A PPP poll came out last week that should give Democrats a boost and hope. Senator Trudy Wade has an approval rating that’s way underwater. Only 30% approve of the job she’s doing while 54% disapprove. Wade pushed through a bill that redistricted Greensboro against the wishes of the vast majority of people. Nobody, regardless of party, likes political overreach.
In 2014, Brian Turner upset Republican Representative Tim Moffitt for doing essentially the same thing. Moffitt’s district, like Wade’s, should have been safe Republican and 2014 was a GOP wave year. If Turner can win in that environment, then Democrats should be able to win in Senate and House districts across the state in 2016.
Unfortunately, too many Democrats are pushing self-defeating narratives that discourage candidates from running and donors from giving. One storyline says that the state is trending red, that 2008 was a fluke, and that the last three elections cycles prove it. That’s just wrong. The 2014 election should have proven that.
North Carolina was the only state with a GOP-controlled legislature to add Democratic seats last year. Kay Hagen might have lost but she stayed competitive throughout a year when Democratic Senate candidates tanked across the country. Even Thom Tillis’ consultant admitted that ISIS and Ebola (remember that?) turned the tide for Tillis at the end.
The other damaging narrative states that Democrats can’t win in heavily gerrymandered districts. That’s not true either, but it has some validity that the first narrative lacks. It’s true that Democrats can’t win in heavily gerrymandered districts if they wage the same type of campaigns they’ve been running for the last 20 years.
The model for running legislative campaigns promoted by caucus organizations at the state and national level is outdated and suited more to a party in the majority than a party deep in the minority. Democrats have failed to adapt to changing political and social environments. And they’ve failed to use modern communication tools effectively.
The days of sticking candidates in a call room and telling them not to spend any money until the last two months of a campaign should be over. That strategy will never work in a Republican-held district where there are as many Republicans as Democrats and independents make up a quarter or more of the voters. The only way to win in that district is to change the dynamic of the race early enough to attract donors so that there is money to spend in those last two months.
Democratic candidates need to be far more aggressive and learn how to use the tools at their disposal. They need to begin defining Republicans early among the 25% or so of the electorate that is paying attention. They need to exploit GOP missteps and they need to create a public perception that a race is winnable long before the paid communication of television or direct mail begins.
Most Democratic legislative candidates don’t come with fat rolodexes full of phone numbers for wealthy people. And most donors don’t give to campaigns that they don’t believe can win. Right now, partly because of the gerrymandering narrative driven by Democrats and the press, potential donors look at most districts and see red, not blue. Candidates have to change that perception and it doesn’t happen in a vacuum or overnight.
Trudy Wade is not an anomaly. She’s the standard. The GOP legislature has overreached. They’re sending tax dollars to private schools while starving public ones. They’ve cut our university system while raising tuition on students. And in districts across the state, they’ve used authoritarian tactics to undermine local governments.
Most voters don’t know this stuff. It’s up to candidates to tell them. And they need to start telling them early. If they do, they might make non-competitive districts competitive, but it won’t happen if they’re not educating voters now.
So run, Democrats. Take the fight to the Republicans. Let people know what they’ve done to our state and our children. But don’t wait until September next year. Money will follow competitive races. To make these districts competitive, you have to change the dynamics and to do that, you need to start closer to this September than next.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >