North Carolinians who stood against our soon-to-be ex-president’s rancid politics of grievance, contempt and division, fueled by a gusher of falsehoods, are heartened by the nation’s clear choice of Joseph R. Biden Jr. to be our next chief executive.
At the same time, Biden’s happy supporters must reckon with this uncomfortable fact: Half of the Tar Heel electorate wanted to see Donald Trump occupy the White House for another four years.
Many of us who view good civic leadership from a perspective rooted in principles of human dignity, equal opportunity and care for one’s neighbors are left wondering how so many of our fellow citizens could have seen the stakes in this election so differently. These are hard questions that deserve thoughtful answers.
The voters of our major cities and their suburbs backed Biden solidly enough to put him close to claiming North Carolina’s prize of 15 votes in the Electoral College, but ultimately that didn’t happen. Trump campaigned here seemingly almost non-stop in the last couple of weeks before Election Day, Nov. 3, while defying guidelines meant to limit spread of the surging coronavirus.
His airport rallies using Air Force One as a backdrop drew thousands, pandemic or no. Such is their fervor that many of his supporters now tolerate his troubling, tantrum-like refusal to admit that yes, by all credible evidence, Biden won the election fair and square. And despite Trump’s overall failure, Republican leaders here must have let fly with some celebratory whoops in light of their own good fortune.
Their happy days
North Carolina’s GOP faction came away from the balloting in as good a shape as it could have hoped.
- The U.S. Senate contest between incumbent Republican Thom Tillis and challenger Cal Cunningham sent Tillis back to Washington for a second term after a late surge in the polls – an outcome that could be pivotal as the GOP tries to hold its Senate majority.
- The Council of State — a 10-member group of statewide elected officials headed by the governor — was in line to continue with a 6-4 Republican tilt. The most decisive GOP loss came in the governor’s race, which amounted to a referendum on Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s careful response to the pandemic.
- Cooper received a solid and well-deserved vote of confidence in turning back a re-election challenge from Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, whose successor will be Republican gun-rights activist and first-time candidate Mark Robinson. Surely it was Robinson’s good luck – and the misfortune of his opponent, Democratic state Rep. Yvonne Lewis Holley – to have Trump atop the ticket.
- Races for three seats on the state Supreme Court and five on the Court of Appeals also yielded a jackpot for Republicans. While contests were generally close, only the one for chief justice has been a true squeaker, with Associate Justice Paul Newby appearing to defeat Democratic incumbent Chief Cheri Beasley by just 285 votes out of more than 5 million cast. A recount will take place.
As if the state’s GOP needed even more good news, all it had to do was look to the General Assembly. This, after all, was the election in which control of the legislature would help set the stage for a decade’s worth of elections to follow. That’s in keeping with the once-every-10-years requirement to adjust the boundaries of U.S. House and legislative districts to keep them about the same size, so that each voter has a more or less equal say.
The redistricting cycle that began after the elections of 2010 was controlled by Republicans who dominated both of the legislative chambers in Raleigh. They pressed their advantage to the hilt – crafting districts that elected GOP candidates in proportions well beyond the party’s overall share of the votes. It amounted to industrial-strength gerrymandering that led to years’ worth of litigation and, ultimately, to the brakes being applied by both state and federal judges.
Meanwhile, conservative majorities engineered tax cuts benefiting those on the economic ladder’s upper rungs while scrimping on investments in core public services such as education, health care and the justice system. They refused to expand the Medicaid program to help more poverty-stricken residents obtain health care.
The unemployment insurance program was ruthlessly downsized – leaving thousands of folks to shift for themselves as jobs evaporated during the pandemic and federal aid ran out. It shouldn’t be a mystery why the N.C. Council of Churches and its social justice-minded allies have disagreed with priorities of this sort.
So the stage was set for legislative elections this fall with much on the line, both in terms of critical policy decisions amidst the COVID-19 crisis and ground rules for elections to come. Democrats had high hopes of gaining a majority in the House or the Senate, if not both.
Those hopes came crashing down. Unofficial returns showed Republicans likely to lose just one Senate seat, retaining a 28-22 margin.
On the House side, they could anticipate a five-seat pickup. Democrats were on track to hold 51 seats compared to the GOP’s 69 – their only consolation being that they still will have enough votes in each chamber to sustain the vetoes Cooper is likely to issue. That’s been the dynamic for the past two years, with the governor and Republican legislators seldom seeing eye to eye.
From the Democratic standpoint, however, there’s a huge caveat: The governor isn’t allowed to veto redistricting bills. So the Republicans again will be free to draw voting district boundaries giving their candidates extra advantages. That would be in keeping with a menu of voter suppression tactics, including a pending requirement that voters show photo IDs and an overriding preference for fewer voters rather than more.
What remains to be seen is whether setbacks in the courts during recent years will convince legislative chiefs to keep their efforts within constitutional bounds.
Federal litigation has brought rulings ultimately sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court that disallowed districts shaped so as to dilute the votes of Black citizens, who have tended to favor Democrats. And the state’s courts have acted to curb gerrymandering driven by what judges agreed was impermissibly extreme partisanship.
No wonder the ideological make-up of the judiciary, both federal and state, looms so large as each party gauges its chances. On the state Supreme Court, even if Justice Newby holds on to become the new chief, Democrats stand to retain a narrow edge of four seats to three, down from six to one.
Winners and losers
With the 2020 elections on the horizon, anti-gerrymandering advocates pushed for reforms that would insulate the redistricting process from raw political pressures. A leading proposal last year, House Bill 140, would have amended the state constitution so that new district boundaries were drawn according to nonpartisan criteria. And the legislature would be allowed to delegate the drafting to a nonpartisan panel.
Despite a House majority in support, the bill went nowhere. Now, with Republicans having affirmed their grip on the redistricting machinery, it would take a minor miracle for HB 140 to get off the ground.
This year’s election timetable was stretched to provide for safer voting despite the virus. The upshot was a record turnout, but also a delay in the final count. The process has been generally smooth, with no notable “shenanigans” of the kind President Trump is alleging in several states as grounds for his refusal to concede.
Recounts are routine when results are very close, and any credible reports of cheating at the polls of course should be investigated. So far, none of those paths looks as if it might result in significant changes in electoral vote totals, certainly not as a result of fraud.
The risk is that Trump’s complaints about a rigged election despite the lack of meaningful evidence will undermine confidence in the systems that are American democracy’s cornerstones. He’s on track to go down as the sorest loser in presidential history – a sadly fitting capstone to a record of dishonesty, incompetence, callousness and greed.
Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches, which first published this commentary.