Before I say anything else, I want to sincerely congratulate Anderson Clayton, Jonah Garson, Kim Hardy, and Elijah King for their victories this weekend as they took over the leadership of the North Carolina Democratic Party. I believe the party needs an infusion of new blood and that we need the enthusiasm and energy of young people to engage our base. As a native of Anson County, I want to see party building in rural North Carolina like Clayton did in Person. I hope they are successful in their efforts. 

The second thing I want to acknowledge is that one of my favorites saying is, “Those who say it cannot be done, should get out of the way of those doing it.” Anderson Clayton and company are doing it and I don’t want to get in the way. 

My blog on Friday seems to have been interpreted as an endorsement of the establishment and status quo. It was not. However, I believe that any effort at reform needs to be informed by history and the realities on the ground. 

For as long as I can remember, the people who attend precinct meetings and county conventions have been dissatisfied with the party establishment more often than not. They feel ignored and blame the state party for losses that are often beyond anybody’s control. I didn’t pay much attention to party operations during Bobbie Richardson’s one term as chair, but, listening to the complaints against her, I think she got a bit of a bum rap. 

The 2022 election was bad for Democrats in North Carolina, in large part, because the party has built an unreliable coalition nationally, not just here. Democrats are heavily dependent on younger voters who tend to participate only in presidential years. Turnout among younger voters wasn’t as high as 2018, but it was much higher than it was in the years prior to 2018. Like Clayton and company say, organizing among younger voter should be a priority. Finding the money to do it will be the challenge.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, field operations have historically been financed by national money. Since 2008, the DSCC, the DCCC, DLCC, OFA, the DGA or some other group of initials have invested heavily in the state to build ground operations that generally started in the spring before the general election. Most people believed 2022 would be no exception. They were wrong. No money was funneled into the state for a serious GOTV operation. That wasn’t Richardson’s fault. 

That said, there were several organizational efforts in play in individual counties and regions across the state. Clayton helped organize Person and rural Durham County. Down Home North Carolina helped organize Cabarrus County. Other groups like the New Rural Project were working in rural counties along the South Carolina border. They probably made a difference. Even if Democrats didn’t win, their efforts cut the losses. That matters, too. 

We should applaud those efforts and try to build on them. But we need to be honest, too. Republicans did significantly better in Person County in 2022 than they did in 2018. Cabarrus County has been trending Democratic faster than almost any county in the state for the past decade. Anson County went Republican for the first time in decades. There are forces at work here that no amount of organizing will overcome. 

Democratic positions on abortion rights, LGBTQ+ protections, and immigration increasingly alienate rural conservatives, including African Americans. Democrats have been losing vote share in rural counties for a decade and that doesn’t appear ready to abate. I’m dubious that organizing can stop it in places that are trending redder, because that’s a broader messaging problem that’s hard to fix. However, organizing may be key to places like Cabarrus, Johnston, and Union that have been traditionally Republican but are turning ever so slightly bluer. 

The results of the party chair election were covered as a rejection of the political establishment by the party rank-and-file. It was not. It was a vote by less than 500 members of a party that numbers more than 2.4 million people. The State Executive Committee (SEC) that elected the party chairs is not representative of the people who cast votes in elections. The leaders of the party are still the elected officials like Governor Cooper who have broad popular support. That’s the way it’s always worked and Clayton and company need to recognize that. They need the elected leadership as much as the elected leadership needs them, arguably more so. 

To make the party work, the chairs need to recognize their roles. They can shift priorities and encourage programatic development but professional staff should have the responsibility for running the day-to-day operation of the party. The party needs to have an executive director who has run a significant state party operation and who understands the various pots of money and the infusions of cash that will come into the state during an election year. It’s not an entry level position.

I offer this advice, not as someone who has been part of the establishment, but as someone who has been a thorn in its side off and on for decades. I’ve bumped heads with more caucus directors, executive directors, house, and senate leaders than most, but I’ve also maintained personal and professional relationships with them. At heart, I’m one of those disgruntled Democrats who generally complains that the party apparatus is too risk-averse and slow to embrace new strategies and technologies. I applaud those who want a more aggressive Democratic Party, but I’ve also been around long enough to know what is possible and what is folly. As Bismark said, “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable–the next best.” Pick your battles, recognize your limitations, and best of luck in building a more robust Democratic Party.


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