Today is “Moral Monday” at the General Assembly. This is where a bunch of liberal activists led by Rev. William Barber protest at the General Assembly, hold up signs, and cause disruption in order to get themselves thrown in jail as a form of civil disobedience. The state media, naturally, has been all over this story.
As T. Keung Hui of the N&O notes, Barber is looking to replicate his success of the Wake County School Board debacle. A Republican board took control in 2009 and made many changes to district policies. Around 2010, Barber and his group disrupted school meetings by chanting and talking about Jim Crow. The Republicans in power ignored and even ridiculed Barber, but the results in November of 2011 speak for themselves: Chairman Ron Margiotta lost in his Republican-leaning district, and Democrats won control of the school board. The ouster of the Republican school board in the 2011 elections was the biggest triumph for Democrats in the state.
Liberals now hope that Barber’s tactics will have a similar effect statewide. Maybe Democrats won’t take back control of the legislature, but at least they’ll gain enough seats to threaten total Republican control. If nothing else, it will at least motivate the Democratic base.
There’s a couple of reasons, however, why Barber’s tactics might not work this time. Consider the following:
1. School boards are different. School boards are supposed to be non-partisan. Most people in Wake County, regardless of their political affiliation, are tired of ideologues making decisions about the education of their children. When the Republican board took control, they went too far, too fast – and were effectively painted by their opposition as a bunch of wingnuts. Wake County was even the subject of ridicule by the Colbert Report. The mass protests by Barber and co. at school board meetings was an exclamation point to Democratic charges that the school board was too extreme.
Voters are much more forgiving of ideologues at the state level. While they may not like it, they have come to expect it. Wake County is also a whole lot smaller than the state as a whole. The protests in Wake County were part of a local movement, and therefore more effective at accomplishing its goals.
2. Wake County is different. While Wake has the most voters in the state, it’s also a lot more left-leaning than the state as a whole. North Carolina is a purple to red state. Wake County is a purple to blue county. Democrats were already operating in a much more favorable environment.
3. The gerrymandering at the state level is more effective. Obama won Wake by 11 points last year. Pat McCrory, an unusually strong Republican candidate, barely won it. Even Elaine Marshall came within a point of winning it in a dreadful year for Democrats. Therefore, it’s much harder to ensure a Republican majority at the county level, but it’s still possible. In 2011, the school board drew themselves 4 solid Democratic districts and 5 districts with a Republican lean. But with the right combination of factors, Democrats can take any of those seats. In 2011, that’s what happened – Ron Margiotta lost to Susan Evans, yielding the Democratic board we have today.
Secondly, the Republican gerrymander of the Wake County school board wasn’t very effective to begin with, which is why the state legislature is currently modifying the district plan. There are two types of gerrymanders – gerrymanders that are aesthetically pleasing but still gerrymanders, and then there are gerrymanders that disregard any semblance of compactness to ensure political power. The Wake County School districts fell into the first category. But the districts of the General Assembly fall into the second.
4. Too many issues. Liberals have a lot of gripes about the General Assembly. In fact, there are so many things they hate about the legislature that they can’t focus on the one or two things they hate the most. In 2011, Barber and co. said “The Wake County School Board sucks. They’re a bunch of extremists who want to resegregate our schools.” It was a very simple – and effective – message. The Democrat message now is: “The General Assembly sucks. Here’s a laundry list of all the awful things they’ve done.” When trying to whip voters up into a frenzy, sometimes less is more.
5. OFA was heavily involved. In 2011, OFA used the Wake County School Board election (and elections in Charlotte) as a ‘test run’ for 2012. Thus, even though 2011 was an off-year election, Democrats turned out at unheard-of levels. It’s unlikely this will be the case in 2014.
6. Democrats lack an infrastructure. The state party is still in chaos, with many Democrats calling for the ouster of Chairman Voller. The big money still favors Republicans. It doesn’t look like Democrats will have the resources to capitalize on the unpopularity of the Republican-led General Assembly.
7. Republicans have learned their lesson. Make no mistake, the Republican leadership is watching these protests closely. They’ve already analyzed what went wrong in Wake County so it won’t happen in the future. Ron Margiotta didn’t help matters at the school board when he made comments like “Here come the animals” when the protestors came. Republicans should treat these activists with respect.
8. 2014 could be a Republican year. Mark Sanford won his special election in the face of scandal. Ken Cuccinelli leads in Virginia even though he’s the definition of far right. Chris Christie is headed for a landslide in New Jersey. Benghazi is starting to look like a headache for the Obama administration. Democrats are starting to realize the drawbacks of relying on a younger, more diverse electorate – they don’t show up in midterms. We might be entering a new era where Democrats are strong in presidential years but neutered in the midterms. While it’s still uncertain what the midterm environment will be like, it’s looking more like a strong year for the GOP than the opposite.
It will be interesting to see what happens if Republicans face a backlash at the state level while simultaneously riding a favorable tide nationally. But it’s unlikely this will happen. Remember 2006, when Republicans were crushed at the state level despite Democratic corruption and unpopularity. National concerns trump state politics – always.
For this, and many other reasons, it’s not likely that the current protests at the General Assembly will have its desired effect. But it’s worth a shot. In the end, what do they have to lose?