For Democrats in North Carolina, 2013 was a nightmare. They watched a veto proof majority and compliant governor dismantle many of the party’s signature programs whether they were successful or not. Entering the legislative session, they knew things would be bad, but they never really envisioned how bad.
To make matters worse, the state Democratic Party was in disarray and ill prepared to provide a voice of opposition. The new leadership didn’t understand the role of the state party and initially put together a team with no experience in statewide campaigns. Instead of becoming the voice of the loyal opposition, they became a laughing-stock, drawing national attention for several self-inflicted wounds.
When the session began, it became clear that the GOP had no intention of inviting input from the minority Party. With veto proof majorities, they offered no significant committee appointments and quickly began steamrolling legislation. The Democratic leadership never really developed an effective voice, though Sen. Josh Stein regularly offered sharp rebukes and quickly became a progressive champion.
Without an effective strategy to slow down the Republicans from inside the legislature and with no help coming from the Democratic Party, outside groups took up the fight. The Moral Monday protests used civil disobedience to grab the attention of the media. And as the crowds swelled on Monday afternoons, so did the press, both locally and nationally. It didn’t slow the GOP train, but it galvanized the Democratic base and planted seeds of discontent in the minds of citizens of all political stripes.
While Moral Mondays offered a broad critique, ProgressNC focused on specific policies like teacher pay and the right to choose. They used gimmicks and flash rallies to garner attention. Working with allies like Planned Parenthood and NCAE, they forced GOP errors like the mid-summer mini-scandal that the press dubbed “ball-gate.”
If Democrats began the session demoralized and disillusioned, they ended it angry and motivated. By fall, newspapers were writing that a backlash felt likely. The Mountain Moral Monday protest in Asheville brought out thousands of people outside the state capital. The state Democratic Party, under the leadership of a new Executive Director, seems to have come back to life.
However, Democrats still face an uphill battle in 2014. The GOP has built-in structural advantages in the legislative and Congressional districts and they will have far more money. While protests can motivate the base, a real GOTV program that drives people to the polls takes money, organization and accountability.
Finally, Democrats will need to find a voice and some leaders. While the election in North Carolina may focus on what the GOP has done, Democrats need to offer a vision of what they would do differently. They need to develop a message and stick to it. Roy Cooper offered Democrats a champion when he announce he would run for Governor in 2016, but somebody needs to lead the charge against Republicans in the legislature and exploit the divisions that are likely to arise in GOP ranks. In short, Democrats need to figure out how to be an effective minority party. It’s a position they are likely to be in for awhile.