They’re still counting ballots both nationally and in North Carolina but we can start to get a sense of what happened in the election. More data will certainly fill out the picture and will probably debunk some initial takes, perhaps even the ones I’m about write. A few are clear, though. Joe Biden won the election. Republicans made gains in the U.S. House. Democrats will struggle to take the Senate. And Georgia surprised everybody, thanks to Stacey Abrams. 

In North Carolina, Democrats thought they would move into the realm of light blue states before our Southern neighbor. That didn’t happen this year. We had record turnout here with almost 75% of registered voters casting a ballot and yet Trump beat Biden, Tillis beat Cunningham and the GOP added seats to their state house majority. Democrats held the seats they already had on the Council of State and may have held onto the Chief Justice’s seat on the Supreme Court. It was a divided election that proved the state will be a battlefield for decades to come. 

The divide between rural and urban/suburban counties became more pronounced. North Carolina is the ninth largest state in the nation and has the largest rural population among the twenty largest states. The state may be shifting blue, but it will be a slow transition with 40% of North Carolinians still residing in rural areas. 

While Democrats did significantly better in urban areas like Raleigh, Charlotte, and Wilmington, they did far worse in rural counties like Robeson and Montgomery. The suburbs are increasingly in Democratic control and the exurbs are trending that way, but we’re a few more election cycles away from Democrats winning in most of those areas. Cabarrus, Johnston, and Union still delivered solid numbers for Republicans even if their margins decreased. 

Trump drove turnout in the rural areas and got an assist by poor messaging by Democrats’ activist wing. As South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn noted, the Defund the Police slogan probably motivated more Republicans than Democrats. In rural areas, law enforcement, for both Black and White people, is a way out of poverty and a good working class job in areas devastated by the loss of manufacturing. Attacking police isn’t a winning formula for the areas where Democrats need to make progress.

A focus group of Trump voters who supported Biden until the final days of the election backs up this view. The voters in the group believe that Biden will handle the pandemic better than Trump. They believe Trump has botched his response. They also support the Affordable Care Act and Roe v. Wade, but don’t believe the Supreme Court will overturn either. They overwhelming believe systemic racism exists and support Black Lives Matter. But they believe Defunding the Police “is crazier than anything Trump has ever said.” 

When the moderator of the group tried to explain that Defund the Police actually meant restructuring funding for police, the participants were having none of it. One woman said, “that is not what defund the police means, I’m sorry. It means they want to defund the police.” Nuance is not a strength of swing voters. 

In the Senate race, Cal Cunningham probably cost Democrats control of the U.S. Senate. Cunningham was polling significantly better than Biden throughout the race. And while the polling may have been off, it seems consistent that by the end of the race and after his scandal, Cunningham and Biden were at about the same place. 

Cunningham’s lead had nothing to do with his own biography or accomplishments and everything to do with the mediocrity of Thom Tillis. Tillis is the country’s luckiest politician. He beat Kay Hagan largely because the political environment soured for Democrats in the fall of 2014 because of ISIS and Ebola and he beat Cunningham because Cal showed us exactly how much of an empty suit he actually is.  I’ll write more about that later.

North Carolina reverted back to its history of supporting Democrats at the state level and Republicans at the federal level. They stuck with Cooper, who benefited from having a very weak opponent in Dan Forest, and Attorney General Josh Stein, who is getting used to razor-thin victories. Nothing much changed politically on the Council of State, though we will see new faces in the Lieutenant Governor’s office, at the Department of Labor, and Superintendent of Public Instruction. The GOP made inroads into the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, likely on the coattails of Trump. 

Nationally, the country rejected Donald Trump by a healthy margin. However, they didn’t embrace a Democratic message and gave Republicans back some of the seats they lost in Congress in 2018. It will be interesting to see the national Congressional vote when everything is counted. One interpretation could be that voters wanted an end to the Trump presidency but wanted a Congressional check on Biden’s presidency.  

Finally, we are stuck with divided government again. The big agenda Democrats wanted is likely DOA. In North Carolina, Democrats have a ways to go before they are a majority party. They will probably suffer through another redistricting that protects Republican majorities in the legislature at least until late in the decade. Despite the intentions of activists, prolonged protests do not appear have a favorable influence on political outcomes for progressives. They should probably work on a solid economic message that includes increasing the minimum wage, better health care, expanded broadband, additional sources of tax revenue like legalizing marijuana, and ending discrimination, including criminal justice reform. Progressives should follow the example of Stacey Abrams and spend more time registering voters than organizing protests, because wokeness ain’t working.

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