Election flop sends NC Democrats back to drawing board

U.S. Senator Kay Hagan acknowledges her supporters following her concession speech on Tuesday, November 4, 2014 at the Greensboro Coliseum .
U.S. Senator Kay Hagan acknowledges her supporters following her concession speech on Tuesday, November 4, 2014 at the Greensboro Coliseum . rwillett@newsobserver.com

Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan wasn’t the only loser in Tuesday’s election. So was her party.

North Carolina Democrats saw Republicans win more than just a U.S. Senate seat. They tightened their grips on the congressional delegation and state Senate, maintained a supermajority in the House and kept a majority on the Supreme Court. They even control most county boards.

“It’s going to be very difficult for Democrats,” said Andrew Taylor, an N.C. State University political scientist. “They had pretty low expectations in state legislative races this time around, and they didn’t even manage to meet those.”

Tuesday’s losses added to their challenges:

Even as they licked their wounds, some Democrats tried to keep things in perspective.

“After 2012, it was the death of the Republican Party nationally,” said Democratic strategist Gary Pearce. “We always over-read (results). This is a divided state.”

That’s why Republican Gov. Pat McCrory said, despite GOP wins, “Now is not the time to spike the ball.”

“What the Democrats’ mistake has been during the past two years has been that they’ve been talking to themselves, listening to their own rhetoric through the usual media sources and even through their own well-coordinated protests,” he said Friday. “(They) started to believe that they were representing the majority. I want to make sure Republicans don’t make the same mistake.

“We ought to act as though we’ve been in the end zone before.”

Still a purple state

Despite the surge of Republican red, McCrory said, North Carolina is still a purple state.

Democrat Barack Obama narrowly won it in 2008 and narrowly lost it in 2012. Hagan lost to Republican Thom Tillis by less than 2 percentage points. Six of North Carolina’s past eight U.S. senators have been one-termers whose seats flipped parties.

Attorney General Roy Cooper is expected to be the leading Democratic candidate for governor in 2016 and top a statewide ticket that includes other Democrats such as Treasurer Janet Cowell.

John Davis, a longtime Raleigh political analyst, said North Carolina Democrats should undertake the kind of self-appraisal that national Republicans did after 2012.

“If you spend $36 million on a message to bring down your opponent and you fail to do it, there’s something wrong with your message,” he said, referring to one reported amount spent against Tillis.

“Once again you see the Democrats using a stale 20th-century-type pitch, and they get one-third of the white voters in a state that’s about 80 percent white. It seems to me Democrats have to learn to communicate with the majority like Republicans have to learn to better communicate with minorities.”

Exit polls showed Hagan winning 33 percent of the white vote while Tillis won just 3 percent of the African-American vote.

Joe Stewart, who tracks legislative races as executive director of the N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation, said that by playing to their base, Democrats missed an opportunity to expand it.

They played to women, for example, but not the suburban women who can be swing voters. Despite the overall gender gap that favored Hagan, exit polls showed Tillis got 57 percent of the votes of white women, the biggest single group of voters.

“Those women voters were just as interested in their kids not contracting Ebola as in education,” Stewart said.

Still about the economy

Democrats also have had problems with the state party, which has been buffeted by controversies in recent years. Hagan’s campaign decided to work with the Wake County party, not the state party, to operate its coordinated campaign.

Democratic state Sen. Gene McLaurin of Rockingham, the only Senate incumbent to lose his seat, said his party needs a more centrist message.

“The Democratic Party has got to step back, assess themselves and develop a strategy that appeals to unaffiliated voters and even moderate Republicans,” he said.

“I still think there’s a way for the Democratic Party to be a factor again, but I think that’s by dealing with issues important to working families. I think they struggle with that.”

Stewart said Republicans did a better job talking about the state’s improving economy.

“Democrats need to figure out what they can say they are for (to) support continued economic growth,” he said.

He and Davis both said the party no longer appeals to the business leaders – what one historian called the “business progressives” – who once made up the backbone of the Democratic Party.

Pearce, a disciple of former Gov. Jim Hunt, said Democrats today lack the message once offered by leaders such as Hunt.

“It’s always a mistake when Democrats let their message be about how to divide the pie rather than how to grow the pie,” he said.

In his Talking About Politics blog the day after the election, Pearce said Democrats should hit the pause button, not the panic button.

“The temptation is to form up the circular firing squad and start shooting each other,” he wrote. “Instead, as Terry Sanford used to say, let’s have a council of war and figure out how to take the next hill. Take it from a scarred old veteran: The seeds of victory often are sown in defeat.”

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