RALEIGH — For the first time in more than a century, the once-proud party of Jim Hunt and Terry Sanford, Luther Hodges and O. Max Gardner has been banished to the back benches of North Carolina state government.
The Republicans won control of all three branches of state government last Tuesday, and the Democrats will likely face several years in the political wilderness.
Republican Pat McCrory, starting in January, will be governor for the next four, and perhaps the next eight years. The GOP believes it has a hammerlock on the legislature for the rest of the decade because of redistricting – and the special-interest money that flows to the party in power.
Democrats are now faced with two challenges: responding to a GOP administration and legislature, and mounting a comeback. Both efforts are made that much harder by the leadership vacuum left by the loss of the governor’s office and the retirement of legislative leaders.
“We have got to regroup and figure out how to operate in this kind of situation,” said U.S. Rep. David Price, D-Chapel Hill, the state’s senior Democrat in the House and a former state party chairman.
But there is no sense of panic among Democrats.
They say they are not rebuilding a broken party or rethinking the party’s philosophy. They see the losses as primarily strategic – the result of a Republican-led redistricting plan passed by the legislature. The redrawn districts gave the GOP huge advantages in legislative and congressional races and a shift in money to the GOP because it had legislative control.
Democrats note, for example, that slightly more North Carolinians voted for Democratic congressional candidates (2.19 million votes) than Republican candidates (2.12 million votes), but that redistricting will cause the delegation to either be 9-4 or 10-3 Republican, depending on a recount in the 7th district race.
The political terrain could change quickly if Democrats are successful in their legal challenge to the GOP redistricting plans.
Democrats also saw some bright spots in the election, noting that while GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney carried the state, it was his smallest victory margin in the country. They also point out that Democratic incumbents held onto Council of State seats.
“The political climate is still one that this is a competitive state,” agreed Andrew Taylor, political science professor at N.C. State University. “There has not been a Republican re-alignment. The Republican strategic position is obviously better, but this is not a sea change.”
Dealing with McCrory
How well Democrats respond to McCrory administration and GOP legislature could also affect future elections.
Hunt, the former four-term governor, cautions that the public does not want Democrats to be obstructionist. Democrats, Hunt suggested, should walk a fine line where they look for ways to work with Republicans where possible and offer alternatives where there are disagreements. He said that could be done without sacrificing the party’s basic principles.
Price said much will depend on the what kind of policies are put forth – whether it’s a moderate brand of Republicanism or the more unvarnished conservatism of the tea party.
“There really are some basic questions that the governor will have to address in terms of how he will govern and how inclusively he is going to operate. I know Pat McCrory from his days as Charlotte mayor when he was a genuine Republican moderate who had a lot of bipartisan support,” Price said.
“There will be some early signs, I think. Are they really going to try to shut down early voting and impose voter ID laws? Are they really going to go after public education?
“The kind of posture we will undertake will depend on how the question is answered as to the governor’s approach.”
Among the things that Democrats need to do better, said Rep. Deborah Ross of Raleigh, is communicating to the public what is at stake on legislative issues.
Still, some Democrats also think the party needs to recalibrate their message. Among them is Thomas Mills, a Democratic strategist, who said the party’s message on education is beginning to sound like a broken record.
He said Democrats need to reposition the party as willing to try new things. During the past campaign, Mills said, it was McCrory and the Republicans who sounded like the party of new ideas.
The legislature also gives the party a starting bench for rebuilding with young leaders such as state Sens. Josh Stein of Raleigh and Eric Mansfield of Fayetteville, and state Reps. Trish Cotham of Charlotte, and Deborah Ross and Grier Martin, both of Raleigh. Others seen as bright lights include Treasurer Janet Cowell, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, and former state Sen. Cal Cunningham of Lexington.
But North Carolina Democrats haven’t had a powerful ongoing statewide organization since the retirement of Hunt, in 2001. and Senate leader Marc Basnight, in 2011.
The state Democratic Party also has been in turmoil since last spring, after allegations of sexual harassment were brought against the party’s former executive director Jay Parmley. State Party chairman David Parker was criticized for his handling of the affair, but ignored pressure to resign. As a result, he became a liability as a spokesman and fundraiser.
Still, Parker has privately told some he may seek another term, and party leaders fear he may have the committee votes to keep the job.
Unable to rely on the old organizations that were the historical basis for their power, state Democrats want to find a way to tap into the powerful organization that was put together for the president’s campaign.
Their first chance to do that will be re-election effort for U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-Greensboro. Her race will give Democrats a rallying point in 2014, said state Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh, a former House Speaker. Blue noted that after the 1984 Democratic debacle it was Terry Sanford’s Senate successful Senate race that revived the party’s fortunes.
“It’s just a matter of going in and making sure the party apparatus operates efficiently and effectively,” said Blue. “It’s not a total reconstruction job. ... If you look at a Wake County or a Mecklenburg County ... or some of the other urban counties where you overwhelmingly have Democratic mayors and councils representing upwards of half the population, we have pretty good places to look for leadership and pretty good places to put numbers together.”
But Taylor, the NCSU professor, said that re-electing Hagan will not be easy. The sixth/-year midterm election has historically been bad for the president’s party. No Democrat has been re-elected to the Senate from North Carolina since Sam Ervin in 1968. The race also is likely to be the focus of national attention with lots of outside money pouring into the state.
Hunt, who has seen ups and downs for Tar Heel Democrats over a career that began with his election at lieutenant governor in 1972 during a Republican landslide, counsels Democrats not to panic.
“This is probably as close to a two-party state as there is in the country,” Hunt said. “That is not a reason for Democrats to feel despondent. The electorate has been enlarged in this last election. We have to go out with bigger ideas and work harder. The Democrats will be successful in the future.”