In the midterm elections, Democrats in North Carolina had their best showing since 2008. They won enough legislative seats to overturn veto-proof majorities in both chambers. They won every statewide judicial race on the ballot including the one giving them a 5-2 majority on the Supreme Court.
A lot of analysts pointed out the money advantage as the major factor in the victories, especially competitive legislative races. While money certainly was a key, Democrats put together an offensive effort that began almost as soon as the votes were counted in 2016. The money flowed because of the organization and enthusiasm and donors believed they had a solid investment in Roy Cooper’s disciplined push to end veto-proof majorities.
I’m not trying to downplay the money. As a friend of mine likes to say, “Money is not the most important thing in politics, but all the most important things cost money.” Staff, ads and infrastructure don’t just materialize. They’re bought, hired or built, all which cost money.
However, money and the ads they bought didn’t win the races by themselves and the money didn’t come in a vacuum. Democrats started recruiting candidates in early 2017 and by the time of filing, they were competing in every legislative race in the state. Grassroots organizations like Flip NC and Swing Left kept activists engaged and helped identify potential candidates.
Back in November 2017, I was working with a candidate who had been invited to attend an event sponsored by one the groups. I told him to go but to only expect twenty or so folks. Instead, more than a hundred people showed up to ask questions and get a look at candidates. I knew 2018 would be different.
Democrats and their allies learned from their failings. The massive crowds that showed up to support Moral Mondays in 2013 didn’t translate into votes in 2014. While 51% of Republicans voted in that midterm, only 46% of Democrats did. In 2018, 52% of the registered voters participated in the election. I suspect Republicans may have increased their turnout by a point or two but Democrats almost certainly matched or surpassed them this year.
The unsung Democratic heroes are the candidates who ran in districts where Republicans were heavily favored. By making the GOP spend money to defend supposedly safe districts, those candidates helped Democrats exploit their financial advantage even more. In a year when a number of candidates will win in recounts, Democrats owe everyone with the courage to file a debt of gratitude.
To win in 2020, Democrats need to repeat this program. They’ve got an opportunity to pick up a US Senate seat and take back some of the Council of States seats they lost in 2016. They can finish the job of gaining a majority in one house of the legislature to ensure they have a hand in drawing new districts after the 2020 Census. But they can’t stop now.
Democrats need organizations that keep people engaged. They need people willing to file in tough districts because nobody deserves a free pass. They need candidates who understand that victory is more than just winning a single seat and that a legislative map is more like a chessboard than a checkerboard. They need to run a complete campaign built on the success of 2018.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >