The sense that North Carolina had entered a new era in 2008 was intoxicating, like drinking a magic elixir in one gulp. The Obama campaign had built momentum month by month, reaching a crescendo of excitement in the last weeks of the campaign, and what looked like a new progressive majority pulled through, sending N.C. into the Democratic column for the first time since 1976. In short order, the state legislature would pass some of the only progressive social legislation we’d seen in years–the Racial Justice Act and an LGBTQ anti-bullying bill–and Democrats went into 2010 with confidence. At an event at Duke University, I distinctly remember a young woman of color saying, “I was so proud of North Carolina.”
Then reality hit back hard.
Republicans would retake the General Assembly in 2010 for the first time since Reconstruction. A deluge of regressive policies inundated the state, remaking its image once again from a rising progressive force to a right-wing pariah. Democrats would suffer defeat after defeat for the next decade. When Republicans kept control of the legislature in 2020, state political observers immediately–and unanimously–concluded that the GOP would run the NCGA until 2030 at the earliest. Clearly, the old North Carolina had made its presence felt.
Those are two big, wrenching changes. Below the level of elections, in the bowels of North Carolina’s political machines, other things have changed too, some for the better, some for the worse. First, the state’s political geography has taken on an entirely new formation. For centuries, the political ping-pong game had bounced back and forth between the sandy plains of the east and the hilly and mountainous territory of western North Carolina. 2008 proved to be the last time that map would carry the day. Now, white rural areas vote Republican in a coherent bloc, and urban cores and their inner-ring suburbs vote increasingly Democratic. It’s not east versus west but rural versus urban (with the exception of rural African Americans and Eastern Band Cherokees).
Another significant change is in the closeness of federal elections. Since 1968, North Carolina had been a solid red state in presidential elections. Democrats’ chances were so grim that state-level candidates like Jim Hunt and Mike Easley refused even to appear with the Democratic nominee for president. Poor Walter Mondale. But now, Democrats have a legitimate chance of winning the state at the presidential election, and state Democrats tend to stand with the presidential nominee as part of a team effort. The state is more competitive at the top of the ballot, but that also means that ticket splitting is increasingly a thing of the past. Forgive the cliche, but it’s a double-edged sword.
What has not changed is the state’s historical conservative lean–it’s just gotten softer. The brutal fact for Democrats is that their party has lost five out of the last six general elections in North Carolina; they can’t blame their minority status entirely on the evils of gerrymandering. Republicans have won four straight Senate races in the state and three straight presidential elections. Largely, that’s because of the state’s remarkable rurality. As the data crunchers at EQV analytics pointed out, N.C. is closer to the rural-urban split of the world than of the United States. With Republicans increasingly becoming the rural party, and Democrats becoming almost wholly urban, federal elections have proven tough for Democratic candidates to win in the Tar Heel state.
There’s a demon lurking in the corner of the political cloak room: racism. North Carolina was born as a slave society, everything in its common life pervaded by the institution of chattel slavery, and it has not made sufficient efforts to extirpate that evil and seek redemption. Amazingly, the Jesse Helms-Harvey Gantt race of 1990–an election Helms won by running one of the most racist ads ever produced–was less racially polarized than the 2020 presidential election, held 30 years later. As a state, we may or may not be half-way home. But we’ve certainly got a long way to go.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.