What did North Carolina Democrats learn from the elections earlier this month?
A few lessons:
1. North Carolina Democrats learned the great advantages of recruiting good candidates to run in every district, even when the odds of winning some entrenched legislative seats had seemed remote. Well-funded, well-organized campaigns can produce demonstrably good results.
2. However, they learned again that clever partisan gerrymandering gives Republicans a clear advantage in legislative and congressional elections.
Until this year, the situation was similar in Pennsylvania. Republicans held a 13-5 edge in that state’s congressional delegation prior to redistricting ordered by the state’s Supreme Court. In this month’s election, using the new districts, each party won nine seats.
In North Carolina, where the total statewide congressional vote is about even, Republicans nevertheless have a 10-3 advantage. The current districting plan concentrates many Democratic voters into the three Democratic districts and spreads Republican voters throughout the remainder. With seven losing Democrats garnering more than 40 percent of the vote in the recent election, a fair redistricting plan would have made several of them winners.
Federal judges have already ruled that the existing North Carolina congressional districts violate voter rights. Subject to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, new and fairer districts could be in place by 2020.
However, new and fair districts will not automatically result in a balanced congressional delegation. Geographic gerrymandering has many Democratic voters packed into urban areas and spreads Republicans more evenly throughout the rest of the state, giving them a better chance to win in more districts.
In state legislative races, Democrats were much more successful than in recent years in the urban areas along I-85, Charlotte, the Triad and the Triangle, but they still struggle in the widely dispersed rural areas. The geographic gerrymandering will continue to make it difficult for Democrats to regain control of the legislature even if partisan gerrymandering ends.
Thus, Democrats will have to do more than simply wait for judicially mandated fair redistricting. They must also work to develop greater strength in North Carolina suburban and rural areas, using the same techniques as they did to gain strength in urban areas, namely organization, candidate development, and adjustment of platforms to respond to the concerns in those areas.
3. Democrats may no longer need to run away from being identified as Democrats in statewide elections. Their success in state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals judicial candidates showed this dramatically. Past conventional wisdom argued judicial candidates with a Democratic Party label were at a disadvantage. However, in the recent election, the candidates who were identified as Democrats on the ballot came out winners.
Was this advantage a quirk, or will it carry over to future elections and non-judicial contests?
We will get a clue in the next election if Democratic candidates for all offices start to put their party affiliation on their yard signs again.
4. The results in Texas, Georgia and Florida, even though losing, should be encouraging to North Carolina Democrats. The campaigns of Beto O’Rourke in Texas and Stacey Abrams in Georgia demonstrated that Democrats can again mount competitive statewide campaigns even in the deepest red Southern Republican stronghold states.
That is good news for Democrats in North Carolina, which is not nearly as Republican as those two states.
More significantly, perhaps, Abrams and Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, ran unapologetically as progressive African-Americans. They were able to move past race with many white voters while boosting the turnout of black voters.
The lesson for North Carolina Democrats is that it is not enough to look for black voters to support the party’s ticket. It is to recruit, develop and train black candidates like Gillum and Abrams who can lead their tickets to victory in future elections.