In the collective hagiography of conservative memory, 1984 is remembered as a high point. The Reagan landslide served as a resounding vindication of movement conservatism. It was the fulcrum point of a decade of right-of-center dominance. As in the nation, so in North Carolina. Republicans won the governorship that year and delivered Jim Hunt his only electoral defeat. In no small part, these achievements owed to the formidable ticket the Republican Party fielded that year: Reagan for president, Jesse Helms for senate, and Jim Martin for the governorship.
2020 is shaping up to be a year of similar import, but this time the NCGOP is represented by a decidedly weaker slate of candidates. The polling bears out their lackluster quality. Dan Forest is trailing Governor Cooper by double digits; Thom Tillis is barely doing better, and Donald Trump, at the top of the ticket, is losing in a state Republicans have carried in nine of the last eleven presidential elections. Things look grim for the former Party of Lincoln.
Part of this underperformance owes to the dismal state of the country. Millions out of work, 140,000 dead, unrest in the streets: America is in a worse spot than it has been since the Vietnam era. But this smoldering wreck of a national moment is directly related to the weakness of Republican candidates. The buck stops with Trump. More than anyone else, he is responsible for the country’s woeful response to the pandemic and the widespread climate of social discontent that he has spent nine years stoking for his own political benefit. Thom Tillis is currently being foist on his own petard, having hugged Trump for a year before realizing that the president would be a liability.
This record of governing failure will haunt the GOP in the years to come. We are at the start of a new decade, and politically that means that the legislature which is seated next year will draw the district lines for the 2020’s. If Republicans lose both houses of the legislature, or even just one, they will have to compete for legislative and Congressional seats in an environmental markedly less favorable than the one they have enjoyed since 2010. In addition, the Democratic Party has embraced an ambitious progressive agenda at every level of government. A Democratic sweep this year could usher in a paradigm shift of public policy, moving American government sharply to the left on everything from healthcare to environmental regulation.
Stronger Republican candidates that Trump, Tillis and Forest could provide a bulwark against this tough set of fundamentals. But all three have positioned themselves as base-first populists on the wrong side of public opinion. Further, they are running inept campaigns. Yes, the environment could shift in the three months between now and election day, but it is unlikely that the GOP ticket will be able to salvage 2020 unless this hypothetical change turns out to be a complete revolution.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.