There’s been a great deal of introspection and handwringing by North Carolina progressives in recent weeks in the aftermath of the election. After having spent much of the summer and fall reveling in the notion that the state was poised to issue a strong, across-the-board repudiation of Trumpism on Nov. 3, the final results were, on many fronts, a disappointment.
While voters re-elected Gov. Roy Cooper by a healthy margin and added two Democratic women (Deborah Ross and Kathy Manning) to the state’s now slightly-less-gerrymandered congressional delegation, Republicans swept most of the other high-profile races – from the presidential race to the U.S. Senate to the Council of State to the judiciary to the General Assembly.
So what should progressives make of this outcome? Is the picture, as some analysts and politicos have opined, utterly bleak? Especially with legislative leaders Phil Berger and Tim Moore set to craft yet another collection of rigged electoral maps, is it time for progressives to move to right in hopes of winning over more Trump voters?
Here are five reasons progressives should keep calm and stay the course:
1. The North Carolina vote was hardly a ringing endorsement of Trumpism. Despite his unique and visceral connection with his supporters, and having mounted a feverish campaign in which he and his surrogates were a constant physical presence in the state during the campaign’s closing weeks, Donald Trump – an incumbent president who was using every tool of the office at his disposal – won just 49.93% of the vote.
And while the GOP ultimately prevailed in numerous other statewide races, in virtually every instance, the margin was extremely narrow. Simply put, North Carolina’s status as a sharply divided 50-50 “purple” state has not changed. A few thousand votes could have changed everything.
Indeed, there’s a strong case to made that by forcing Trump to devote so much energy to holding the state, Biden supporters here helped keep Trump from spending the time in Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania that might have made the difference for him there.
2. The pandemic ended up being a big disadvantage for Democrats. As I noted in a column a couple weeks back, Republicans were able to generate a much higher degree of last-minute campaign enthusiasm by throwing caution to the wind when it came to staging high energy, in-person, non-socially-distanced rallies – often headlined by Trump himself.
Democrats simply weren’t willing to take such a risk – a move that no doubt saved lives, but almost certainly cost them thousands of votes. With any luck, this unique situation will not be repeated in the future.
3. Cal Cunningham’s implosion was a big problem. North Carolina voters were clearly unenthusiastic about sending Sen. Thom Tillis back to Washington. Even in victory, he secured just 48.69% of the vote.
Ultimately, however, Cal Cunningham’s massive political pratfall served as just the last-minute lifesaver Tillis needed. And not only did the revelations about Cunningham’s maddening personal behavior help doom his own candidacy, they almost certainly played a role in dampening Democratic enthusiasm across the board. As with No. 2, this figures to be a unique situation.
4. Demographic trends remain positive. While it will continue to be gradual and uneven process, there is every reason to believe that North Carolina’s population will (like much of the rest of the nation) continue to trend more urban and diverse as the years go by – two factors that have helped turn Virginia, and more recently and famously Georgia, in a progressive direction.
And while such a turn is no guarantee of perpetual success for progressive candidates or policies, progressives are more likely to achieve success by working hard to capitalize on this trend (see, for example, Stacy Abrams’s voter turnout work in Georgia) than by devoting big resources to converting Trump’s stubborn but slowly ebbing base of supporters.
In 1988, California voted for a Republican presidential candidate for the fifth consecutive election. Earlier this month, Biden defeated Trump in the Golden State by 63.6% to 34.2%.
5. Most voters are with progressives on the issues. Look at the list. Americans want higher taxes on the rich. They understand the reality of the climate emergency and want immediate action. They oppose racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. They favor a the protections of the Affordable Care Act. They want to raise the minimum wage. They favor abortion rights. They believe in public schools. They want reasonable gun control laws.
In other words, while Donald Trump and his ilk have clearly demonstrated that appeals based on tribe – race, culture and religion – can convince Americans to vote against their own economic interest and, indeed, counter to their views on any number of issues, it’s hard to see how progressives combat such a phenomenon by abandoning what amount to wise and popular stances.
The bottom line: Transforming the politics and policies of an historically conservative state like North Carolina was always going to be a marathon. Just because the breaks went against them in one 50-50 election is no reason for progressives to abandon the race.