Back in 2005, Democrats were coming off a difficult 2004 election cycle. John Kerry failed to unseat George W. Bush. In North Carolina, Erskine Bowles lost his second attempt at winning a U.S. Senate seat. The activist wing of the party was antsy, blaming a moribund establishment for the loss.
A year before, Howard Dean had invigorated a grassroots movement during his short-lived presidential bid and used new tools to fund his campaign. Many of the people he excited had not participated in politics before. Now, in the wake of the 2004 loss, they wanted a seat at the table and they were taking aim at party leaders they believed out of touch with voters.
Long-time North Carolina State Party Chair Barbara Allen announced her retirement. Governor Mike Easley nominated attorney Ed Turlington, a former state party executive director, veteran of the Hunt administration, and long-time Democratic Party stalwart, to serve as chair of the party. The activists balked and got behind Jerry Meek, an attorney from Fayetteville who had long been involved in Democratic politics and had run for the state legislature.
Turlington secured the support of the establishment across the state, but Meek rallied the newcomers and disgruntled members of the old rank-and-file. In the end, Meek defeated Turlington and took over the leadership position. While he was popular with the party base, Meek never established much of a working relationship with Easley. Not much really changed within party headquarters. The executive director, who oversees the day-to-day operation of the party, stayed the same and kept his working relationship with the governor, which in turn kept the funds necessary to keep the party operational. The state house and state senate caucuses continued to operate as if nothing had happened. Meek was able to tamp down the restlessness among the party faithful, but he couldn’t change the fundamental reality of politics: it takes money, and lots of it.
Today, we find ourselves in a similar place. In the wake of the 2022 election, several people who read this blog commented that the leadership of the North Carolina Democratic Party needed to resign or be thrown out. Now, there’s what seems to be a hotly contested for state party chair. While several candidates are running, the two garnering the most attention are the current chair, Bobbie Richardson, and Person County Chair Anderson Clayton.
Richardson has the support of the party establishment. Clayton is motivating the disgruntled base, many of whom became active in response to Donald Trump. If this year is a repeat of 2005, Clayton will win.
Much of the dissatisfaction of the party is far beyond anybody’s control. Those who believe Democrats need a year-round organizing operation have never said how they plan to fund it. The state Democratic Party is dependent on the support of the governor or from some organizational component of the national party. There’s no independent funding base for the North Carolina Democratic Party itself.
Richardson is getting blamed for not implementing a robust statewide field program during the 2022 cycle, but that’s not her fault. All of those operations are funded by national money and have been for decades. In 2022, those folks largely took a pass on North Carolina. Field programs are expensive and take millions of dollars to implement in a state the size of North Carolina.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee focused on protecting three incumbents and competing in an open seat in Pennsylvania to keep their majority. They clearly helped Cheri Beasley raise money, but they didn’t put much of an independent investment into the state and what they did spend went to communications. You can argue with that strategy, but you can’t control their dollars.
In 2024, North Carolina will probably see a flood of money again. The governor’s race is likely to be one of the most competitive in the nation and the Democratic Governors Association will weigh in heavily. They will probably run much of their field money through the NCDP because of favorable campaign finance laws. However, if they don’t trust the party leadership to spend their money like they want, they will use a workaround like they did when the national party organizations used the Wake County Party to funnel their money into the state.
The role of the state party today is to establish a professional operation that provides communication support to elected leaders and push back on the Republican narrative. It needs to have a fundraising component that keeps the doors open at state party headquarters. It should encourage organization of local parties but realistically won’t have any money to support those efforts. The leadership needs to understand the myriad of complex state and federal campaign laws that allow national organizations to funnel money through state parties, so when it comes, they know what to do without violating laws. And they need to build trust with the people and organizations who control that money.
The state house and senate caucuses operate largely independently of the state party, though they are housed in the same building. They have their own staff and their own bank accuounts. House and Senate leaders are responsible for raising their own money and they aren’t likely to share much of it with the party unless it’s to pay for specific programs. If they are lucky, money will come from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, but again, that won’t go to the state party itself.
All of this is to say, not much is going to change regardless of who is state party chair. The case for Richardson is that she is former state legislator who already has the trust of the people who will fund the party. She’s a known quantity who has earned respect among the establishment, if not the activist class.
The argument against Richardson is that she is more of the same. She’s part of a relatively boring establishment in a state that has not won a statewide federal election since North Carolina voted for Barack Obama and Kay Hagan in 2008. She’s not going to bring new energy to the party.
The case for Anderson Clayton is that she is young and reflects the energy in the party. The party is led by a bunch of people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, but it’s dependent on high turnout of people under 40 years old to win statewide. Clayton might be able to motivate more young people to participate in the political process.
If Clayton wins, she’s going to have a steep learning curve. She will need to quickly earn the trust of Roy Cooper and the political establishment. She will need to figure out the election laws and build relationships with the national organizations that fund organizing efforts like she wants to implement, because building a statewide organization in a state of 11 million people takes millions of dollars. And she will have to learn that the establishment she wants to shake up is pretty intractable.
Like in 2005, the race for Democratic Party Chair has captured the attention of activists and party insiders. A candidate known for years by the party establishment is being challenged by an upstart activist pledging to inject new energy into the organization. In reality, the stakes are pretty low. The party chair only has as much power as the establishment, both here and in Washington, allows. The chair will either cooperate and become an arm of that establishment and have money, or they will buck the establishment and have none. Most people in the state won’t know one way or the other.