In an article in Politico this morning, Erica Smith says there is a “rising progressive wing” of the North Carolina Democratic Party. I don’t really believe that. For decades, liberals who live in places like Chapel Hill and Asheville have believed they are ascendant in the party. The evidence doesn’t really bear that out. 

Right now, Joe Biden leads the rest of the Democratic field by double digits in North Carolina. Roy Cooper is governor because of his pragmatic approach to governing, not his progressive credentials. Donald Trump and Mitt Romney both carried the state and Republicans have won the past two US Senate contests in the state. While Smith may be right that we have an increasingly active and vocal progressive wing, it’s still relatively small and most of its power is on social media, not at the ballot box. 

That gets to another point, though. Smith is running as a progressive but she’s governed more as moderate. In 2018, the conservative Civitas Institute rated her as one of the most conservative Democrats in the state senate. In 2016, Grassroots NC, a pro-gun group that makes the NRA look like a bunch of liberals, gives her a perfect rating. She supported the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and she was a member of the moderate, pro-business Mainstream Democrats caucus.

All of that probably makes sense. She represents a heavily African-American district in rural northeastern North Carolina. Black voters in rural districts tend to be far more socially conservative than Democratic voters as a whole. Still, it’s disingenuous for her to try to make Cunningham the conservative in the race when her record is easily as moderate as his.

On issues like abortion, black Democrats representing rural areas have sided with Republicans at times because many of their voters are evangelical Christians. Those voters are the black working class, the counterpart to the white working class that gets so much attention. They’re church-going, small town and rural folks who generally want to be left alone. They are Democrats because Republicans have rejected civil rights legislation and affirmative action programs while supporting voter suppression laws that limit African American access to the ballot box. On guns, abortion and gay rights, they are more closely aligned to Republican policies.  

The rural black evangelicals also are a big reason that Democrats in North Carolina are more moderate than Democrats in northern or western states. They like Joe Biden because of his ties to Obama, sure, but they like him because he’s a religious man who suffered loss with grace and grew up in a working class family. He shares their values. 

In the US Senate contest in North Carolina, both Smith and Cunningham are moderates, despite what Smith would have urban voters believe. Cunningham is taking a pragmatic approach in the tradition of Roy Cooper or Jim Hunt. Smith is running as a progressive on social media but has governed as conservative Democrat in the legislature. We’ll see which approach works out in March. 

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