The calendar has turned to November and the event that many North Carolina Democrats feel can’t come quickly enough is officially a year away – Election Day 2014.
Democratic turnout tends to surge in presidential election years, but the mid-term elections of 2014 have acquired an unusual urgency for North Carolina Democrats and perhaps Democrats nationally. That urgency here was created by the Republican sweep of the last mid-term election in 2010. The GOP took control of the General Assembly for the first time in more than a century and then strengthened its hand by gaining a wider majority in both chambers in 2012 and taking the governor’s office for the first time in 20 years.
Democrats who had become complacent about holding power found themselves not only on the outs, but also being pounded by Republicans driven by both their pent-up frustrations from being so long in the minority and the absolutism of their tea party wing. The past year, which Gov. Pat McCrory has called the “most productive” start of any governorship, has felt for Democrats like the “most destructive” of the state’s modern era.
All this led to weekly Moral Monday protests at the legislature, where more than 900 people were arrested, to a flood of protesting letters to the editor and op-ed columns and to several segments on “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” with comics making fun of legislation they consider backward.
Now the question is whether there will be a day of Republican reckoning on Nov. 4, 2014. People are angry now, but a year can be a lifetime in politics. Is there deep enough discontent to produce a tidal wave for change during a typically low-turnout mid-term election? Or will all this “let-me-at-’em” talk of 2013 dissipate into indifference and resignation by next November?
No one knows, and unanticipated events in the interim may further complicate the calculation. But one year out, it does feel as if particularly strong currents are moving through the electorate. And there’s no indication that either the governor or GOP legislative leaders will try to soften those who oppose them by moving toward the center. A backlash election feels not only likely but inevitable.
John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University, said the level of political polarization is unusually high, but that doesn’t necessarily mean one side will rout the other. What’s curious about polarization now, he said, is that it’s so balanced. “We’re close to a 50-50 country in that respect,” he said.
Turnout should be higher in the next nonpresidential election, he said, because there is a U.S. Senate race at the top of the ballot and the extensive advertising around that race will bring out more voters who do not vote in every election. But even with high emotions and high turnout, he doesn’t see much change coming. For instance, he noted, only one of North Carolina’s 13 congressional districts (the 7th) is on the “watch list” for a potential change of party. Some states, he added, don’t have any.
Polls show President Obama, the Congress, Gov. McCrory and the General Assembly sinking in popularity, but the trend may be more ominous for Republicans. Obama doesn’t have to face another election. Republicans do. An Elon University September poll of 701 registered voters in North Carolina found the General Assembly is more popular than the Congress, but the numbers aren’t comforting. Only 32 percent approved of the state legislature’s job performance, and 48 percent said they disapprove. Fifty-nine percent said they think North Carolina is on the “wrong track.”
One indicator of how these feelings may translate next November may be the gubernatorial race coming to a close in neighboring Virginia. Polls show Democrat Terry McAuliffe leading Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. A big win by McAuliffe would suggest that a Democratic wave could hit North Carolina as well. A tight race would suggest that Democrats here – like Virginia Democrats upset by the conservative policies there – are making noise, but not a difference.
Former President Bill Clinton, campaigning last week for his friend, McAuliffe, said Democrats need to bring to nonpresidential elections the enthusiasm that twice elected Barack Obama.
“In nonpresidential years, a whole different America shows up than in the presidential years,” he said, “and those who want the country to come together and move forward have just got to care as much about this election as you did about the election in 2012.”
Gary Pearce, a former aide to Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt who blogs about North Carolina politics, said the saying “all politics is local” seems to have become reversed, with all politics being national. He said the whole country is polarized and North Carolina will follow that trend. But this time he thinks outrage may be on the side of the Democrats.
“Particularly in North Carolina, I think there’s going to be a lot of emotion and momentum behind Democrats,” he said. “Anger is what fueled the tea party in 2010. There’s no reason it can’t fuel the other side this time.”
As we approach an election year, we’re adding another op-ed columnist who will be writing from the right. If you’re a literary type, you already know him. He’s former N&O book review editor J. Peder Zane. Zane, now chairman of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh, will bring his thoughtful and polished style to the discussion of local, state and national politics and issues. His column will appear every other Wednesday, alternating with Marc Landry’s column.
Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or firstname.lastname@example.org