In the 2008 elections, North Carolina helped elect President Barack Obama and replaced Republican Elizabeth Dole with Democrat Kay Hagan as U.S. Senator. But Democrats were taken aback when only two years later Republicans swept both houses of the state legislature for the first time in over 100 years. Then, in 2013, Pat McCrory became the first Republican governor in nearly 30 year. North Carolina is a case study in a state taken over by the opposition and what happens when any governing regime becomes too comfortable.
The state also shows the ways key arenas shift and hold power in a state—in particular through the current regime’s work to reshape electoral, legislative, and judicial rules. Conservative state legislators have swiftly instituted new voter restrictions, ended public financing of judicial elections, and vigilantly enforced state control over local (and often more progressive) municipalities over even the smallest matters, and more. Republican power players (namely, Art Pope) are pouring money into judicial elections, as many important gerrymandering and corporate regulatory cases loom. By taking hold of key arenas Republicans can now move the levers of power in ways that did and will affect the future of elections and governance in the state. North Carolina’s prior regime was not truly progressive—better described as centrist Democrats.
A longtime "right-to-work" state (since 1947), it has among the lowest unionization rates in the country. The lack of labor regulations drew Northern textile and furniture manufacturers in the late 20th century, but these industries and agriculture have left the state for even-less-regulated places. The absence of union organizing meant little support for any organizing, and so the state lacks that historic infrastructure. Corporate influences held a comfortable alliance with the prior Democratic regime and under the cover of Southern politeness, racialized outcomes were not brought into public discourse let alone addressed.
The shifting economy is being matched by shifting demographics—churning that gave the new regime a place to establish its foothold. The Right has used shifting demographics to build divisions and the traditional Left is now considering organizing as a way to engage the changing population of the state. North Carolina added over three million residents from 1990 to 2010. Many were foreign-born Latino migrants but also migrants from New England (both young professionals and retirees). And while the population of color is younger, there is also a much older white population that tends to vote in accordance with its own priorities, versus ensuring the future well-being of the state, and tends to fear losing political power. It only took billionaire Art Pope and his colleague to add the financing to their fears to start the takeover of the state.
Democrats did use their time in power to build some important institutions and mechanisms. A bipartisan endeavor over the last several decades, the state has been among the best in the U.S. in funding higher education and K-12 education. This is in part due to corporate-community-government alliances that have helped create the Raleigh-Durham Research Triangle. These alliances are under concerted threat—the current regime is trying to erode consensus on the issue to split apart the Democratic base. For many "everyday" North Carolinians, even Republicans, some of these rapid changes at the state level are going too far and the more radical Republican elected officials are getting heat from their more moderately conservative base.
Those voices, of residents who do not identify with or have been affected by the conservative "revolution," are precisely those with whom progressives are now seeking to work. The loss of government funding to environmental, rural, and other non-profits that once housed progressives has exposed the how fragile the Left had become and its failure to empower the grassroots— that is, to build outsider (i.e., civic) capacity alongside its insider advocacy infrastructure. The traditional Left is now well aware of its weaknesses and is developing more sophisticated funding streams, a communications strategy, and—perhaps most importantly—a ground game that connects with people of color.
Organizations are establishing field offices and working to re-align themselves with and grow a diverse base. These efforts came to the national stage in the state’s Moral Monday protest, where faith, community, and labor progressive groups stood together week after week at the halls of the state’s legislature. While alliance and leadership infrastructures are still nascent, Moral Mondays also showed that North Carolina has untapped reserves of grassroots energy—and with deeper engagements with wider cross-sections of the state, progressives can once again take the reins to steer the state onto more sustainable progressive pathways.
North Carolina has become ground zero for the rapid rise of campaign contributions to judicial elections from the political right, especially with the elimination of the state's public finance program for judicial races in 2012. In 2014, $1 million was poured into just one primary race for a Democratically-held North Carolina Supreme Court seat, most of which came from the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), and the state's Chamber of Commerce, with money from companies like Koch Industries, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and tobacco giant Reynolds American. While the Democrat incumbent managed to hold on to her seat in that particular race—with a narrow 4 percentage point margin—the North Carolina Supreme Court now has five Republicans and two Democrats on its bench. And in North Carolina, campaign cash is not a basis for recusal, so, it is likely campaign contributors like Duke Energy, which had billions of dollars in lawsuits pending over major coal ash spills and water contamination, face judges in the state's courts whom they helped elect. Judicial contributions, in this case massive funds from the RSLC, reverberate in the electoralas well: After first attempting to reject the case in 2016, the state Supreme Court ruled 4-3 against plaintiffs who charged gerrymandering in the Republican legislature's new electoral maps, despite the judgement contradicting the U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling on the topic. As political money is increasingly funneled into judicial elections like these, recusal rules and judicial campaign finance regulation become that much more important to consider.