Turning NC Blue

by Jordan Green

A national Democratic tsunami, a demographic sea change in North Carolina and the extraordinary candidacy of Barack Obama shifted the state into the blue column last night in a historic election. The Democratic nominee for president squeaked past Republican John McCain to carry the state, and Greensboro Democrat Kay Hagan unseated Republican incumbent Sen. Elizabeth Dole by an 8.4 percent margin.

Although North Carolina’s electoral votes did not turn out to be decisive in Obama’s landslide victory, he carried the state by 11,246 votes, making him the first Democratic candidate for president to do so since Jimmy Carter in 1976. NC Sen. Kay Hagan, whose formidable fundraising machine and yeoman grassroots campaign dovetailed with Obama’s, also made history by becoming the first Democrat to become elected to the US Senate in a presidential election year since segregationist Democrat Sam Ervin Jr. was elected in 1968.

For almost three decades North Carolinians voters reliably gave majorities to Republican presidential candidateswhose coattails denied Democratic aspirants the opportunity to be elected to the Senate. This year, the equation was effectively reversed. Democrat Bev Perdue fended off a sharp challenge from Republican Pat McCrory to become North Carolina’s next governor, a seat in which Democrats typically enjoy an advantage.

“What a difference a year makes,” Hagan told a jubilant Democratic crowd at the Greensboro Coliseum after receiving a phone call from Dole conceding the race. “A little over a year ago, when I got into this race, the press, the pundits and the politicians were ready to write off this office, and give Elizabeth Dole the keys for another six years. But it’s not her office.”

The victor seemed to acknowledge that even as North Carolina enjoys a new status as a battleground state, the political winds can easily shift in the other direction.

“To those of you who did not vote for me,” she said, “I am going to be working hard for the next six years to earn your vote because — Democrat, Republican or independent — the ideas we need to create jobs and turn our economy around won’t have a party label. If you have a good idea, my door will always be open to you.”

Several Hagan supporters said they thought a negative television advertisement produced by the Dole campaign linking the Democratic candidate to the Godless Americans PAC backfired, and cost the Republican incumbent votes.

“It’s despicable what Elizabeth Dole did with that ’Godless  Americans‘ ad,” said volunteer Noel Melton, who worked a phone bank at Hagan’s headquarters in Greensboro until just 15 minutes before the polls closed. “But the fact that it didn’t work shows how much the state has changed.”

Lee Carter of Summerfield, who is Hagan’s cousin, worked a polling site in Raleigh on Election Day, and said Republican voters told him they crossed party lines to cast their ballot for the Democrat because of the ad. Dole’s negative advertising blitz came after polls showed her falling behind Hagan, following a blistering media campaign by the Democratic candidate that was lavishly funded by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

“I think it’s an excellent campaign strategy,” said Carter, as an explanation of his cousin’s success. “Putting the grassroots to work, having a great staff, having folks that beat the bushes for her. She’s very pro-business, and people appreciate that.”

Democratic triumph also trickled down to the state Senate, where Don Vaughan handily won over Republican rival Joe Wilson to succeed Hagan in District 27. Vaughan, who lost his race for the seat in 1996 against Republican John Blust, paid tribute to Hagan, whom he called “the giant slayer who took the giant leap to take on Elizabeth Dole.”

Vaughan said Hagan will be the first person from Greensboro to serve in the US Senate, and predicted that the senator-elect will open a constituent office here.

The Hagan and Obama campaigns not only shared strategy but resources. Phone banks for both campaigns operated out of the High Point Democratic Party headquarters on the backside of the College Village Shopping Center. Obama volunteers periodically cycled through the room, which had tables full of food and drink at either end, along with a makeshift lounge set up with a television broadcasting the election results as the afternoon progressed on Election Day.

Volunteer Ken Sunshine said the headquarters had been operating every day, going two weekends back. On the previous Saturday, volunteers with phone lists sat outside in chairs making calls.

“We’ve been knocking on doors all day,” said Kirby Heard, a county Democratic Party official, on Election Day. “We’ve been driving a bus through neighborhoods, picking people up and taking them to the polls.

