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North Carolina Democrats push to reverse their losses in rural counties

N.C. Democratic Party Chair Anderson Clayton, left, and state treasurer candidate Wesley Harris greet customers at Tarheel Bar-B-Q in Eure, N.C., in May during the party's "Rural Tour."
Colin Campbell
/
WUNC
N.C. Democratic Party Chair Anderson Clayton, left, and state treasurer candidate Wesley Harris greet customers at Tarheel Bar-B-Q in Eure, N.C., in May during the party's "Rural Tour."

North Carolina Democrats are making a big push this year to win back rural counties that have flipped to Republicans in recent elections.

At a barbecue restaurant in rural Gates County, several leaders in the North Carolina Democratic Party recently made the rounds among the tables, introducing themselves to potential voters.

The customers at Tarheel Barbecue seemed a bit surprised to encounter the Democratic candidate for state treasurer and party chair Anderson Clayton. The restaurant near the Virginia border is more than two hours from Raleigh in a county that’s home to about 10,000 people and just one stoplight.

But Gates is one of the counties Democrats think they can win in November. It was a solidly blue county through the 2012 election, but it’s flipped to Republican in presidential elections since 2016. Republican Ted Budd won the county by 56% in the 2022 U.S. Senate race.

Clayton thinks a better get-out-the-vote campaign in places like Gates could reverse the trend.

"People don't often see statewide candidates in eastern North Carolina for the Democratic Party in previous cycles, even though this is our backbone, right?" Clayton said. "This is the area of the state where Democrats need to get back out to more than ever."

Rep. Wesley Harris, D-Mecklenburg, is running for state treasurer, and he made the five-hour drive from his home in Charlotte for the event. He says Democrats’ recent gains in suburban areas of the state have been offset by losses in rural areas where the party didn’t put any resources.

"We thought when we got the suburbs, that was going to cement the state, but as we got the suburbs, we lost the rural areas, because we didn't understand that in a realignment, everyone is up for grabs," Harris said. "You have to fight for every single person. You've just got to show up and show them that you care about them and show them that you're empathizing with them and listening to them."

Clayton says the state party will ultimately have five staffers on its "Project 100" team that are working with county-level party organizations to partner on door-to-door canvassing effects and other campaign field work.

"We want to train people how to do this work, so it's not just for 2024, but it's past that, too," she said.

Anderson Clayton, NC Democratic Party Chair, poses for a portrait at the NC Democratic headquarters in Raleigh.
Matt Ramey
/
For WUNC
Anderson Clayton, NC Democratic Party Chair, poses for a portrait at the NC Democratic headquarters in Raleigh in February 2023.

This year, the northeastern corner of the state is home to what is expected be the only competitive congressional race, where Democrat Don Davis is defending his seat — a factor that could bring in millions of dollars in campaign spending. It’s also home to multiple state House and Senate seats that flipped to the GOP in recent years — and will be key to breaking Republicans’ veto-proof majority in the legislature.

"This is just a prime piece of political real estate for the entire state," Harris said. "Not only do you have Don Davis — you've got four competitive House seats, that Democrats lost in 2022, and a Senate seat. The path to actually breaking the supermajority goes through Northeastern North Carolina."

One of those districts includes Gates County and its neighbors along the Virginia line. Former Rep. Howard Hunter, D-Hertford held the House seat here for nearly a decade before he lost his re-election campaign in 2022.

Former N.C. Rep. Howard Hunter, D-Hertford, greets customers at Tarheel Bar-B-Q in Eure, N.C. He's running in a rematch of the 2022 campaign in hopes of regaining his seat in the legislature.
Colin Campbell
/
WUNC
Former N.C. Rep. Howard Hunter, D-Hertford, greets customers at Tarheel Bar-B-Q in Eure, N.C. He's running in a rematch of the 2022 campaign in hopes of regaining his seat in the legislature.
Former N.C. Rep. Howard Hunter says he wants to advocate for resources for low-income northeastern North Carolina communities like Ahoskie, where the downtown area is full of vacant storefronts.
Colin Campbell
/
WUNC
Former N.C. Rep. Howard Hunter says he wants to advocate for resources for low-income northeastern North Carolina communities like Ahoskie, where the downtown area is full of vacant storefronts.

A funeral home owner from the small town of Ahoskie whose father held the House seat before him, he’s now running in a rematch of the 2022 race.

"This is the first time I've had a real campaign manager, consultants," Hunter said. "It's different this time. It's going to be expensive. So hopefully, I can get through this. I know I can get through this."

Hunter blames his loss on low voter turnout, and he thinks additional money and resources from the state party can make a difference. He fell about 2,200 votes short of Republican Bill Ward in 2022. He still won his home county of Hertford, but he finished with about 1,600 fewer total votes there than he received in the 2018 midterm.

At the barbecue restaurant, Hunter greeted many of the customers by name, and he bought dinner for the visiting Democrats.

"I was in the legislature for eight years, and this is the most I've seen anybody from Raleigh or from across the state come east of (Interstate) 95, so I really appreciate it," he told Clayton and Harris. "I think this plan is going to work, I really do."

But Republicans see the situation differently. Stephen Wiley oversees campaigns as the House Republican Caucus director. He says Democrats tailored their campaigns to the liberal values of urban areas, messages that didn’t resonate in rural counties.

"They should do some kind of self-reflection and wonder why turnout has been low in places that have been traditionally Democratic strongholds," Wiley said.

Republicans have also found plenty of fodder for attack ads in background research on Democratic candidates.

"We've won a ton of seats in rural North Carolina the last couple of cycles, in large part because of the poor candidate quality of House Democrats," he said.

He cites Hunter’s history of unpaid taxes as an example, something the Democrat says was an unfair attack based on financial issues related to a messy divorce.

But it’s not just legislative races where Democrats are devoting more attention to rural areas this year.

Attorney General Josh Stein holds campaign stops outside the state’s urban centers nearly every week in his run for governor. That included a recent visit to Pender Sharp’s farming operation in Wilson County, a few miles down the road from the home of another prominent Democrat: Former Gov. Jim Hunt.

Attorney General and candidate for governor Josh Stein, left, speaks with farmer Pender Sharp during a tour of Sharp Farms in the Rock Ridge area of Wilson County.
Colin Campbell
/
WUNC
Attorney General and candidate for governor Josh Stein, left, speaks with farmer Pender Sharp during a tour of Sharp Farms in the Rock Ridge area of Wilson County.

Stein and Sharp discussed the importance of agriculture.

"My philosophy is pretty basic is the government can help create conditions for you to succeed, and that's what we should do: Help you set standards and ensure that there's fair rules of the road and they're equally enforced, and then get out of the way," Stein told the veteran farmer, who responded that "that is the absolute best philosophy possible."

Sharp also brought up an issue that crops up repeatedly on the campaign trail in rural areas: Access to reliable broadband. It's something Sharp says can hinder his high-tech farming operations.

Stein is bullish on his chances in rural counties, and he says he's encountered some ticket splitters who support his campaign while backing Donald Trump and other Republicans.

"I have every confidence that we can pick up many more votes in rural North Carolina," Stein said.

Stein’s 2020 campaign for attorney general finished about 3 percentage-points ahead of Joe Biden in Wilson County.

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.