Misreading the room

by | Jan 26, 2021 | Editor's Blog | 24 comments

State Senator Jeff Jackson is announcing today that he’s running for U.S. Senate. He clearly can’t read a room and has a lousy sense of timing. He’s jumping into the primary when the energy in the Democratic Party is with women and African Americans and an African American woman is already in the race. And nobody, except social media warriors, is clambering for the next election to begin. Within a few weeks, most people will have forgotten he announced.

Jackson’s candidacy reminds everybody of Cal Cunningham’s debacle, which reminded everybody of John Edwards’ scandal. Fair or not, North Carolina Democrats are wary of White, telegenic, male lawyers with thin resumes. To his credit, Jackson has been in the Senate longer than Cunningham, but since he spent his time in the legislature in the minority, he has no signature accomplishments.   

After the Georgia results, Democrats had a gestalt. Instead of looking for White moderate candidates in Southern swing states, they should be looking toward Black candidates who inspire passion in the electorate. Raphael Warnock’s candidacy motivated a huge turnout among African American voters that drug Jon Ossoff across the line. Had a White candidate been on the ballot with Ossoff, the Senate would likely be Republican today. 

In North Carolina, the last time Democrats won at the federal level, Barack Obama was on the ballot and he brought Kay Hagan over the finish line in 2008. Since then, Black turnout has been down and Democrats have suffered defeat after defeat. Jackson’s candidacy won’t likely juice Black turnout if he wins the nomination, so he will be more reliant on the collapse of the GOP, an iffy bet in the midterm following a Democratic victory for president.

Jackson is 38-years-old. He has time to wait. The Council of State will change when term limits force Roy Cooper to retire, opening opportunities for Jackson to get more experience and strengthen his resume. The state is getting an additional Congressional district and redistricting could create more opportunities. While women and African Americans are ascendant in the party today, that won’t always be the case as the party leadership becomes more diverse and Jackson’s profile, with more of a resume, will be less of a liability. 

Jackson’s sole primary opponent, Erica Smith, has her own problems. She ran a less than stellar campaign in her primary against Cal Cunningham and has yet to show much ability to raise money. She also had little support from legislative colleagues who could have swung support toward her in the primary. She can change all that but she will need to show that she learned a lot from her loss and not just that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee rigged the game against her. If the race comes down to Smith and Jackson, Smith has the advantage, if for no other reason than their resumes are comparable, but the primary electorate will be about 60% women and more than 40% African American. 

Personally, I am skeptical of candidates who get into races this early. The electorate and donor class is worn out from the drama of the 2020 election and looking for at least a short break from competitive politics. These politicians aren’t respecting the voters. Right now, there’s little enthusiasm for either of the announced candidates among the Democratic establishment. Savvier candidates would have waited at least a few more weeks. Either Jackson or Smith could gain momentum, but if they think anybody is paying attention to them in the last week of January, more than year before the 2022 primary, they need to get out of their bubbles a little more. Next spring, I may have different take, but, right now, I’m tired of politics.


  1. David Tinkler

    As a former contributor to The Thomas Mills Committee (and — with one exception– to the candidacies of every other Democratic candidate in NC and elsewhere mentioned in this article), I respectfully disagree with your assessment of Jeff Jackson. Most of the other comments above share my perspective — Jeff Jackson is a capable, hard-working and charismatic public servant who has done yeoman’s work in raising funds to assist other legislative candidates in NC. He the “real deal” — a candidate who listens to the concerns of the voters and who is able to articulate policy solutions in a way that will encourage them to vote Democratic. Yes, he is a white lawyer who has military experience, but that is not a disqualification. Just take a look at his campaign announcement video — what is there not to love? What other candidate could have raised over $500,000 in only two days? I’m damned proud to support Jeff Jackson for US Senate, and I hope that you soon will as well.

  2. Dwight Willis

    Mr. Mills, I think the person here who is misreading the room might be author of this article. Please don’t compare Jeff Jackson to anyone else. He has always been a “servant leader” who understands what true leadership means. Cunningham and Edwards never understood that concept. I’ve known Jeff Jackson a long time and he’s the real deal. He would never do anything that would embarrass his wife, his children, or NC voters. Get to know him better and you’ll see what I mean. NC has been waiting for Jeff for a very long time. This is his time.

