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North Carolina Sends Democrats a Wake-Up Call

It’s not the narrow loss in a special election that should worry the national party, it’s what Republicans did the next morning.

Sara D. Davis/Getty

When it comes to North Carolina politics, there’s not much left to say, and yet there is everything to shout.

Tuesday night, right-wing Republican Dan Bishop claimed the 9th district over moderate Democrat Dan McCready in a heavily watched special election for the House of Representatives. The seat remained vacant after the 2018 midterms due to revelations of GOP-backed ballot fraud. The loss was not particularly surprising—McCready, a centrist to the core, was not an invigorating candidate, droning on about crossing the aisle and failing to offer policy proposals that could be described as exciting to voters. But Wednesday morning, state Republicans made sure that whatever hot takes had been written about a Democrat nearly winning a seat that’s been red since 1963 were cold by breakfast.

Around eight-thirty in the morning, North Carolina Speaker of the House Tim Moore, a Republican, introduced a vote on a bill to override Democratic Governor Roy Cooper’s veto of the GOP-penned state budget. This unforeseen action prompted a round of objections and shouting by the few Democrats present in the chamber, though it was all for naught. With the chamber only half-full, North Carolina House Republicans voted 55–9 to override Cooper’s veto. The shouting from the nine Democrats in the chamber and the ensuing press conference underscored the fact that the absent Democratic leadership—erroneously reported to be at a 9/11 memorial event—had no clue any legislation would be considered in the morning session.

In a vacuum, this action by the GOP would be outrageous. A strike against the core of democracy, and some other nice taglines. And it is, but more than any of the negative descriptors that have been muttered by North Carolina Democrats in the wake of the override, the GOP’s massive middle finger to their counterparts and the governor was entirely predictable to anyone who’s paid a lick of attention to the conservatives in the Tar Heel State, or Washington D.C., or anywhere in the nation, for that matter.

North Carolina has long served as a microcosm for national politics. Its governing power is a careful balance between a handful of liberal urban areas and hundreds of conservative rural communities. The conservative leadership is several long steps to the right of your typical North Carolina Republican, while the brain trust atop the Democratic Party is stuck in the same moderate pattern it’s been in since the 1980s. And despite there being a fairly even split of ideological beliefs among the citizenry, there is only one party that has been willing to unrelentingly wield power this past decade, thanks to circumstances that might feel eerily familiar to those outside the state.

In 2010, two years after Barack Obama narrowly won North Carolina, the GOP swept into the state legislature, claiming a supermajority in the House and Senate, forcing a state that had been considered the progressive beacon of the South for the past 40 years to take stock of what it really was. The ills lurking below the surface—the homophobia, sexism, and racism that were regularly tolerated (as it was in the town where I grew up)—were enflamed by a recession that struck at the worst possible time.

By Obama’s first election in 2008, the small mill towns and quaint tobacco farming communities were then just small, factoryless towns and not-so-quaint communities, their economic foundations shipped overseas. The “get big or get out” mentality assumed by federal and state politicians looking to cash in on international trade deals and industrial agriculture campaign contributions left the citizenry searching for crumbs. And so, rather than turn to solutions of economic populism as they had in the 1940s and 1950s, the people of these towns instead turned to the worst of what American politics had to offer.

Republicans, long thirsty for any semblance of power in what was essentially a Democratic Party–controlled state legislature for the better part of a century, stormed into the General Assembly, slashing the education budget, rejected gay marriage, and targeting trans people. They then redrew the electoral maps in such a partisan and overtly racist manner that the courts unflinchingly called them for the retrograde artifacts they were.

To achieve all this, the GOP did not once look across the aisle. For eight years, they barely acknowledged the existence of Democratic politicians—because why should they? The Republicans didn’t need them to pass legislation, and once their own Pat McCrory took the governorship in 2013, they didn’t even need to go through the cumbersome veto-override process anymore. It was full steam ahead. At least until last November, when the Democratic Party managed to win back enough seats to break the supermajority.

But by then, the damage had been done. Alarmingly, however, no lessons were learned.

Replace tobacco with coal or auto manufacturing or whatever single industry used to prop up the community you call home; replace the 2010 state elections with the 2016 presidential vote; swap the weak-willed North Carolina Democratic Party leaders with Representative Nancy Pelosi, Senator Chuck Schumer, and the DNC.

There might not be a perfect way to convince upscale suburban voters—who may have socially liberal inclinations but mainly care about lower taxes—to vote for Democratic candidates. But the people of North Carolina, like citizens in the rest of the country, have witnessed repeatedly how Democrats’ current approach has failed. Acquiescing to the less-heinous conservative proposals and offering voters candidates who openly disdain progressives in their own party only ends in overridden vetoes, transphobic bathroom bills, gay marriage bans, underfunded schools, and voters deciding to stay home or go to the mall rather than to the polls.

Citizens who recognized that the politics of the state are now a divisive, winner-take-all affair did what Democrats would not: They acted. They flooded the state capitol to demand adequate school funding, they occupied government buildings, and knocked down Confederate statues. They made their will and desires known, only to be chastised—by the party that claimed to represent them—to act in a more civil manner.

On Wednesday morning, Democratic state Representative Deb Butler berated Moore in the moments after he’d played the GOP’s sneaky override card. “This is a tragedy, a travesty of the process and you know it,” she shouted. The reason why she, or any Democrat across the nation, thinks the GOP (or the voters) care more about process than they do about winning is one reason why Democrats continue to lose.