It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
Watch: Georgia voters decided. The Post-election audit won't change that.
Georgia voters cast their ballots and made a clear decision in the 2020 election, which ended on November 3rd. On this week's episode of As The South Votes, voting rights activist Sara Ghazal joins us to talk about Georgia's election and post-election audit undertaken by the secretary of state. Sara explains that what has been referred to as a hand recount is actually a risk-limiting audit, a process required by state law. Despite all of the false statements about the election process, Sara encourages everyone to prioritize democracy and making sure the processes work for everyone.
Read: North Carolina's Democratic party is a microcosm of the DNC's identity crisis
As US House Rep. Alexandria Ortasio-Cortez told The New York Times last week, "I think it's going to be really important how the party deals with this internally, and whether the party is going to be honest about doing a real post-mortem and actually digging into why they lost." Thankfully, As The South Votes exists to do this very thing, and the North Carolina Democratic Party is a particularly good place to start.
While Gov. Roy Cooper won his race handily, Democratic hopeful for Lt. Gov. Yvonne Holley lost to a far-Right political novice and the embodiment of all the xenophobic -ism's, Mark Robinson. Democrats also lost the labor commissioner, secretary of agriculture, and enough seats in the legislature to give the Republicans a simple majority in both chambers. The state's supreme court makeup shifted, and the race between incumbent Justice Cheri Beasley and Paul Newby may come down to just a few hundred votes. US Senate candidate Cal Cunningham lost his race against one of the least popular members of Congress.
After chatting with former Wake County Democratic Party state executive committee member (and current Democratic Women of Wake county Nominating Committee chair), Quanta Monique Edwards, and Jesse Hamilton McCoy—supervising attorney for Duke University's Civil Justice Clinic and senior lecturing fellow—we learned that what happened at the polls is a reflection of what has happened within the party itself for over a century.
When Richard Nixon employed the Southern Strategy in his 1968 presidential race, local TV commentator-turned-senator Jesse Helms led an exodus from North Carolina's Democratic Party to the arms of the then-new GOP—pushing those left behind into a type of progressivism by default.
The Democratic Party kept an uninterrupted hold on the South for decades. But North Carolina still elected GOP presidential candidates from 1980 until 2004, while state and local politics remained largely in the hands of Democrats.
A Critical Blindspot
As the North Carolina Democratic Party grew into a more progressive platform, they increased their power on the local level. In 2006, Democrats won majorities in both chambers of the North Carolina General Assembly, decisive supreme court and court of appeals seats, and other nonpartisan races. But at the same time, the state's GOP gained important allies in megadonors like Art Pope and the Koch Brothers.
When North Carolinians swung for President Obama in 2008, it was the first time a Democratic candidate carried the state in over 30 years, and backlash ensued—partially due to racism, but also due to a lack of investment in progressive interests statewide.
Both Edwards and McCoy pointed out that, after decades of supporting the Democrats, the rural parts of the state had little to show for it. "It comes down to simple mathematics," Edwards explained. Of North Carolina's 100 counties, 20 are urban, while the other 80 are rural. "Many of these counties are frozen in time."
McCoy expounded: "While Democrats were creating progressive policies that could have been helpful to those in rural areas, campaign and infrastructure investments were not reaching them." Corporate interests resulted in anemic broadband and utility services, hospital closures, underfunded schools, low job opportunities, and an increased vulnerability to climate crises, just to name a few.
The Pendulum Swing
In 2010, Democrats followed tradition and focused on urban and minority voters, while Republicans directed their attention and resources to the "silent majority," which, in North Carolina's case, is the white rural voter. As a result, the GOP won control of both houses of the General Assembly for the first time since 1896. That year was historically significant because it was when the then-conservative Democrats, led by Josephus Daniels—publisher of the News & Observer newspaper—and segregationist Gov. George Aycock effectively ended the progress made towards Black political representation and cross-racial, working-class political power in the Reconstruction era.
The GOP achieved this through the use of racist propaganda and disinformation campaigns—similar to tactics employed by the Tea Party and then-future president, Donald Trump.
But the nail in the coffin of the age of progressive power in the state came when Pat McCrory gained the governor's mansion in the 2012 election.