  3. B

    I’ve been following Jeff Jackson ever since he showed up in Raleigh on a snow day and had fun posting his legislative agenda on Facebook. He was a freshman senator right out of the Army and didn’t know that NC legislators let a little white stuff keep them from their work.
    He is always on-point with his communications, as mentioned in other comments, so much so that his are the only political listserve emails I always open and read. (Daily, I delete 50-75 begging-for-money, sky-is-falling political emails–unread. I’d unsubscribe from most of them, but I respect the numbers game.)
    He is a bred-and-born North Carolinian. He has a lovely wife and very cute kids.
    He collected $964,442 in donations, the vast majority from 8,583 individuals, and won 55% of the District 37 vote in November. He has received $500,000 in campaign donations since announcing his decision to run two days ago.
    You might want to take another look at Jeff Jackson.

  4. Richard Bircher

    Being funded by a GOP PAC as Smith was will not help her.

  5. Tim Tyson

    I have no beef with Jeff Jackson. But the NC Democratic Party’s insistence on white male candidates for the top positions is also “identity politics.” This phenomena reeks of the old-but-not-so-old racial paternalism that says, We run a white man whose first loyalties are to corporate interests, we campaign to our right, keeping our moral high ground under a bushel, failing to see that the white former Democrats we are pandering to are not coming back.

    If we win, the Democratic leadership appoints a slice of the Black political class to state jobs and a substantial number of white women, in a politics that is strictly racial paternalism, not a coalition with power-sharing. This is way out of date: “we’re not as mean and stingy as the Republicans are” is not a high-turnout pitch. And now turnout is our ace in the hole.

    And whenever we lose, there is a chorus of white Democrats saying Black voters failed to vote in high enough numbers. I even heard this grumbling in 2012, even, when Black voters turned out in higher percentages than whites. And a huge chunk of white Democrats cast ballots for McCrory, turned out to be the most reactionary governor in decades. Black turnout sometimes exceeds white turnout, but is always not far behind.

    Correct for socioeconomic status—the single most reliable determinative index of voting—and Black voters are far more faithful Democrats than any other group. Why do you think the GOP spends so much time design election schemes carefully researched to suppress Black voting? Why do their election laws “target African Americans with almost surgical precision,” in the words of the federal court that struck them down?

    These retrograde attitudes in the upper levels of the state Democratic Party apparatus is outmatched by the Even worse Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Never has the DSCC endorsed a minority candidate and only one white woman; being white is obviously regarded as essential by those who seek to anoint our candidates. I admit that it might be slightly less grating if their “white-guy-military-veteran-good-hair-business guy” would WIN once in awhile. Out of the last eight DSCC-anointed US Senate candidates, handpicked for us by powers afar, SEVEN lost. Two of them, Erskine Bowles and Cal Cunningham, lost twice, Cunningham beaten in the primary in 2010 and in the general in 2020, neither of them strong candidates. Chuck Schumer has his strengths, but expertise in NC politics is not among them.

    African American voters, younger voters, other voters of color, and progressive whites will stitch the vibrant multicolored quilt of a coalition that is our sole hope here. become a quilt or we become dinosaurs waiting for the next Ice Age.

    One can quibble about details in either direction, but Thomas Mills sees our predicament clearly and offers a good start at addressing it. And anybody who thinks a vote for Chief Justice Cheri Beasley is “reverse racism” clearly has never bern in a room with her or watched her speak. Her shining intelligence, intellectual clarity, unadorned eloquence, irresistible warmth, disciplined work ethic, and solid maturity are the things of which victorious candidates are made. I agree with Thomas about the larger dynamics, but if we wanted political pragmatism to prevail just for now, save the weighty debates for later, she is by far the strongest candidate either declared, which she is not, or bandied about by others. She could win even in an off cycle, and that alone makes her the smart choice, provided she is willing.

    • Jim Neal


      Exceptionality well-put. You nailed it.

  6. Ruth Bromer

    I think you are way ofc base about Jeff Jackson. He has statewide appeal. He approached me a few years ago and I live in Raleigh. His posts are clear and informative. My daughter commented about how she gets so much concise information from him and she also is not in his district. Yes, he’s a white male but he’s no Cal Cunningham and that’s been clear from the beginning. I’ve never cared for Cunningham but I love Jeff Jackson. And he isn’t going to just do what the DNC or DSCC want him to do. That’s why they didn’t want him running last time. But Cunningham did what they asked and see where that got him and us.

  7. Will NC Dems ever learn?

    Thank you, Mr. Mills, for this perceptive post. Having read the comments it received, I hope people will read it again, this time with minds that are more open.

