If not a shellacking, then the performance of North Carolina Democrats in last year’s election came awfully close — yet state Democratic leadership, both in the party itself and in the chambers of the legislature, may well look little different this year than it did before the failure that was 2020.
Of the three top-tier races — President, Senator, and Governor — Democrats lost the first two and won the third by a closer-than-expected margin.
Before the election, Democrats talked about delivering the state to Joe Biden as part of a hoped-for repudiation of Trump and Trumpism, knocking off Thom Tillis to help Democrats retake the U.S. Senate, and keeping the governor’s mansion in a landslide.
None of that happened.
Republicans held their majority in the North Carolina Senate, shedding a single seat and going into the next legislative session with a 28-22 majority. Republicans gained seats in the North Carolina House, increasing their margin there from 65-55 to 69-51.
Before the election, Democrats talked of taking the majority in the state senate. It didn’t happen, and now Republicans, after the 2020 census, will once again draw congressional and legislative districts unimpeded.
The Council of State races offered little comfort.
Yes, Attorney General Josh Stein won reelection — barely, with 50.1% of the vote. Likewise for Beth Wood, the incumbent state auditor, who garnered 50.9% of the vote. Incumbent Secretary of State Elaine Marshall did a little better, winning reelection with 51.2% of the vote.
But Republicans won Lieutenant Governor, Commissioner of Agriculture, Commissioner of Insurance, Commissioner of Labor, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and Treasurer.
The state’s delegation to the U.S. House didn’t change in a way that suggests Democratic success: The five seats Democrats won were those they were virtually guaranteed to win due to gerrymandering. And a couple of seats Democrats eyed as possible pick-ups, including the 8th, 9th, and 11th congressional districts, stayed Republican. (Speaking of the U.S. House, the reluctance of Democrats in North Carolina to seriously reconsider their leadership in the wake of electoral failure is reflected in the national party: Nancy Pelosi kept her spot as Speaker despite her caucus losing seats in 2020. In that respect, Pelosi compares unfavorably to the Newt Gingrich of 1998: That year, he resigned when his party lost five seats. Democrats in 2020 lost at least ten seats, with the final race (for New York’s 22nd district) still to be called with a current 29-vote lead for the Republican challenger.)
As for the North Carolina Supreme Court, incumbent Chief Justice Cherie Beasley, a Democrat, lost to Republican Associate Justice Paul Newby. Republicans took the other two Supreme Court seats up for grabs. The same story unfolded at the North Carolina Court of Appeals: All five seats on the ballot went to Republicans.
Beyond the results of any particular race, trends across North Carolina spoke poorly of the Democratic Party’s work. (Indeed, according to one analyst at FiveThirtyEight, the party’s performance in 2020 was simply the latest chapter of a longer story: “Democrats haven’t really gained ground in North Carolina in 12 years,” Perry Bacon, Jr. recently observed. In this respect, North Carolina Democrats compare unfavorably to Democrats in Georgia, who convinced voters in 2020 to cast their ballots for Biden in the presidential race and two Democratic challengers in U.S. Senate races.)
President Trump, a scandal-plagued, impeached incumbent, expanded his lead this year in some counties he more narrowly won in 2016, perhaps most dramatically in Robeson County, which he took by four points in 2016 and nearly nineteen points in 2020. (To be fair, Biden outperformed Hillary Clinton in some counties compared to 2016, and some suburban areas inched away from the GOP.)
Democrats still don’t seem to understand that although Trump is a narcissist, a bully, a liar, and a would-be authoritarian, he astutely tapped into something that plagues large swaths of the American public who rightly perceive the political and economic system as rigged against them and to the benefit of the powerful. (In 2020, Trump attracted a growing share of minority voters with this argument.)
Of course, Trump racialized these legitimate grievances, but his exploitation of them doesn’t diminish their underlying causes, nor the political and moral need to address their root causes, especially massive economic displacement wrought by neoliberalism and the resulting, growing inequality between the haves and have-nots, the privileged and the marginalized.
The Democratic Party ought to be the vehicle for a political message that unites those marginalized because of class and those marginalized because of race, a 21st-century reprise of the fusionist success of the late 19th century. But, at least in 2020, the party only convinced part of this coalition to vote Democratic, with near-disastrous results that are not suggestive of a winning, long-term strategy.
In some places, these sorts of electoral failures result in almost immediate relinquishment of power by those leading the unsuccessful effort, a recognition that outcomes, not inputs, matter most in politics. (Heck, as mentioned above, even Newt Gingrich had the wherewithal to quit as Speaker of the House within days of his party’s dismal performance in the 1998 mid-term elections.)
But no such changes seems likely to occur among North Carolina Democrats.
It’s true that Wayne Goodwin, who served as party chairman over the last four years, said he isn’t seeking another term, but his announcement said nothing about the moral and strategic imperative that he not run again as a result of the party’s performance in 2020. He merely said, “I think it’s time to have another chapter and have someone else do what they can to build on the last few years.”
Notwithstanding Goodwin’s departure, when Democrats choose their next slate of leaders in February, some familiar faces may well populate the leadership ranks.
First Vice Chair Bobbie Richardson has announced her candidacy for the party’s chairmanship. Second Vice Chair Matt Hughes has announced he intends to seek reelection to his post. Third Vice Chair Nida Allam will not run for another term due to her recent election as a county commissioner in Durham. (But, like Goodwin, Allam’s announcement didn’t tie her decision to forego another term to the party’s performance this year.)
Meanwhile, over in the state senate, Democrats recently reelected their entire leadership team. The story was only slightly different in the North Carolina House: The representative who led the party there for four years didn’t seek reelection to the post, but his deputy got the job.
We can accept that the people who have lately run the Democratic Party in North Carolina are earnest and well-meaning. They surely hoped for the party’s victory last year, and worked to make that happen.
But no matter their intentions or efforts, they failed.
Likewise some consultants who worked for Democrats this cycle.
Morgan Jackson, who consulted for Governor Roy Cooper and failed senatorial candidate Cal Cunningham, said after Election Day, “Ultimately, it’s Trump’s ability to motivate rural North Carolin to turn out and vote in record numbers.”
He made much the same point in recent days: “Trump is a singular motivating force. Whether you like him or hate him, Trump was a bigger motivational force in 2020 than any other candidate in United States history.”
These observations suggest self-imposed impotence: The very point of political consultants is to craft strategies that convince voters to act differently than they otherwise might. Jackson’s implicit argument is that political work doesn’t really matter, a curious position for a political consultant to take.
Likewise Thomas Mills, who worked with failed congressional candidate Patricia Timmons-Goodson. “Trump supporters are rabid for him. I don’t think they’re Republicans. I think they’re gonna find out that in four years, in two years, those people are not gonna show up,” he said. Hoping the other side doesn’t show up is not a winning strategy.
Every day that unsuccessful leaders remain in their positions (and unsuccessful consultants continue to be placed on retainer) is a day the Democratic Party stands not for crafting a robust strategy of victory aimed at persuading fellow North Carolinians that the future will be better with Democrats in power, but for a political sclerosis resistant to reasonable expectations that those in power hold their positions not as ends unto themselves or as means to tend to their own, private ambitions, but to achieve practical results for the party, the state, and the people.
We should honor our leaders’ efforts even when they do not succeed, but we should also insist such leaders exit after stumbling.