Weakened N.C. Democrats look to make comeback in 2014 election
By Paul Woolverton
Four years after North Carolina’s Democratic Party celebrated the election of Barack Obama – the first Democratic presidential candidate to take the state since 1976 – the party found itself abandoned by voters and the moneyed interests that kept it in power for more than a century.
The 2010 and 2012 elections knocked the Democrats into their weakest position since the 1890s, when North Carolina was a three-party state and the other two political parties, the Republicans and Populists, banded together to beat them.
Today, less than 13 months from the next major election, the Democratic Party has licked its wounds and assessed its position. Its leaders and activists say they can push back the Republican juggernaut that has taken veto-proof super-majorities in the state House and Senate.
“Frankly, the realistic goal is: Eliminate the super-majority in both chambers, or at least one,” said Jeanne Milliken Bonds, a Democratic strategist and pundit in Wake County.
From there, the party can work on taking back at least one of the chambers in 2016, she said.
State Rep. Rick Glazier of Fayetteville, one of the ranking House Democrats, is more optimistic. Since early summer, he said, he has encountered a growing number of people who are upset with many of the decisions of the Republican-controlled legislature, particularly on education.
“There is a realistic plan and possibility of the Democrats being able to recapture both the House and Senate, and I would not have told you that five months ago,” he said.
Adds Democratic Party Chairman Randy Voller, “Right now, people are hot. Right now, people are feeling the pain and willing to work for change.”
But the Democrats face a tough opponent and have severe disadvantages. They need money and strong candidates and must overcome the demographics of districts designed to favor Republican candidates.
Democrats dominated the state for more than a century. But the N.C. Democratic Party in 2009 and 2010 was beset with a mix of bad luck and hubris, several of its leaders said in interviews last week.
They never thought they would lose everything.
“I think it would be safe to say that the party had become complacent in its structure and its campaigning tactics,” Glazier said.
Bonds said the party and caucus leaders failed to recruit strong candidates after 2008 or maintain the statewide fund-raising structure that kept them going in the 1990s and 2000s.
These woes added to other strikes against the party, locally and nationally, such as the severity of the Great Recession and anger at the president for his economic stimulus plan and health care reform law, activists said.
“My assessment is that 2010 was a national tsunami, and North Carolina got swept up in that tidal wave,” said Glazier. And a large number of Democrat-favoring voters who voted in 2008 “kind of thought their job was done and didn’t turn out in 2010,” he said.
Former Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer was elected chairman of the N.C. Republican Party in summer 2009. He saw that with the growing public anger toward Obama, the political winds were shifting.
He said last week that he and the House and Senate Republican leaders, Thom Tillis and Phil Berger, mobilized their party to take advantage of this chance for victory in 2010.
Berger and Tillis and other Republican leaders recruited strong candidates, said Fetzer, who now is a lobbyist and political strategist.
“And we backed those candidates with sufficient fundraising to get the job done,” he said. “… We were able to raise money because the business community saw a sea change coming.”
People who once only funded Democrats because the Democrats held power began backing Republicans, he said.
Between 2008 and 2010, Republican legislative candidates nearly doubled their fundraising, going from $7.5 million to $14.7 million, according to data collected by the N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation, a business-oriented think tank.
Their Democratic counterparts saw their fundraising drop 4.6 percent in the same time period, from $19.4 million to $18.5 million.
Outside interest groups also spent heavily in 2010, with $2.4 million in favor of GOP legislative candidates, the FreeEnterprise Foundation found.
Democratic candidates who used to win by vastly outspending their opponents suddenly found themselves evenly matched or worse.
On Election Day in 2010, the state House flipped from 68 Democrats and 52 Republicans to 68 Republicans and 52 Democrats. The Senate flipped from a 30-20 Democratic majority to a 31-19 Republican majority.
Legislative Democrats were completely out of power for the first time since 1898.
The Democrats’ situation worsened over the next two years.
In 2011, the Republicans redrew the legislature’s districts into new shapes that clumped Democratic-favoring voters into a minority of districts, leaving Republican-favoring voters in the majority.
Money followed power and poured into Republican coffers for 2012 legislative races – $24.2 million versus $9 million for the Democrats.
Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue dropped out of her race for re-election in 2012, and the president lost the state in November. Republican Pat McCrory handily won the governorship.
Democratic losses deepened at the General Assembly. Republicans now control the state House 77-43, and the Senate 33-17.
North Carolina’s Congressional delegation flipped from a 7-6 Democratic majority to a 9-3 Republican majority, in large part because those districts, too, were gerrymandered to favor Republicans.
The Democrats say they are buckling down to fight back.
“We can and will make pickups in 2014,” said Voller. “I couldn’t tell you exactly how many seats, but I know we will make pickups.”
Firmly in power, the Republicans this year passed measures to reduce government regulation, cut income taxes and shift the tax burden to sales taxes.
But many decisions have rankled residents across the state and stirred up political activists.
In the spring, the NAACP and other liberal organizations began weekly “Moral Monday” protests at the legislature, complete with arrests of participants, to call attention to the Republican agenda.
Despite protests, legislators passed a law that aims to reduce access to abortion and another law to allow firearms in bars and parks.
Budget decisions led to reductions in per-student spending at public schools and to cuts at the state’s public universities. Teachers and other state employees are going without raises while staff members and consultants in other agencies generate headlines with high salaries.
Last week a Republican lawmaker who is related to a teacher noted that a high-level employee in the Department of Health and Human Services was paid $37,000 in separation pay after a month on the job – more than a teacher makes in a year.
Democrats such as Bonds, Voller, Glazier and former state Sen. Eric Mansfield of Fayetteville said they are seeing a growing anger from the general public toward Republicans. In that, they see an opportunity for a Democratic comeback.
Glazier said he encounters numerous people at non-partisan events who want a change.
“There are truly enormous numbers of people just enraged at what happened,” Glazier said. He thinks their anger will carry into the elections.
“We’ve got an extraordinary recruitment of candidates going on. Fundraising has far surpassed levels at this time in 2011, and has every indication of showing that we’ll be very competitive with the Republicans on the money side,” Glazier said.
The party needs to work at the precinct and county level to build a campaign structure, spread the party message and encourage people to vote, Voller said. He said he is traveling the state to make these happen.
Fetzer, the former Republican chairman, said the Democrats won’t succeed.
The Republicans can campaign on their tax cuts and reduced regulation, he said, and surveys show that North Carolinians favor most of the legislature’s initiatives.
“I think 2014 is shaping up to be as good a cycle for Republicans as 2010 was,” Fetzer said. He said there is a “strong possibility” that the GOP will keep its super-majority control.
Many voters will be upset because their health insurance prices will rise under the president’s health care reform law, Fetzer predicted.
“Given the fact that this is another Obama midterm, … this is the last opportunity that people in North Carolina will have a chance to vote against the president, and I think they’re going to exercise that,” he said.