    In my humble opinion, Jeff Jackson is the quintessential DSCC candidate. Chuck Schumer will LOVE him. The problem for NC Dems is that the DSCC and Schumer know next to nothing about North Carolina and how to win here. By way of example, I’ll remind everyone that for 10 years the DSCC has backed candidates who have failed to win (2010, 2014, 2016, 2020). So my advice to NC Dems is to listen to Mr. Mills here. Beasley, Foxx and Stein are all vastly superior candidates who would do a better job of party-building and GOTV. Want Stacey Abrams to share some Georgia magic with us? Then let’s have a candidate that she can get enthusiastic about. Cheri? You bet! Jeff? I don’t think so.

    And for Jackson supporters who take issue with this post, I hope you will help by pointing out real work that Mr. Jackson has done that is essentially selfless. It seems to this observer that virtually everything he does is to help/promote himself. If you can, please let us know, and then maybe we’ll stop seeing Jeff as a prettier Cal.

  8. Norfleet Pruden

    Thomas, I generally like your comments, but you are dead wrong about this one. Jeff Jackson is a once-in-a-generation politician. He handily won re-election this year against a very attractive GOP opponent, and he’s one politician who sends his constituents emails that contain real, helpful information rather than just requests for contributions. He will be a terrific candidate, and I think you will soon see that he has a strong following.

  9. Kenneth Webb

    Identity politics on its own rarely wins elections. Kamala Harris in the end did not help Biden as much as the Democrats hoped.

    What wins elections is substance. What can you do for black and brown people to help their situation. What can you do for rural voters whose towns are dying?

  10. Carlton Huffman

    Not to quibble but I think Kay Hagan outperformed Obama by more than a little, and broke through with rural whites Down East in a dramatic manner.

  11. Richard Hren

    “After the Georgia results, Democrats had a gestalt. ” I have no idea what you mean. How can you have a gestalt?

  12. Foscoe Jones

    At this moment in American politics, a thin resume is more of an asset than a liability. The Democrats’ successful senate candidates last cycle – Warnock, Ossoff, Mark Kelly – all had little to no political experience. Jackson has a solid legislative record, military experience, no shortage of personal charm, and he’s built a strong political brand through his effective use of social media and his work on behalf of local candidates and parties. I think he was wise to jump in the race early and I expect him to be a formidable candidate.

  13. Paul Fogleman

    Your argument here will not hold water. Racial equality yes. Reverse racism not a winning strategy.

  14. Mike L

    I follow Jeff on social media and he comes across as very genuine and charismatic. Personally I’m excited to see him run.

    • Pie

      Jeff Jackson is not the tone deaf one, here

  15. Chris Marthinson

    I follow Jeff on FB and really trust his message so far.

  16. Brendan Dillon

    It’s a fair point that this announcement came early, and at a time when most folks would like a break from politics. Otherwise, I don’t see the argument here.

    I’d love to see a woman or BIPOC as our Senator, but Jackson is the kind of politician who doesn’t come along often, a happy warrior with real substance. The comparison with Cal Cunningham couldn’t be further off base. Cunningham vs. Tillis was the battle of the empty suits. Jackson is the real deal.

    It’s true that he doesn’t have many “accomplishments” in the legislature. You’ve reported at length over the last decade how NC Republicans have smited any influence Democrats might have over state legislation. No Democrat in the NCGA will have traditional “accomplishments” as long as Berger and Moore own the deed to 16 Jones Street.

    • Amy Tiemann

      Well said! I agree the comparison to Cunningham is particularly unfair.

  17. Phillipe Martinet

    Lol you get paid to write stuff like this?

    • Suzanne

      I am so excited that Jackson is running.

  18. Cathy Kratt

    I’m terribly weary of gutter politics, lies and obfuscation, but I’m thrilled Jeff Jackson will be in the running to represent NC in Washington. He doesn’t even represent me currently, but I relied on his clear, concise, no nonsense summaries of legislative happenings over the last year to keep me informed. My only concern, as always in politics, is whether a good human can remain a good human amidst all the power and pressures of elected office.

    • Sondi Martineau

      I think he’s reading the room pretty well. People hunger for someone both honest and charismatic, who is willing to listen as well as to talk.

      JJ just started his 4th term in the state Senate; his resume is just fine.

  19. Jeffrey L Cashion

    I think you are way off base on this one.

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