HUFFMAN: The Democrats’ white whale

President Ronald Reagan with Senator Jesse Helms-R, center, in Charlotte, North Carolina on Oct. 8, 1984. Others unidentified. (AP Photo)

Upon defeating Jim Hunt in what was at the time the most expensive U.S. Senate race in history in 1984, Jesse Helms proclaimed that the result proved that “North Carolina is a God-fearing, conservative state.”

“Senator No” wasn’t given to nuance but fast forwarding 38 years and it is hard to contend that the Tar Heel State remains center-right.

Democrats and many political scientists have contended that the ever-growing swell of migrants to North Carolina will shift the politics inevitably left. Whereas there were just shy of 6.2 million North Carolinians in 1984, less than the population of New York City, there are now 10.67 million people living in the state with no sign of the growth stopping or slowing down.

While the demographic changes have certainly diversified the state and shifted the tone and tenor of both parties, the ultimate metric is victories in federal races. Here the party that once wrapped itself in the mantle of Jefferson and Jackson has fallen woefully short.

2008 was the high-water mark for Democrats. For the first time since 1960, they captured the Triple Crown of winning the races for President, U.S. Senate, and Governor in the state. However even in the face of George Bush’s historic unpopularity, the 2008 financial crisis, and a lackluster GOP nominee Barack Obama only edged John McCain by 14,177 votes. The Senate and Governor races did feature larger margins as Liddy Dole went down under a wave of out-of-state money, and Pat McCrory fell prey to the amazing turnout game the Democrats put together.

The afterglow of the Democrats triumph featured at length profiles of how the state had irrevocably changed and that Helms’ proclamation was out of date given the new electorate. A host of new bills were passed on Jones Street that eschewed the normal caution past Democrat legislatures. The backlash to the unabashed liberal triumphalism and the Great Recession economy was swift and crushing. Voters in 2010 reelected Richard Burr and ended a century of Democrat rule in the General Assembly.

The Democrats streak of bad luck continued as they preceded to lose every federal statewide race from 2012 to 2016. Hopes that Donald Trump would tank the Republican ticket in 2016 were dashed early on Election Night. Despite all of this evidence, Democrats still hoped that the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial justice protests of the summer of 2020 would deliver them a repeat of 2008 with a Biden, Cunningham, and Cooper sweep.  

Election Night 2020 dashed those hopes for Team Blue. Roy Cooper proved he was a tough campaigner with a brand independent of most of his party, but vastly underperformed polls showing him winning by double digits over Dan Forest. Cal Cunningham’s confusion about BBQ and his marital vows slammed the door on an outright Democrat majority in the US Senate. And while the margin was tighter than 2016, Donald Trump still frustrated the best opportunity for Democrats to flip the state since 2008.  

This walk down memory lane isn’t simply to crow that North Carolina is forever beyond Democrats reach. Republican success over the last 12 years has been hard-earned and hard fought for. The low tax, low regulation, and pro freedom policies passed on Jones Street have made the state a magnet for families and businesses nationally and internationally. Contrary to Democrats’ hopes, these newcomers aren’t slam dunk blue voters. Much like Florida and Texas, we see North Carolina attracting people looking for relief from the blue state policies that kept those states under perpetual lockdown while also being too expensive.

But perhaps as profound for the 2022 election has been the inability of Democrats at the federal and state level to deliver policy wins to win new voters. Gov. Cooper has been chasing Medicaid expansion since his first day in office to no avail. Joe Biden was able to deliver stimulus checks but also enacted policies that spiked inflation to historic levels and led to all-time high gas prices. None of these circumstances lend themselves to Democrats meaningfully contesting the state this November.

In future writing I’ll attempt to show where each party in North Carolina has signs of hope as the political map shifts with the ebb and flow of each party’s coalition. But the bottom line for November 2022 is that it’s just as Sen. Helms said, North Carolina remains a right of center state.