Two myths seem to be dominating Democrats’ analysis of their problems. The first is that Art Pope “bought” the elections for Republicans. The second is that focusing on education is the winning message for Democrats. Like many myths, they each have a grain of truth but both are greatly exaggerated.
Yes, Art Pope put a whole lot of money in political campaigns and infrastructure, but he started 20 years before they won control of the legislature. The GOP victory in 2010 had far more to do with the national wave that swept Republicans into office all over the country than with Art Pope’s money. The Republicans maintained control with the most successful redistricting plan in the nation. Pope’s money during the 2012 election just helped ensure they didn’t screw it up.
Democrats should spend less time worrying about Pope (he’s not going away) and spend more time rebuilding their financial infrastructure. They don’t necessarily need the most money, but they do need enough money. Campaigns need a viable candidate and the resources to build an organization, develop a message and strategy and effectively communicate with voters. As a minority party, Democrats are going to have to be smarter and more strategic to win campaigns in North Carolina.
Which leads to the second myth, that focusing on education is the key to salvation for Democrats. While Democrats certainly have more credibility on education than Republicans, that doesn’t mean it will lead them out of the wilderness. For 20 years, Democrats used education as their signature issue and to drive a wedge between them and Republicans, but that won’t work anymore.
When Jim Hunt made education the centerpiece of his 1992 campaign for governor, North Carolina was in the midst of an economic transformation that was causing our population to explode. While our new industries were high tech, our public schools were not. Our teachers were underpaid, our classrooms were overcrowded, our buildings outdated and too many of our students were entering first grade ill-prepared to succeed. Hunt’s ideas were grand and innovative and caught the attention of the whole nation.
The political landscape has changed since then and, once again, North Carolina faces big challenges. Instead of education, we face structural unemployment and a rapidly growing, diverse population. While education might be part of the solution, it’s not all of it. Jim Hunt’s genius wasn’t just transforming education; it was understanding the needs of the state at a particular time in history and addressing those needs with new and bold ideas.
If Democrats in North Carolina want to get back in power, they need to stop blaming external factors like Art Pope and quit trying to get back to the past. They need to accept their own responsibility for their electoral failures. They ran the same campaign for 20 years and developed few bold or innovative ideas over the past decade. They tolerated cronyism and failed to develop new leaders. If they want to win again, they need to look ahead and offer voters a vision for the future, not a retooled plan for the past.