The Road to National Democratic Revival Goes Through North Carolina
North Carolina’s recent political history foreshadows what’s likely to happen in Washington during this era of Republican political dominance. Luckily, the growing Democratic revival in North Carolina can also teach us lessons about what Democrats across the U.S. should do next.
Democrats lost control of the North Carolina General Assembly in 2010 and lost the Governor’s mansion in 2012. Republican success in North Carolina was part of their successful national strategy called “Project Redmap” to control state legislatures by 2011. As Jane Meyer documented in her book Dark Money, Republicans accelerated their Project Redmap efforts to win [read: buy] elections after Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. The spending on North Carolina’s legislative races was unprecedented. Democrats at the state and national level were not anticipating it. Project Redmap was a resounding success for Republicans and we are now seeing the devastating results of their efforts in extreme, right-wing policies sweeping through state legislatures around the country. In North Carolina, new computer programs for gerrymandering tilted the scales so that Republicans won supermajorities in both legislative chambers in 2012. With a Republican governor in place, they had taken complete control of the government in just four years.
Republicans used NC as a laboratory for their regressive agenda in ways that will foreshadow what will happen in DC during a Trump presidency. For example:
- A Federal court eventually overturned a voter suppression law that the court claimed “target[ed] African-American voters with almost surgical precision”.
- A motorcycle safety bill became the most restrictive anti- women’s health bill in state history through a parliamentary maneuver at 11:00PM.
- The legislature outlawed the use of sea level rise data in decision making.
In 2016, Republicans passed the most discriminatory bill in the post-Jim Crow era: HB2. Infamous for impacting transgender bathroom use, the bill actually went so far as to take away all local non-discrimination protections statewide as well as the ability to bring discrimination lawsuits in state courts.
The Revival Begins
The Democratic revival began in North Carolina with the Moral Monday Movement, which also foreshadowed the 2016 Women’s March and many other multi-issue organizational efforts that are currently building capacity. The NC NAACP and dozens of partner organizations took on massive statewide organizing work and policy advocacy, and they continue that work today. While the mass protests were not enough to stop the radical Republican agenda, they did lay the groundwork for significant electoral victories in coming years.
Democrats in North Carolina started winning back legislative seats in 2014 and continued in 2016. In two years that were national electoral wave years for Republicans, Democrats were making small steps forward in North Carolina. NC House Democrats had a net gain of four seats over the two elections while Democrats lost 104 legislative seats nationwide over the same period.
In 2016, North Carolina elected Democratic Governor Roy Cooper, again while fighting a Republican wave election. Democrats also held onto the Attorney General’s office, electing progressive Josh Stein over his fellow Senator who was a primary sponsor of HB2. Less noticed in the national press was the fact that Democrats also flipped the North Carolina Supreme Court by electing a new African-American justice. After having lost all governmental control just a few years ago, Democrats are now in control of two of the the three branches of government.
Since the 2016 elections, North Carolina Democrats have been on fire. In less than two months, over 500 North Carolinians have signed up to run for office through the newly-launched NC Democratic Party Pipeline Project. More than 2000 people statewide have used the NCDP’s County Connect tool to find out about their precinct meetings, contact legislators and members of Congress, and for do-it-yourself phone bank outreach. Dozens of newly organized grassroots groups have connected via Facebook and are coordinating action via the Carolina Resistance website.
While there is evidence of progressive energy building across the country, North Carolina is ahead of the curve. Our grassroots, non-profit, and Democratic party organizing are all headed in the same direction and producing wins.
Just like other areas around the country, the Republican gerrymandering has legislative and congressional representation that is significantly out of whack with state voter registration and the state’s popular vote in these elections. While Democrats are winning in statewide races, legislative and congressional progress is thwarted by gerrymandered districts purchased by the Kochs, DeVoses and Popes.
Federal courts have found NC’s congressional and legislative districts to be illegal racial gerrymanders. While congressional districts have already been redrawn, they are still gerrymandered for political reasons with a predetermined 10–3 Republican tilt. The U. S. Supreme Court heard arguments on this case in December and may soon rule on whether partisan gerrymandering will still be legal.
A Federal District Court has ordered new legislative maps and special legislative elections in 2017. But the U.S. Supreme Court has placed a stay on that decision pending appeal. Even if there are not 2017 elections, every seat in the legislature will be on the ballot in both 2018 and 2020. Having new, fairly drawn maps would be the most important step yet in the Democratic Revival, unlocking the potential for increased Democratic representation and the power to replace gerrymandering with non-partisan redistricting.
Take Back the Legislature
Democrats must take back at least one chamber in the NC General Assembly by picking up seats in 2018 and 2020. In 2018 there are no statewide “top of the ticket” elections on the ballot in North Carolina, so lots of energy and money will go into legislative elections. In a typical mid-term election, turnout is usually down 40–60%. Democrats can win just by turning out people who voted for Roy Cooper in 2016. Converting voters in a Trump backlash can assist in picking up the 3 seats necessary to break the veto-proof majority in the NC House and possibly even the 15 seats necessary for a Democratic majority. (The margin to majority is smaller in the NC House than the NC Senate, again because of gerrymandering.)
If Democrats win back even one legislative chamber, we can negotiate for non-partisan redistricting and fair districts after the 2020 census. We believe this is the right thing to do, and we believe that Democrats can win in fair districts.
The ramifications of our Democratic Revival efforts extend far beyond the borders of North Carolina and can not be understated. After the 2020 census, NC is projected to gain one congressional district and will then have 14 members in the U.S. House of Representatives. Republicans currently hold a 10–3 advantage of the existing seats. Under fair maps, a 50–50 split of congressional seats would mean Democrats would net a 4 seat gain in the U.S. House. Right now Dems need 24 seats to flip the entire U.S. House, meaning that ⅙ of the total number of seats necessary for a Democratic Majority could come from North Carolina alone. As goes North Carolina, so goes our nation.
To do all of this, North Carolina will need national input, support, and guidance. Winning back the NC General Assembly is not just a North Carolina issue. It is an urgent national issue and it is the absolute frontline in our fight against the wave of right-wing Trumpism.
What do we need? What can you do?
North Carolina Legislative Democrats know what we need to do in order to keep the Democratic Revival going:
- Recruit great candidates for every legislative race. Anyone interested in running can let us know through the website Pipeline.ncdp.org.
- Fund a strong election apparatus. Donations can be provided to the NC House Caucus and the NC Senate Caucus.
- Run an amazing turnout machine. Starting now and going through 2018 and 2020 without stop. North Carolinians can sign up to volunteer through the NCDP Pipeline Project or start doing voter contact through the County Connect tool. People from around the country can get involved through Flippable.org.
The national media narrative about North Carolina uses HB2 to play on existing stereotypes of a bigoted South. But many of America’s great resistance movements have also arisen from the South. Just as in the past, a progressive revival is taking shape here as grassroots energy combines with strong leadership and strategy. If you care about taking our country back, North Carolina is a great place to start.
Graig Meyer is a Democrat and the State Representative for NC House District 50. He hosts an ongoing Facebook Live series called Our Shot that provides hope and guidance to those looking for ways to change our political trajectory. Find out more about Graig at GraigMeyer.com.