“Diamond” Jim Gardner, failed hamburger magnate and eventual loser of two gubernatorial elections, once thought he could transform the state. To some extent he did: Gardner pried open eastern North Carolina for Republicans, creating a geographic foundation for the ascendant NCGOP. But with his loss in 1992, he faded into history, resurfacing briefly to superintend the state liquor monopoly, a faint echo of the influence he once envisioned for himself.
Jim Gardner is relevant again, ironically, because his party is doing so well in the state. Since the 1960s, this former pillar of the Solid South has become a reliably red state in senate and presidential elections–Gardner’s dream reified at the ballot box. Furthermore, the state’s policies have shifted even farther to the right than Gardner had advocated for them to move when he ran for governor in 1968; strikingly, “Diamond Jim” supported the Equal Rights Amendment, a nod toward progressivism unimaginable from today’s Republican state government. And their most likely gubernatorial candidate in 2024, Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson, sports a demeanor not unlike the flamboyant Jim Gardner himself.
Not bad for a twice-defeated, multiple-bankrupted ideologue.
By the same token as Republicans have excelled, Democrats have struggled in turn. And the Democratic Party quietly acknowledged its limping performance a few weeks ago by taking the remarkable step of electing 25-year-old Anderson Clayton as Chair of the state party. Election nights have often been dreary events for North Carolina Democrats since the fateful Tea Party was created that brought their GOP opponents to power. The state, too, has suffered along with the party that once ruled its government.
Here, however, are some contrary thoughts. Democratic Party struggles are manifest and beyond doubt; still, every political development comes with wrinkles and creases. As conservative consultant John Davis wrote after the disastrous 2016 election, North Carolina Democrats are better situated than the most pessimistic liberal observers tend to believe. They have the potential to regain much of the ground they have lost since 2010.
Most importantly, Democrats have a foothold in state government, an asset that even Georgia Democrats lack (every statewide office in Georgia is held by a Republican). Before the election of Governor Roy Cooper, the Democrats had almost no influence over any policy or political development that proceeded in Raleigh. Since Cooper’s victory, Democrats have leveraged their control of the governorship to stay relevant in North Carolina, an outcome that was not guaranteed when Pat McCrory consolidated total GOP dominance in 2012.
Democrats also have the raw tools with which to construct a more competitive coalition. In the urban cores, they are increasingly dominant. It is true that our urban centers are not as populous as the major metropolitan areas that have turned Virginia blue and Georgia purple, but as my friend Mac McCorkle has observed, the urban counties counterintuitively boast a greater overall population than the state’s 51 purely-rural counties combined. The state is simply much more urban than a rising conventional wisdom has held, which indicates that the rising battlegrounds will be in exurban districts far more promising for Democrats than socially conservative rural areas.
Demographics have changed in the state–not enough to make North Carolina blue, but to a great enough degree that the party should be much more competitive than it has been since 2010. We’re now 60% urban compared to only 50% in 1990, when Harvey Gantt ran a very competitive campaign against the state’s most dominant political figure. And a more resonant message that would bring the burgeoning cohort of exurbanites into a party that seems to intrigue many of them is hardly an otherworldly prospect. This will be a blue state someday.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.
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