A rising force in state politics, Carolina Forward held a forum the Thursday after our last midterm election that yielded provocative insights about the state of North Carolina’s political field. (Full disclosure: I am a Carolina Forward contributor.) The central message emanating from CF’s panel amounted to: “Democrats, don’t give up.” The party has struggled to surmount NC’s ingrained conservative tendencies, but this state is not beyond the reach of a progressive renaissance.

One of the sharpest panelists, Professor Chris Cooper of Western Carolina University, established a useful schematic for understanding competitive dynamics in the state. National observers, he posited, have overread “wins and losses” and underestimated the significance of electoral margins. As Cooper’s longtime collaborator, Dr. Mike Bitzer, has observed, from 2010-2020 Republicans won federal elections in the state by 3%. But Democrats prevailed in state-level races by a similarly narrow 1.5 percentage points. Partly, this reflects the persistence of ticket-splitting, particularly in gubernatorial races. But the closeness of both state and federal contests in North Carolina confirms Professor Cooper’s thesis about the state’s fundamental competitiveness. North Carolina’s status as the bluest red state is not dissimilar from Georgia’s recently earned position as the reddest state in the blue column; to treat Georgia as the hot new swing state while writing North Carolina off as forever red, does not hold up to logical scrutiny.

With the fundamentals so deeply competitive, North Carolina elections have come to hinge heavily on the dictates of the national political climate. Another CF panelist, my longtime friend Mac McCorkle, used this insight about the 2024 election. If the larger climate favors Democratic candidates, North Carolina will be winnable for the party. McCorkle’s argument contradicts national Democrats’ acquired cynicism about the Tar Heel state. I am confident Mac would permit that national groups like the DSCC and EMILY’s List have endured high-cost disappointments in the state. But we consistently drift along with the national current, and in a good enough environment, particularly with an attractive candidate leading the ticket, our state could finally flip to blue.

The lunch attendees enjoyed after Carolina Forward’s panel was over also yielded some useful insights. Apparently, a passel of Republican candidates intend to vie for the party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2024. Mark Robinson will be the dominant force in that primary. But U.S. Senator Thom Tillis, always looking for his next job, plans to primary the hateful lieutenant governor. So too do Treasurer Dale Folwell and Mark “Never Give Up” Walker. Any of the latter three men could win the governorship; I wish I could NOT say the same of Mark Robinson.

National observers, and even some in North Carolina, have begun to think that North Carolina belongs enduringly in the red column. I’m sometimes prone to this kind of pessimism given the strong elements of conservatism contained in the state’s political DNA. Carolina Forward’s panel, by contrast, explained even to discouraged liberals that this ostensibly red state’s Republican status rests on unsteady foundations. At the least, its jubilant Republican victors should not trumpet their 2022 success as a mandate to rule forever.

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