Democrats in North Carolina, like over-the-hill former athletes, have a regrettable habit of celebrating long-past wins. Listen to their candidates, and it won’t be long until you hear someone sigh nostalgically about how they broke the Republican supermajority in the state legislature in 2018—over four years ago. Stay a little longer, and someone will mention 2008, when Obama flipped the state (by a hair), and a big portion of today’s electorate could not even drive.
In just a few days, the North Carolina Democratic Party will gather for its biannual selection of leaders, and hangdog nostalgia will be temporarily replaced by upbeat, inspirational speechifying. But make no mistake—Democrats in our state face some tough years ahead. And only a proper accounting of how they arrived here, and demanding accountability for it, will offer a way out of the wilderness. The only question is – are Democrats ready for a reckoning?
The numbers are stark: Democrats have now lost every single statewide judicial race for two election cycles running. That is 0-14, for anyone counting. As a result, the North Carolina Supreme Court will be under GOP control until at least 2028, and probably longer. The party has lost every U.S. Senate election, 5 in all, since Kay Hagan in 2008. (Hagan, famously, bypassed the state party entirely to run her campaign.) Since 2016, Democrats have lost control of key Council of State positions, like Treasurer, State Superintendent of Schools and Insurance Commissioner; positions which few voters care about, but which nevertheless wield power that is quite real. Only longstanding Council of State Democrats with lasting name recognition, like Elaine Marshall and Beth Wood, have survived (and not for much longer, for different reasons). Even marquee candidates Roy Cooper and Josh Stein have managed to be re-elected only by wafer-thin margins.
There are many reasonable explanations, and excuses, for one campaign’s failure or another. Naturally, there are good, bad, and middling cycles; any number of questionable campaign decisions and candidate choices; the never-ending question of fundraising. But what we see here is a pattern. Since 2010, Democrats in North Carolina have never truly recovered as a party. Only herculean efforts by remarkably talented and well-funded candidates at the top of the ticket—like Roy Cooper—have been able to win, as much despite the party as because of anything it has done.
And that’s fine, as long as you’re Roy Cooper. But as a political party, which is organized to implement changes in governance through coordinated political action, it is mostly a failure. And it is not a recipe for long-term success.
Consider: In 2024, Lt. Governor Mark Robinson is all but assured to be the Republican nominee for governor. This prospect sends chills up many Democratic spines. Robinson is a weak candidate, which in the language of North Carolina’s inelastic electorate means that he may receive “only” 45 percent of the vote. But even if the Democratic candidate bests him, their victory may prove cold comfort. A Democratic governor in 2025 is likely to face a legislature with a solid Republican supermajority, thanks to gerrymandered maps blessed by the aforementioned Republican-controlled state Supreme Court. The governor’s freedom of action will also be hemmed-in by a Republican-controlled Council of State. Thus, even if Robinson does manage to win—a completely plausible scenario—the difference in actual policy outcomes for our state might not be so great.
One reason North Carolina Democrats have a problem winning elections is that they’re hemorrhaging voters. Basically, no one is registering new Democrats. The data is clear: Democrats have lost roughly 200,000 registered voters since 2016, continuing a long-running decline in their share of voters in our state. (The Republicans aren’t picking up many themselves, but at least they’re holding steady.) More and more voters today are picking the Unaffiliated label—and who can blame them? Faced with one party that has embraced modern fascism, and the other that seems committed to losing, it’s little wonder most voters are choosing neither.
Do Democrats prefer governing, or reclining in noble defeat? That remains to be seen. The party’s low-energy, battleplan-by-faculty-committee approach is plainly not working. Sharply-worded press releases will never be a substitute for the only true countermeasure against the radical-right’s extremism: winning elections, consistently and convincingly. This is a political party’s only job. And if party leaders aren’t doing it, they should be replaced in favor of those who will.
Have North Carolina Democrats lost enough, for long enough, to choose that course? We’ll find out soon. As they say: the party decides.
Blair Reeves is the Executive Director of Carolina Forward
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