The State of Our State

In North Carolina, Democrats boast of the days back in the latter half of the twentieth century when the state was viewed as one of the progressive leaders in the South. Democrats point to Governor Terry Sanford and Governor Jim Hunt as examples of ambitious Democratic leaders that led the state for over two decades. Currently, progressives are counting on Governor Roy Cooper to guide the state back from its recent conservative trend, and they are betting that Attorney General Josh Stein will be the premier progressive star for the state in the future. Among their Republican peers, talk of North Carolina politics revolves around the underlying conservatism that has surrounded the state historically, noting the plethora of conservative Democrats elected throughout the twentieth century, and the shift of those conservatives to the Republican Party, Senator Jesse Helms being chief among them. Currently, those in the conservative coalition can point to the Republican dominance of both chambers in the state legislature, and the rise of Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, to corroborate their long held belief that North Carolina, at its core, is a conservative state.

What makes North Carolina so unique is that both of these beliefs are true. Our state has simultaneously been a Democratic state, with bursts of progressive leadership, while maintaining an underlying culturally conservative nature that split the Democratic Party during periods of the twentieth century, and now has pushed Republicans into legislative power. North Carolina is unique in that it is consistently inconclusive about its fundamental political nature. When outsiders visit the state, they are often perplexed at the number of people that still identify as Democrats in rural areas, and vote Democratic for local or statewide races, but not at the federal level. Furthermore, it is surprising to some that our former governor, Pat McCrory, and current lieutenant governor, Dan Forest, came from the Charlotte area, which conventional wisdom would suggest would be a strong area for Democrats since it is the most populated urban area in the state. Given the uncertain future of which direction the state is headed, and the quirkiness of North Carolina politics, the question that is on the minds of folks across the state: what now?

Currently, it seems that the major showdown is still yet to come. Despite Governor Cooper being the leader of the state, the super majorities in the state legislature all but tie his hands to push for his policy preferences. The current goal of this administration is to make enough electoral gains to undo the super majorities, allowing the governor to reassert his veto power. Politico Magazine recently wrote a story about Governor Cooper, and focused on his goal in the state legislature. In my view, this is only the preliminary battle that will set up the major showdown that is to come in the next presidential cycle. In 2018, North Carolinians will go to the ballot with only congressional races and local races to focus on. However, in 2020, North Carolina will have its gubernatorial election at the same time that it votes for the presidency and one of its representatives to the United States Senate. As it seems now, North Carolina will have the choice to set the direction that it wants to go for the next decade, or two. This is the type of political theatre that could be talked about for years to come.

The reason for the recent Democratic initiatives, like “Our Shot NC” and “Break the Majority”, to recruit and promote state legislative candidates is so Democrats have a launching pad to make more significant and substantial gains in the year 2020. Governor Cooper, and other Democratic leaders, are betting that the overtly conservative bend of the legislature has turned off a plurality, if not an outright majority of voters throughout the state. They show no ambivalence when bringing up controversial actions taken by the legislature, most notably HB2. Governor Cooper has, without equivocation, based his strategy on the unpopularity of the state legislature, and the troublesome state of gerrymandering in North Carolina. His strategy is reminiscent of President Harry Truman running in 1948 against the infamous “Do-Nothing Congress”. 2018 may provide us with framework to gauge how the governor’s strategy is playing, but 2020 will be the ultimate test as to whether North Carolinians are buying what the governor is selling.

What kind of state is North Carolina now? The best assessment I can conjure suggests that the state has been sautéed in conservatism over the past few years, with progressives and moderates hanging on by a thread. It appears that Democrats and a significant portion of moderate Republicans are salivating at the opportunity to bring balance back to this swing state. While there seems to be excitement surrounding the progressive coalition, the conservative consistency is not to be underestimated. I suspect that elections in the near future will continue to be competitive and contentious, as they have a history of being in this state. And I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.