As I wrote last week, the 2020 election was largely a disaster for North Carolina Democrats. But one commenter’s critique rang true: I did not account for Governor Roy Cooper’s reelection. The governor’s race factored as a significant bright spot last Tuesday night. Moreover, Cooper’s path to victory established a formula that North Carolina Democrats must follow if they are to regain power in the state.
Cooper has demonstrated his political prowess by twice running ahead of the national ticket in North Carolina. In fact, he was actually the top vote getter in the state even before running for governor–as Attorney General, he won over 60% of the vote in 2008 and did not even draw an opponent in 2012, so formidable a figure he was. As governor, he ran over 100,000 votes ahead of Hillary Clinton and 140,00 votes ahead of Joe Biden. Clearly, Cooper has the read the pulse of the North Carolina electorate better than other Democrats.
Fortunately for the Donkey Party, Cooper’s success was not based on hocus pocus. Instead, he achieved a model that political analysts laid out for a successful Democratic campaign. To begin with, he won enough votes in the right parts of the state to get over the top. Like national Democrats, he ran up the score in urban areas. But significantly, he did not run ahead of Joe Biden in places like Wake and Mecklenburg counties. Instead, his victory came in other parts of the state where Democrats have struggled recently.
These places were part of Republicans’ non-urban coalition. As Professor Michael Bitzer posited in an interview with the Atlantic Monthly, a winning Democrat would need 40% in exurban counties like Cabarrus, Johnston, and Union, the subject of the Atlantic piece. Roy Cooper cleared that threshold in the exurbs. Just as importantly, he kept the race competitive in rural North Carolina. In a state with a large rural population, you cannot win statewide while getting utterly annihilated in small towns and rural areas. Cooper did not; especially in ancestrally Democratic places like the counties along the South Carolina border or Madison County in the mountains, Cooper easily cleared 40% while Biden lost them in a landslide.
That’s the geography of Cooper’s success. How he met the threshold of victory in rural and exurban North Carolina is more complicated, but sometimes it’s best to use Occam’s razor. Over a long career in politics, he has crafted and continued to project an image different from the way losing Democrats are perceived in conservative locales. Instead of a left-winger as many Democrats (fairly or not) are often seen these days, he is seen as a moderate, relatable North Carolina progressive. North Carolinians trust him and have entrusted him with power repeatedly, even in bad years for his party.
NC Democrats have a role model for the comeback they hope to make as the state’s demographics change. Win big in the cities, make inroads in the exurbs, and don’t surrender in rural North Carolina. Democrats can do that.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.