© 2022 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
The Party Line is dedicated to examining regional issues and policies through the figures who give shape to them. These are critical, complex, and even downright confusing times we live in. There’s a lot to navigate nationally and in the Carolinas; whether it’s elections, debates on gay marriage, public school closings, or tax incentives for economic development. The Party Line’s goal is to offer a provocative, intelligent look at the issues and players behind the action; a view that ultimately offers the necessary insight for Carolina voters to hold public servants more accountable.

NC Democrats Need To Call Up Some Fresh Faces

Michael Bitzer
Michael Bitzer

With the release of the provocative and no holds barred “NC 2013 Legislative Strategy” memo as reported by The Charlotte Observer, liberal advocacy groups are finally learning the lessons that conservative groups have been teaching them for some time: Be prepared to play the same game and have a playbook.

In the political and policy world, the best approach to engage and mobilize your supporters is through a “threat,” and by the sound and tone of the memo, liberal advocacy groups certainly see the GOP-dominated state government as a severe threat.

But these liberal groups are trumpeting their own version of threats and attacks, especially to “eviscerate, litigate, agitate,” “weaken our opponents’ ability to govern by crippling their leaders,” create tensions within the GOP, and play off the old adage of “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” 

Starting with their “assumptions,” the group acknowledges the reality of their current situation. They don’t have any chance of winning anytime soon.  But rather than despair, the memo advocates a collective action approach and lays out both a short and long-term strategy.

In looking at the longer vision, the group plays off several potential benefits to their overall aims: A multi-racial organizing infrastructure, developing future leaders, seeking to “frame” the issues in a favorable light, engaging voters who aren’t involved, and getting a crack and rewriting the “rules of the game,” namely redistricting.

These potential five goals line up with an attempt at returning to relevance in North Carolina’s political landscape. 

For example, among registered voters, the work toward a “multi-racial organizing infrastructure” is already well underway.  Since 2004, white voters have increased 19 percent, but black voters have increased 53 percent and Hispanic/Latino voters increased 1,290 percent.

In addition, the percentage of registered white voters hase decreased from 77.9 percent down to 71 percent since 2004, while combined black and Hispanic/Latino registered voters have increased from 19.5 percent to 24.4 percent.

Racial Voter Registration 2004 to 2013.jpg

In looking at 2012’s exit polls in North Carolina, black voters cast 96 percent of their vote for Obama and 85 percent for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Walter Dalton, while Hispanic/Latino voters cast 68 percent of their votes for Obama and 52 percent for Dalton.  Interestingly, McCrory did considerably better among Hispanic/Latino voters than did his GOP presidential candidate, which may signal an opportunity for inroads into a growing voter bloc in the state and nation.

One other bit of statistical support for the growing multi-racial electorate: according to NC State Board of Elections statistics about voters who cast ballots, 48 percent of the 61,758 Hispanic/Latino voters who did show up last November were registered Democrats, while 34 percent of them were registered unaffiliated. Only 17 percent of Hispanic/Latino voters casting ballots in 2012 were registered Republicans.

While the memo acknowledges that a multi-racial organization will have profound impact on the state into the next decade, it appears that the critical ethnic component of Hispanic/Latino voters hasn’t quite wedded itself to the Democratic coalition. 

Speaking of party registration, both Democrats and Republicans should be mindful of the apparent  lack of preference for one of the two parties when they register.

NC Party Registration 2004 to 2013.jpg

Both Democrats and Republicans have seen considerable drops in their percentage of registered voters in the last decade, while registered unaffiliated voters have gone from 17.7 percent in 2004 to 25.7 percent at the beginning of this year. 

A second major component of the memo argues that a new generation of leaders is needed, which is typical in the cycle of politics.  Going back to the Jim Hunt’s second era of serving as governor, through Mike Easley and Bev Perdue, Democrats were able to call upon a reserve bench of ambitious candidates who worked their way up the political ladder, typically to the second-in-command slot of lieutenant governor.

Now, with both the governor and lieutenant governor offices occupied by Republicans, Democrats have to begin with a new farm team, most likely coming from those who have survived the state-wide test but at a lower level (most notably folks like long-time Attorney General Roy Cooper, State Auditor Beth Wood, State Treasurer Janet Cowell, or Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin). 

Democrats could also look to fresh faces outside of state government, most notably a certain mayor from the great State of Mecklenburg, who seems to be itching for a fight with a former mayor turn governor. 

Whoever Democrats decide will be their party’s standard-bearer, it takes time and cultivation to gain the experience needed to run statewide.  And not only is it a face, but also a policy behind that face that needs developing.

Taking a cue from conservative groups like the Civitas Institute, Democrats will need not only the “think tank” capabilities behind their future success, but also the appropriate framing to policy issues to garner the public’s attention. 

The thing that the memo seems to miss, however, is the very nature of North Carolina’s public opinion and the center-right nature of the state.

In 2008, self-identified moderates made up 44 percent of North Carolina’s electorate, with 37 percent identifying themselves as conservative.  Four years later, 40 percent of the state’s electorate said they were conservative; 38 percent identified as moderates.

North Carolina Democrats have to walk an ideological fine-line, especially in comparison to the national mainstream Democratic Party. Espousing purely liberal philosophies and policies will not garner the broad base of support that Democrats need. 

And while it may seem that Republicans benefit the most from the center-right ideological bent in the state, extreme conservatism, especially on social issues, will be the major test for the current Republican majority in Raleigh, so as not to repeat the national mistakes the GOP fell into in 2012.

In the end, only by winning offices and reclaiming majorities in the state legislature can the liberal/progressive cause influence their final objective, and that is the 2020 redistricting process.

Certainly the growing diversification of the electorate may benefit Democrats overall, but if Republicans can hold on to the reigns of legislative power until 2020, they may do exactly what they were able to do in this most recent redistricting effort, and that is insulate themselves.

While it seems that the leaked memo is casting its own radioactive nature and individuals are distancing themselves to it, in the end it is the type of realistic game plan that parties on the “out” need to consider and pursue.

As noted by one Republican strategist, the memo’s damage appears done in terms of cooperation between the two parties in the General Assembly, and the GOP appears to be turning the attack into their own “threat” by fundraising off the leaked memo. 

But was there ever going to be any real cooperation between the parties before “Memo-Gate” anyway?

Dr. Michael Bitzer is an associate professor of politics and history at Catawba College, where he also serves as the 2011-2012 Swink Professor for Excellence in Classroom Teaching and the chair of the department of history & politics. A native South Carolinian, he holds graduate degrees in both history and political science from Clemson University and The University of Georgiaââ