In 2008, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee attempted to recruit a governor, an attorney general, and four congressmen to run against Elizabeth Dole. When they came up short, most observers understood it as a recruiting failure. What is more striking in the context of today’s party politics, however, is the depth of the Democratic bench at that time. Today Democrats barely have four sitting congresspeople, let alone potential Senate recruits. A decade of defeats has hollowed out the Democrats’ repertoire of future candidates while the NCGOP finds itself brimming with recruits.
A dozen years after the party’s last North Carolina Senate win, the D.S.C.C. tried to recruit Attorney General Josh Stein as their standard bearer against the state’s weak incumbent Senator, Thom Tillis. Stein wisely passed on the race. After he and former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx declined to run against Tillis, the ensuing search for a candidate was like a thirsty man’s desperate quest for an oasis in the middle of a desert. In the end they settled on Cal Cunningham, an underqualified empty suit who lost ignominiously.
Looking forward, few top-tier candidates are easy to see on the horizon. For one thing, Democrats have gotten so thoroughly obliterated in rural areas that the old model of geographical crossover appeal is defunct. This makes it even less likely that they will be able to pry the Agriculture Commissioner’s office from Steve Troxler and his fun, tractor-shaped bumper stickers. In suburban areas, the party has a number of talented state legislators, but none of them have run at a level above the General Assembly and the record of legislators going straight to Senator or Governor is uninspiring. Consider Cal Cunningham and 2004 Republican gubernatorial nominee Patrick Ballyntine.
With the congressional map likely to get even worse after this round of redistricting, Democrats will likely have to find other places to develop candidates. There’s a clear way to do this: emphasize local government. In urban areas across the state Democrats are increasingly the dominant party. The mayors of the larger cities, such as Charlotte’s impressive Vi Lyles, would enter any statewide race formidably. But even in “red” counties, pockets of Democratic support often exist in higher-educational or local government centers. A good example is Beaufort Mayor Rett Newton, who’s currently running for U.S. Senate.
Let’s say Josh Stein had run for Senate and won. Whom would Democrats nominate for governor in 2024? One must admit that the answer is not obvious. After years of gerrymandering and electoral defeat, the party finds itself bereft of the portfolio of recruits that was so strong the last time they had a truly good year. But the changing dynamics of the state offer a clear avenue for rejuvenation. Local government is now what state government was in decades past, a stronghold of Democratic leadership. As they strive to rebuild their candidate pipeline, Democrats should look to the cities, towns and hamlets of the state for the next generation of the Donkey Party.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.