North Carolina Democrats have a lot riding on their shoulders this election cycle. Next year, they need to do at least one of the following: either elect Roy Cooper governor, knock off Richard Burr in the U.S. Senate, or deliver the state’s 15 electoral votes to Hillary Clinton. Failure to do any of those things would make the 2010s the NC Democrats’ lost decade.
The 2016 cycle is their last chance to recover it because 2018 is a “blue moon” election year without any competitive races at the top of the ballot. This hasn’t been a friendly past six years for Democrats, which to many is a head-scratcher because the state is supposed to be getting more competitive.
Although it would be imprudent to discount Republicans’ superior advantage in money and infrastructure, Democrats in North Carolina have also been victims of two other important factors: timing and luck. In 2010, their majorities in the General Assembly were wiped out in the Tea Party wave. Two years later Democrats nationally had a good year, but not in North Carolina. Democrat Bev Perdue was unpopular and the state was ready to elect a Republican governor for the first time in decades. Finally, the new GOP majorities in the legislature used the power of the pen to redraw the district lines and make them more favorable to their candidates. So while 2012 was a good year for Team Blue, in North Carolina it was a banner year for Republicans.
In 2014, it looked like the state was once again willing to buck national trends – to the benefit of Democrats. Although the GOP looked to be riding a historic tide, the environment was different in North Carolina, and Kay Hagan was holding strong thanks to a campaign where state issues, particularly on education, were prominent. But the Hagan campaign could not overcome the national dynamics for long, and in October the race broke Tillis’s way. At the same time, Republicans increased their hold on the state’s congressional delegation, sending 10 Republicans to Washington and only 3 Democrats. The one bright spot was that Democrats managed to pick up a few seats in the State House – but they actually lost ground in the State Senate and Republicans kept their veto-proof majorities in both chambers regardless.
The 2016 cycle is an opportunity for Democrats to break the pattern of defeat, and the governor’s race in particular. The latest poll shows Governor Pat McCrory with a narrow, 2-point edge over Cooper, with the Attorney General unknown to many voters and a lot of people undecided.
McCrory/Cooper is also going to get a lot of attention because Democrats don’t look to be as competitive elsewhere, at least for now. Richard Burr is seeking a third term in the U.S. Senate and his race is seen as a lesser-tier contest. In the presidential race, observers expect the race to be less competitive than in 2008 and 2012 and leaning Republican – though with the GOP primary a total mess, anything can happen.
Still, the governor’s race is widely anticipated to be the most competitive contest, with the closest final outcome. If Cooper ekes out a victory, he’ll redeem North Carolina Democrats and his win will be a bright light in a generally dark and dismal decade. But if he loses, it probably means the party of Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt will have suffered a consistent losing streak throughout the 2010s – for Tar Heel progressives, truly a lost decade.
John Wynne is a writer for PoliticsNC.com, a website of commentary and analysis.