“We’re going out with door-hangers for people who haven’t voted, because we have this high-tech way to find out who they are,” she continued. “We call them on the phone. We tell them where their precinct is. We say, ‘You’ve got two hours and forty-five minutes to get to the polls.”

The Democrats targeted precincts where previous canvasses had revealed high numbers of Obama supporters, and where the largest number of registered voters had not cast ballots as the hours ticked down.

Sunshine was headed out to visit four High Point precincts to collect that latest statistics from Democratic observers at about 5 p.m.

“I’m a numbers runner,” he said. “We have observers in the polls to make sure there’s no shenanigans. I go out to each precinct, and find out how many people have voted. We say, ‘Okay, this precinct has had a low number of voters.’ We go out and find our supporters in that precinct.”

Spectacular organization, sophisticated voter data and dedicated volunteers helped the Obama campaign mobilize students, African Americans and other key constituencies to carry Guilford County, the state’s third largest county after Mecklenburg and Wake. Obama’s margin of victory in the three combined urban counties totaled 207,926 votes, more than 18 times the 11,246 margin by which the Democrat carried the state. Wake County went for George W. Bush in the 2004 election, while Guilford County only narrowly tipped into Democrat John Kerry’s column.

Voters lined up more than a hundred strong at several polling places across Guilford and Forsyth counties when they opened at 6:30 a.m. on Election Day. Early voting, in which 2.6 million, or 42 percent of registered North Carolinians cast ballots before Election Day, kept wait times to a minimum yesterday. Where there were lines voters were generally able to wait inside polling places and avoid standing in the rain that dampened the state.

“It’s a historical day,” said Chris Patterson, a ceramic tile and hardwood-flooring worker who was in line to vote at the Glenwood Presbyterian Church polling place before the crack of dawn. “I think America has seen the rhetoric that goes on in Washington, and we’ve seen the need for change. I believe my candidate, Barack Obama, has a vision. America really needs a voice in government again.”

Shandra Scott, the facility manager for the Elliott University Center at UNCG, said about 150 deep when the polling site opened.

“That tells you how much they are waiting to see a change in their country,” she said. “Students getting up at six in the morning for anything is unheard of. I’m proud to be a young voter.”

Obama’s success in Guilford and other urban counties was also a testament to the dedication of his supporters. NC Rep. Pricey Harrison, who ran unopposed, spent nearly every day of the past seven weeks canvassing the precincts in her Guilford County state House district for Obama instead.

“This year’s really different,” she said. “The down-ticket Democrats want to be associated with Obama. The Democratic Party is promoting the whole ticket, starting with Obama, Hagan and Perdue. In 2004, [Gov.] Mike Easley wouldn’t even be in the same room with John Kerry because he was afraid someone would take their picture together.”

Voters’ threshold of acceptance for a black candidate in a marquee race has also changed. Harrison said she was surprised to find that older, lower-income voters with whom she spoke during her rounds, including some Republicans, said they planned to vote for Obama. But pockets of virulent racism remain, judging by the experiences of canvassers such as Harrison.

“I had my life threatened,” the state lawmaker said. “I said to this guy, ‘I’m your legislator.’ He saw my Obama button, and he started saying that Obama was a ‘nigger’ and a ‘Muslim.’ He said he was going to slit my throat if I didn’t get out of his yard. He kept screaming at me, even after I left. I just decided to get out of the neighborhood.”

Other Guilford County voters made their choice based on an opposition to abortion and gay marriage, and cast their ballots for McCain.

“I think this will be a good opportunity to see if there’s still a moral majority in America,” said Sherri Lawson, a pest-control company owner who voted at St. John’s United Methodist Church. “This country was founded as a country of God, and we’ve gotten away from that. We’ve evolved to where issues like racism shouldn’t be brought up. People are pretty well joined together.”

When the national electoral picture came into focus, rank-and-file Democrats who didn’t make it to the campaign parties celebrated. Hundreds of college students in Greensboro from UNCG and NC A&T University took over part of Tate Street, where they chanted and cheered. By midnight, rumors of Obama’s national electoral victory circulated through departments at Moses Cone hospital without access to television news. And as early as 8 p.m., a McDonald’s employee in Greensboro working the drive-thru called out the early returns for the presidential contest in North Carolina to her coworkers.

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