NC Democrats seek footing on unfamiliar terrain

rchristensen@newsobserver.comApril 27, 2013 

— This time Jim Hunt will not be available to rescue the North Carolina Democratic Party.

It is a role that Hunt, the former four-term governor, has often played, bailing out Tar Heel Democrats when they hit troubled waters. He did it in the early 1970s and again in the early 1990s, restoring Democratic rule after Republican governors. But approaching his 75th birthday next month, Hunt has aged out of the political rescue business.

The Democratic Party, many of whose leaders gathered Saturday for its annual Jefferson-Jackson Day fundraising dinner at the Raleigh Convention Center, is in deeper trouble than in the past.

As the party in power, Republicans have drawn themselves favorable legislative and congressional districts. They control the levers to special interest money. They also seem poised to make the election machinery more favorable to them by adopting voter ID laws, shortening early voting, abolishing Sunday voting and ending same-day registration.

The Democrats, meanwhile, are struggling to gain footing on unfamiliar political terrain. They must find new leadership. They must learn to fashion a relevant message as a minority party. They must learn to organize in the post-Obama campaign era. And they must find a way to raise money.

“This is too divided a state for total one-party control to last long,” said Gary Pearce, a veteran Democratic strategist for Hunt and others. “But I don’t think Democrats can just count on the balance righting itself. I think the Democrats will have to do a whole lot. They have an awfully long way to go to come back.”

And so far, they don’t have anyone to lead them out of the wilderness. The boomer generation of Democrats that was supposed to take over from Hunt has largely fallen to scandal or defeat. Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College, calls this a “generational moment” when the baton is passed.

“I think you are probably going to see more of an urban, perhaps suburban, kind of Democrat ... because that is where the power base of the party is now located,” Bitzer said.

Some say the leadership could come from the likes of Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, Rep. Deborah Ross of Raleigh, former state Sens. Eric Mansfield of Fayetteville and Cal Cunningham of Lexington, former Rep. Grier Martin of Raleigh, and state Treasurer Janet Cowell of Raleigh. But so far, it is unclear who that individual might be.

A three-cycle strategy

The road back could begin with the difficult re-election campaign next year of U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan – just as it did in 1998 when John Edwards, a Democratic political newcomer, won an upset over Republican incumbent Lauch Faircloth. The victory came during a voter backlash against the GOP’s impeachment effort of Democratic President Bill Clinton.

Democrats are again counting on voter backlash – this time against the Republican-controlled legislature, which they believe has moved too far to the right on a raft of issues, including cuts to schools and universities, and efforts to make it harder to vote.

Those issues could play out in the Senate race, where two of Hagan’s potential opponents – House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger – are legislative leaders. But Democrats also think they can begin regaining legislative seats, particularly in suburbs where moderate voters live.

“The Republican Party is not just a conservative party,” Pearce said. “It is a very, very conservative party. That is where a majority of Republicans are. That is not where swing voters in the suburbs of Wake County and Mecklenburg County are. So there is an opportunity for Democrats.”

Ross, the Raleigh Democrat, sees the intensity and anger building among Democrats and independents as the flip side of the tea party movement that grew out of the conservative reaction to President Barack Obama’s first two years in office.

“I don’t think people knew how much was at stake,” Ross said. “Right now that is a message that is resonating not only with Democrats, but with independents, unaffiliateds, and I’m hearing more and more from Republicans. We have that message now, and people are believing us, given what is going on around here.”

That was reflected in the good-size crowds that attended the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner to hear Massachusetts Sen. William “Mo” Cowan, a North Carolina native, Saturday night, and at a breakfast at the North Raleigh Hilton to hear Rep. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin.

State Democratic Chairman Randy Voller, mayor of Pittsboro, said Democrats are devising a plan to recapture the legislature over three election cycles – though they hope to accomplish the task sooner.

“We are not going to get it all back in 2014,” Voller said Saturday. “So the gains we are going to have to make are over the 2014, 2016 and 2018 (elections) in the House and the Senate.”

Rep. Larry Hall of Durham, the minority leader, told the Democratic breakfast Saturday that the goal in 2014 is to win back seven House seats from Republicans. That would cut the GOP margin in the House from 77-43 to 70-50.

Accomplishing that will be expensive, and so far, the special interest money is flowing mostly to Republicans as the party in power. Meanwhile, the current Democratic leadership, Hall and Sen. Martin Nesbitt of Asheville, have yet to prove as adept as their predecessors, Marc Basnight and Tony Rand, at raising big money.

In addition, most of the big-time donors in the state who are interested in politics, such as Art Pope of Raleigh and Fred Eshelman of Wilmington, tend to donate to Republican or conservative causes.

“The best thing that could happen is if we had a Bloomberg-type figure,” said state Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh, a former House speaker, referring to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who gives to Democratic causes. “But short of that we need to figure out creative ways to raise the resources to get a broader message out to people to what is really happening and how it is affecting them.”

Voller said that while special interest money is now flowing to Republicans, the party can still go after “very strong ideologically driven” donors. He said Obama successfully raised a campaign war chest in 2004 with a similar strategy. He said anger over the Republican legislature would help the party in its task.

Capitalizing on GOP errors

There are some who think Democrats should just wait for some of the swing districts to become more Democratic; others say they just need to wait for Republican missteps.

“You have to take advantage of every misstep the Republicans make,” said Thomas Mills, a Democrat consultant. “But long-term, Democrats have to figure out who they are and what they stand for. That is a conversation that I hope is starting to happen now.”

He said Democrats have to offer a positive program and look for ways to work constructively with Republicans. For example, McCrory is proposing to change North Carolina’s tax system, and Democrats should look for ways to reform it without it disproportionally hurting the poor or middle class.

“The difficulty whenever you’re in a minority is to make yourself look and feel relevant,” Mills said. “That is hard to do. (The Democrats) have to make the case that they are the party of moderation and growth.”

The Democrats believe North Carolina remains a moderate swing state.

The data tend to back them up. In 2000, 38 percent of North Carolinians considered themselves conservative, 46 percent moderate, and 16 percent liberal. In 2012, 40 percent considered themselves conservative, 38 percent moderate, and 22 percent liberal, according to exit polls collected by North Carolina DataNet.

And while Republicans won nine of 13 congressional seats, North Carolina voters cumulatively voted 51 percent to 49 percent for Democratic congressional candidates.

While the Republicans won 66 percent of the state Senate seats, they won 53 percent of the popular vote in those races. While the GOP won 64 percent of the state House seats, they won 51 percent of the popular vote in those races. Their big sweep was more a reflection of the newly drawn districts than ideological shift.

Demographic trends – such as the growth in Hispanic voters, the increase of Democratic-leaning urban areas, and the support of young voters – also appear favorable to Democrats.

Among North Carolina voters ages 18 to 25, 42 percent were registered as Democrat in 2012, 31 percent as unaffiliated, and 26 percent as Republican. Among 18-to-29-year-old voters in the state, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney won 32 percent of the vote, and gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory won 40 percent.

“I think we are a competitive state,” Bitzer said. “A lot will depend on the road map that the Democrats come up with and whether the Republicans overplay their hand at government.”

Christensen: 919-829-5432

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