The quote above could have been Schumer when he nixed then front-runner Erica Smith's US Senate run and instead chose perennial loser, white conservative male Cal Cunningham, who, needless to say, lost in 2020. But it wasn't Schumer and it wasn't about Erica Smith. It was about North Carolina, but it was Barack Obama's 2008 presidential run that was being discussed. Yesterday, former News & Observer editor Gary Pearce looked at the blue trend in North Carolina as we head into the midterms with a tempting open U.S. Senate seat and with progressive Erica Smith once again trying to offer something much more than a Republican-lite alternative.
Since Obama's 2008 narrow victory-- 2,142,651 (49.7%) to 2,128,474 (449.4%)-- over McCain, "Democrats," wrote Pearce, "have confidently predicted that demographic trends-- more young voters, minority voters and college-educated voters-- would make North Carolina more like Virginia, which is increasingly Democratic, and Georgia, which was surprisingly Democratic in 2020."
From 1980 to 2004, North Carolina was reliably Republican in presidential races. Republican candidates carried the state seven straight times, usually by double digits.
Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter here by 2% in 1980, then swamped Walter Mondale by 24% in 1984; George H. W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis by over 16% in 1988. Bill Clinton made North Carolina competitive again in 1992, losing to Bush by less than 1%, partly because Ross Perot was on the ballot and siphoned votes away from Bush. Bob Dole beat Clinton here by 4.7% in 1996.
In 2000, George W. Bush beat Al Gore in North Carolina by 12.8%; Bush beat John Kerry by 12.4% in 2004, even with former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards on the Democratic ticket.
But that pattern changed dramatically in 2008.
The breakthrough didn’t come the way experts expected: with a moderate white candidate from the South, another Carter or Clinton. Instead, it was a Black candidate, an unknown first-term senator from Illinois with an unlikely name and an unexpected appeal.
Republicans scoffed that year at reports Barack Obama’s campaign was targeting North Carolina. No way, they said, could a Black Democrat win such a safe Republican state.
But Obama did win, by just 0.3%, thanks to a surge of minority voters and young voters. He won white working-class voters who had lost faith in Republican economic policies and lost patience with never-ending wars in the Middle East. John McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin for vice president cost him women and college-educated voters.
North Carolina turned red again on the electoral maps of 2012, 2016 and 2020. But the margins never returned to pre-2008 levels. Mitt Romney beat Obama here in 2012 by just 2%. Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 3.6% in 2016 and Joe Biden by 1.3% in November.
Democrats here have been inspired by Democrats in Georgia, which went for President Biden and elected two Democratic senators. Efforts have begun to replicate Georgia Democrats’ voter registration and turnout juggernaut.
But North Carolina isn’t Georgia. We’re more rural. While both states have over 10 million people, Georgia’s rural population is about 1.8 million; North Carolina’s is over 3 million. Georgia has more Black voters-- 30% of the total electorate, compared to North Carolina’s 20%.
Three questions will decide the future of North Carolina’s “blue shift.”
First, will COVID and its economic impact put an end to the 40-year reign of Ronald Reagan’s philosophy that “government is the problem?” Some polls suggest Americans today want more from government, not less.
Second, which party’s set of issues matter more to voters? Biden and Democrats are focusing on COVID vaccines, economic relief, climate change, and gender and racial equality. Republicans are focused on abortion, immigration, “reopening” the country and “cancel culture.”
Third, which will prevail: Democrats’ efforts to expand voting or Republicans’ efforts to restrict it?
In a state where presidential elections are decided by 1, 2 or 3%, small actions and small shifts in attitudes can produce big shifts in outcomes.
Last cycle, the North Carolina Supreme Court handed the Democrats two congressional seats by de-gerrymandering NC-02 and NC-06. The DCCC quickly moved to install two utterly pointless white conservative women, Deborah Ross and Kathy Manning, both of whom immediately joined the corporately owned and operated New Dems. Biden won the 2 newly configured districts with 64.3% and 61.6%, respectively. Ross won with 63.0% and Manning won with 62.3%. Statewide, on the same day, North Carolina voters reelected Gov. Roy Cooper (D) over Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, 2,834,790 (51.5%) to 2,586,605 (47.0%). Cooper didn't just outpoll Biden; he outpolled Trump (2,758,775) as well.
Schumer's handpicked candidate, conservative Cal Cunningham only managed to take 2,569,965 votes (46.9%). Over a quarter million voters who cast their ballots for Cooper, declined to vote for the Schumer Senate pick. Schumer should think carefully about that before he sticks his nose into North Carolina's primary again this year. The state party wants him to butt out. Especially because not only is Erica Smith running again, but so is a Cal Cunningham doppelgänger, Jeff Jackson. And quasi-Republican ex-congressman/ex-football player Heath Shuler is threatening to run. Emily's List also has a handpicked candidate of their own, another pointless moderate, Cheri Beasley, a former state Supreme Court judge.
Erica Smith, despite a concerted effort by Schumer to use dirty New York whispering campaign tactics to destroy her reputation remains a popular figure. A strong and proven progressive who represented a 100% rural district and lives on a road that has never been paved, Smith is a pastor and an engineer and is the grassroots candidate who has been taking her campaign directly to North Carolina's voters, not to the political bosses and big money interests. She's running on a platform that includes Medicare-for-All, the Green New Deal, universal broadband, and racial justice. She is the first Senate candidate endorsed by Blue America in this cycle and you can contribute to her campaign by clicking on the 2022 ActBlue Senate thermometer above. And, by the way... the Democrat who wins the nomination is likely to face either far, far right white nationalist ex-Congressman Mark Walker, Lara Trump or reactionary former Governor Pat McCrory.