See also: To prevent abhorrent state-run voter suppression and police brutality, look to local action beyond election years
Failure to Launch
What happened from 2012 onward is what bred today's party-aligned frustration for many North Carolinians. While progressive political activism rose in the form of Moral Mondays marches and sit-ins led by then-president of the NC NAACP Rev. William Barber, the North Carolina Democratic Party carried on with their status quo.
"The makeup of the state and the party was changing. More Black and brown folks were moving to North Carolina and joining the party," Edwards explained. "The party, however, was still operating as a predominantly white entity."
While activists demanded changes to the minimum wage, police accountability, and housing costs, the NCDP rode the line of addressing these issues while not calling for polarizing changes that may alienate "swing voters." For example, the party platform states under "Criminal Justice Reform" that rebuilding trust between police and communities of color is paramount to creating safer neighborhoods, but mentions nothing of holding police accountable for using excessive force or breaking other codes of conduct by, for example, ending qualified immunity. This passive language does not bode well for rural areas like Alamance County that have historically racist police forces who act with impunity against Black and brown residents.
The Great Reckoning
One of the most important political events of the last five years was the redrawing of North Carolina's congressional districts. The Republican supermajority drew them in such a way that they devalued the urban vote (and, not coincidentally, the Black vote) tremendously while placing more power in the hands of rural voters. Those particular maps were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court for discrimination against Black and brown voters with "surgical precision," but the new maps ultimately still favored the state's non-city dwelling base.
"The biggest failure of the Democratic Party is not building a plan to reach rural voters," Edwards said. This seemed like a manageable sacrifice in previous elections, but after Donald Trump's presidential win in 2016, this oversight became a glaring tactical error.
Gaps in broadband infrastructure and news media made it difficult for Democratic candidates to get their name out. This year, the state's Democratic House and Senate caucuses raised a record breaking $2.6 million for the 2020 election, but Edwards said he believes that these funds could have been spent more strategically to influence the state's outcomes Republican campaign strategist Paul Shumaker told the Charlotte Observer that Republicans stuck to "old-fashioned door knocking" and "sophisticated targeting." "The strength of the ground game is what kept all the Republican candidates in their races. We saw no semblance of a Democratic ground game anywhere." Trump's large rallies in rural and suburban towns like Hickory and Gastonia also sent a strong message of support for their needs, while Biden and other Democrats held most rallies in more metropolitan areas. This and other factors caused the political infrastructure that the GOP had built since 2010 had passed the most rigorous test of all—Republicans won North Carolina's early vote up and down the ballot for the first time since voting early became an option 20 years ago. The GOP also continued to dominate on Election Day.
It has taken the NCDP decades to get into this election hole, but it doesn't have to take them that long to get out.
One important step, according to Edwards and McCoy, is a strong ground game in rural counties. Not only is it necessary to have volunteers and activist organizations knocking on doors, holding voter education meetings, and dropping off literature, but the candidates themselves need to make themselves known in these communities.
"Rural voters, like anyone else, want recognition." Edwards explained. "They want someone to come and listen to their concerns, and use those concerns to shape a platform that will meet their needs."
Another issue the Democratic Party needs to address is appointing focused leadership. Several of the NCDP's executive board members were running their own political races while managing their duties to the party. There are no paid positions within the party, so most volunteers work day jobs.
"There are 100 counties in our state, and every one of those counties' Democratic leaders need to be engaged by the NCDP during an election," Edwards explained. Such an intensive task demands a board member's full focus, which the North Carolina Democratic Party did not have during this year's election.
Finally, the Democratic Party needs to kill the Dixiecrat moniker for good and create a truly progressive platform that addresses the needs of all North Carolinians, especially those who are marginalized and those in rural communities.
"People were waiting to hear them speak up about the injustice," Edwards said. Criminal justice is an issue that faces Black and brown voters across the state, and yet the party and most Democratic candidates made strong statements that condemned police brutality and condoning the work of organizers rallying protests. Actually, the two state officials who made the most robust pronouncements regarding racial justice were Gov. Cooper (where he then created a Racial Equity Taskforce), and Chief Justice Cheri Beasley. It's understandable, then, that Cooper won handily and Chief Justice Beasley is still in the fight while so many others were left behind.