Despite energy, Democrats face tough slog to electoral victories

by Jeff Sykes

Opposition to Republican legislation out of Raleigh floods the airwaves these days. Whether it’s thousands gathered on Jones Street under the umbrellas of the NAACP or a bevy of teachers at a local school board meeting protesting cuts to their tenure status, it seems like a wave of protest might overwhelm the rightward drift of our state’s politics.

There are precious few days left in the electoral filing period and soon voters across the Triad will have a better idea of how drawn the battle lines really are. Will Democratic candidates attract money and volunteer energy? Will they find a way to make a dent in the tightly locked Republican districts for the state legislature and Congress? Or will the GOP cruise, or perhaps even increase their majority status in Raleigh and our state’s Congressional delegation?

Democratic Party energy and hopes run high in the depths of winter. Protracted Republican primary battles could extend into deep spring if runoffs occur in the senate race and closer to home as a half-dozen candidates vie for the right to take Howard Coble’s place representing North Carolina’s Sixth Congressional District.

But come fall, experts say, conservative money and gerrymandered districts could stifle the outcry for change, leaving Republicans in firm control of state government.

North Carolina’s long history as a moderately progressive southern state was often heralded among political observers and historians. But the sea change erasing that historical trend occurred in 2010, as voters opposed mostly to President Obama’s policies, and further energized by a scandal in triplicate among state Democrats Jim Black, Mike Easley and John Edwards, pushed in Republican majorities in Raleigh.

That new majority proceeded to push then Gov. Bev Perdue around so much that she declined to run for reelection. With Gov. Pat McCrory in office, conservatives seemed to run wild in the state capital, horrifying progressives and long-entrenched Democratic Party leaders.

“We have some really regressive policies coming out of the General Assembly,” said Paul Lowe, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church on 12 th Street in Winston-Salem. “We used to lead the pack among southern states and now we are going the other way.”

Lowe, who is also in his second term as chairman of the Democratic Party’s Fifth District Congressional Committee, thinks state-level Republicans may have overreached. “I think that turn of direction has been a wake-up call. Some folks are beginning say ‘hey, you’ve gone too far with too many cuts and too much change of direction.’” The chairman of the state NAACP, Rev. William Barber II, has led a Moral March movement over the last year that’s galvanized opposition to the Republican majority. Lowe believes that the Moral Monday protests and the recent HK on J march have increased awareness and participation in the pushback. “I am seeing more people discussing the issues than may not have before,” Lowe said. “Issues that affect us are important to us. People from all walks of life want good jobs. They want to see something happen for poor people. They want good education and health care.”

The question remains if this protest energy will equate to electoral victories.

“I think it will translate into votes. People know who is supporting them and who is not,” said Susan Campbell, a retired teacher and the current chair of the Forsyth County Democratic Party. Campbell attended one of the Moral Monday protests last summer and said she saw busloads of teachers coming in. “All teachers don’t vote Democrat,” Campbell said. “It wasn’t a political party thing. It’s an issue for them.”

Some of the energy from the large protests in Raleigh has begun to seep to local areas, as teachers begin to pushback against Republican laws that will give public money to new charter schools and end teacher tenure in favor of performance bonuses for a small number of educators. Campbell believes these proposals show a lack of value for public education.

“When you take money out of public education and put it into private schools, or pop-up schools looking for start-up money, our teachers don’t end up with the materials they need to do a good job,” Campbell said. “When you take all the resources away, you make it more burdensome for teachers to do their jobs.”

Veteran political strategist Gary Pearce, who worked with Gov. Jim Hunt, thinks that the pushback against the education policies alone could open up opportunities for Democrats to win elections this fall. Pearce said that many of the policies pursued in Raleigh – from Voter ID and Amendment One to tax code and environmental regulation changes – have contributed to the pushback.

“I think there is huge potential for a swing. There is a strong statewide reaction against what the legislature did last year, as evidenced by the thousands of people who participated in last week’s march and similar events across the state,” Pearce said. “But without question the most important is education. There are 100,000 teachers in North Carolina. Then there are their families, parents, and people who work in schools.”

Campbell and Lowe believe a viable opponent might emerge to challenge Rep. Virginia Foxx in the Fifth Congressional District. Campbell said that several high quality candidates are ready to run for school board in Forsyth County. They both acknowledge the difficulty in overcoming Republican heavy districts like the Fifth Congressional and state house districts like Julia Howard’s NC 79.

“It’s a very difficult thing to do when they are drawn for one party or the other,” Campbell said. “We have to hope and we have to put forward our best candidates to let people take a look and evaluate. Voters need to go back and look at the last election and decide if we did what was best for North Carolina given these choices.”

Hope for picking up seats may be high, but the reality of taking either branch of the state legislature is very small. Dustin Ingalls, assistant to the director at Public Policy Polling, said Democrats could even lose a few more seats in Raleigh if they can’t turn out polished candidates able to attract financial support and run quality campaigns.

Ingalls credited the Moral Monday protest campaign with giving Democratic activists an outlet for their anger and expanding the base from which candidates can pull volunteers and perhaps campaign donations. But with the protest energy running highest last summer, Ingalls said the momentum has dissipated to a degree. At the height of last summer’s protests, the Democratic Party enjoyed a near 10-point lead in a generic ballot poll. “That was much stronger than either party had seen in some time,”  Ingalls said. “Once the Republicans leave town and go back home and stop being on the news, voters forget about what they did.”

PPP has established that Democrats would need a 12 to 14 point lead in a generic ballot to have any chance of taking back the legislature. “That’s an absurdly high bar for them to reach,” Ingalls said. “There is a lot of energy among the base, but in terms of everyday voters, the Democratic lead in the generic ballot is back down to even.”

Ingalls cited a list of seats across the state where Democrats might strengthen their minority status in the legislature, but cautioned “there are no slam dunks for pick-ups.”

“There is still enough anger among the voter base, but the lines are drawn such that it will be very difficult for them to make a big dent in the majority.”

What could aid the Democrats in picking up marginal seats across the state is a highly organized and motivated reelection effort on the part of Senator Kay Hagan. Ingalls said that conservative advocacy groups like Americans for Prosperity have been spending large amounts of money to pound Hagan for her vote in favor of the Affordable Care Act. That constant negative message aimed at Hagan has driven her poll numbers down to the point that she trails all potential GOP nominees by one or two points. But as Hagan waits to see exactly who her opponent will be, she is spending time and money building a solid reelection team.

“They will have a really strong campaign,” Ingalls said. “She’s a strong candidate and she hasn’t spent any money to combat these negative attacks. She’s spending money to hire field staff to get out the vote and coordinate with counties like Wake and Guilford to make sure they win on the ground. For Democrats, that will help turnout down the ballot and I think it will be better in that sense for Democrats than it was in 2010. I don’t think we will see a repeat of that.”

Lachlan McIntosh, a spokesman for candidate Laura Fjeld who is running as a Democrat in the Sixth Congressional, points out that Hagan won the counties that make up the district when elected in 2008. The Sixth gained Democratic votes after the 2010 redistricting, McIntosh said, and they now comprise a plurality of voters there. Though most of the attention is on the list of Republican candidates lined up for the chance to replace the retiring Coble, Democrats see the district as a potential pick up.

“We do think the structure Hagan is building … will help us,” McIntosh said. “She carried the Sixth as it’s drawn now and will probably carry it again.” !