A party that has struggled as consistently as North Carolina Democrats requires a new approach. For decades, the state party has hewed to the classic Southern-Democrat formula of tacking as far to the political right as possible while taking no risks and attempting to pull off a victory with the pleasant visage of a (usually) white candidate. But this calculated approach has failed in six out of the last seven U.S. Senate elections in the state, most of which saw the cautious strategy of the Southern Dem practiced to its logical completion. It’s irrational to continue a failed approach–which, by a matter of logic, implies additional failure unless some unexpected transformation occurs in the strategy’s context. And clearly, no change has taken place to render the painstakingly centrist strategy we’ve seen, become any more plausible as a path to victory.

Let us review the record. The Republican Party defeated North Carolina Democrats in 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2020. The only exception to this excruciating string of losses came in 2018, when Democrats scored about a dozen and a half legislative seats in part due to effective candidate recruitment, partially because of political geography, but most of all as a result of the strong national anti-Trump wave. In the meantime, Democrats have seen the Republican legislature completely transform state government, and much about the state’s underlying social and cultural fabric, decisively for the worse. And all of this happened at a time when many thought demographic trends would propel the state to the political left.

Alas, it’s not 2008 anymore. True, Barack Obama’s remarkable victory in North Carolina symbolized a tangible and lasting shift in the state’s political climate. From a solid-red enclave that seldom gave Democratic presidential candidates more than 42% of the vote, North Carolina has become legitimately competitive in high-level federal elections. However, looking back from the vantage point of 12 challenging years, Democrats overinterpeted 2008. After that election, it was possible to see North Carolina as a pure-purple state ineluctably trending blue. That was the conclusion many political analysts on both sides drew from Obama’s win. I did, too.

What this analysis failed to recognize were the deep roots of conservatism in North Carolina. This is the most rural state of the 20-largest states in the country. Defense is the second-largest industry here–after agriculture, another conservative business. North Carolinians are the ninth-most religious people in the country. And of course, our legacy of heinous racial oppression continues to reverberate. The fact is that these forces did not vanish all of a sudden that cold night when Obama carried a plurality of Tar Heel votes.

So. The state is more competitive than it used to be, but more conservative than Democrats would like it to be. In response to this observable reality, Democrats should adjust their approach to pursuing electoral victory in the state. As my longtime friend Mac McCorkle has proposed, North Carolina Democrats need to start campaigning like underdogs. They need to be aggressive campaigners, taking risks and attacking Republicans at their points of political weakness. Democrats, in other words, need to learn from the objective fact that they have lost most of the time and run campaigns based on that fact.

Here is the encouraging news. The party’s standard-bearer, former Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, is running precisely the kind of underdog campaign her party needs to return to power. She’s campaigning in small communities far removed from the conventional destinations that tend to draw statewide candidates. Simultaneously, she has launched tough attacks on Ted Budd, forthrightly raising the abortion-rights issue that polls have shown for decades was favorable to N.C. Democrats, but that her preternaturally cautious predecessors have avoided for fear of alienating social conservatives.

That a strategy exists for Democrats to make a comeback is of tremendous importance to the state. North Carolina desperately needs a Democratic Party that can win elections and serve as a counterweight to the state’s reactionary and extremist GOP. Since Republicans won control, everything the state should care for–the education of its children, the health of its environment, healing racial wounds–has diminished. With the utter destruction of moderate Republicans, only the Democrats can make things right and bring justice to the many North Carolinians so long denied the promise of American life.

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