Democrats have a chance to emerge victorious in November.
"If the national Democratic campaign makes a major push—advertising, spending money, getting precinct organizing going—a minor wave could augment what the state Democrats are doing," he says. "It's always a challenging to face an incumbent, but given HB 2 and McCrory's trouble with the Republicans in the General Assembly, Cooper clearly has a more determined party."
"Our focus is going to continue to be to flip the ballot, and start from the bottom and go to the top," says Wake County Democratic Party chairman Brian Fitzsimmons. "It's about reminding people that there is a whole slate of races other than just the ones at the top of the ticket, and these races are definitely incredibly important."
With House Bill 2, Fitzsimmons thinks the Democrats have an issue that will drive turnout.
"We have the issues on our side," Fitzsimmons says. "There's no arguing that North Carolina, as a whole, does not like HB 2. It does not like the governor. It does not like the Republicans in the General Assembly. It's just a matter of what we do with that."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Carolina Dreaming"