The last time that a Democratic presidential candidate won North Carolina, Anderson Clayton could not vote.
But now, the 25-year-old chairwoman of the North Carolina Democratic Party has a task that would overwhelm operatives twice her age: flip North Carolina blue for the first time in 16 years.
“Like, I know that we either win in 2024, and we do amazing things and we go forward as a state and as a nation, or we regress backwards,” she told The Independent in an interview. “It really is now or never for North Carolina, in my opinion.”
Republicans, for their part, know that the state is important. Last weekend, former president Donald Trump, former vice president Mike Pence and Florida Gov Ron DeSantis, three of the top contenders for the Republican nomination for president, descended on Greensboro for the state GOP convention. North Carolina is not an early primary state like Iowa, New Hampshire, or even neighbouring South Carolina. But the three candidates visiting the state shows the importance of the state, Ms Clayton told The Independent.
“They have to win North Carolina,” Ms Clayton said, noting how the last time a Republican won the presidency without winning the Tar Heel State was Dwight Eisenhower’ in the 1950s. “And what’s at stake is that you have three candidates like Trump and Pence and DeSantis, who are coming in who are all three examples, in my opinion, of right-wing extremism each in their own right.”
Democratic voters in the state have plenty of reasons to turn out and vote. Despite the fact that the state has a Democratic governor in Roy Cooper, Republicans in the state legislature have enough votes to override his veto, which they did recently when they passed a 12-week abortion ban, cutting off abortion access throughout a majority of the South. Mr Cooper, who is term-limited, will also see the end of his term in 2024, which means Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein will compete for his seat against Mark Robinson, who has a history of making inflammatory remarks.
Ms Clayton said she is not taking anything for granted, especially against an incredibly well-organised Republican Party.
“I think that Democrats have to take the energy that we have right now and the anger that we have right now and motivate it forward and use people to say how do we turn anger into action,” she said. “Because right now, there’s not a whole lot of things that we can change at the state level, because you know, you do have racial gerrymandering that is now legal … that is racial gerrymandering to me.”
Democrats in North Carolina were not always starting from such a disadvantage. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential nominee to win North Carolina since Jimmy Carter in 1976, while Kay Hagan won the state’s US Senate seat. Democrats also controlled the governorship and both houses of the North Carolina General Assembly even as other Southern states moved rightward since the 1960s.
But since Mr Obama’s 2008 victory, Republicans have run the table in the state. In 2010, as the state reeled from the Great Recession, Republicans took both houses of the General Assembly for the first time since 1898 and in 2012, they won the governorship, giving them the first trifecta in ages.
Since then, Republicans flipped the state’s other Senate seat when Thom Tillis won it in 2014 and held it in 2020 when a sex scandal felled Democrat Cal Cunningham, and Joe Biden narrowly lost the state even as Mr Cooper won re-election. Last year, even as Democrats beat back two Trump-endorsed congressional candidates, Republicans gained seats in the state legislature, cleaned up in the Supreme Court, and Republican Ted Budd beat Cheri Beasley in the Senate race thanks in part to Mr Trump’s endorsement and tons of money from Senate Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund political action committee.
The weak performance led to Ms Clayton’s election. She said Democrats have made many mistakes in those intervening years, which caused them to fall so far, suggesting the party appears to have mostly abandoned rural voters.
“The majority of North Carolina lives in a rural community, you’ve got the highest or the second highest population of rural folks besides Texas in our state,” she said. “And to cede any of that ground to see these populations that have historically black and brown communities. And then in these rural counties that we have not tapped into, it’s just doing a disservice to our party.”
She said that means going to every county in the state.
“So in our Democratic governor candidate showing up in Cherokee County in North Carolina, my God,” she said. “When was the last time that, you know, Murphy saw a Democrat, like, it’s been a minute, to be honest with you.”
She also added that Democrats could learn from Mr Obama’s victory in 2008, when he sent organisers throughout the South. President Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee have begun to make a play for the state and Mr Biden visited North Carolina last week. Ms Clayton added that, for the most part, Democrats nationally have avoided supporting state parties in the South.
“Georgia had to win an election before the national party came in and invested in them,” she said. “There’s a real aspect here of, we have underfunded the South for generations in this party. And you’re underfunding an area that is predominantly Black and brown communities that are, I think, a sleeping giant of the Democratic Party in the South.”
North Carolina has eluded Democrats, unlike other southern states. Virginia has voted for a Democrat for president every election since Mr Obama’s first victory, though it elected a Republican governor in 2021, while Georgia voted for a Democrat for the first time since 1992 when Mr Biden won it in 2020 and it now has two Democratic Senators.
Ms Clayton’s youth may befuddle some, and she said she never imagined she’d be a state party chairwoman.
“It’s allowed me to be able to say everything that I’ve ever wanted to do on behalf of a Democratic Party,” she said. “And I think that that’s a really empowering place to be. And it’s going to inspire, I hope, more young people to realise that this world that we’re living in is ours to change the reality of.”
Since assuming the leadership post, Democrats received a gut punch when Tricia Cotham, a Democratic state legislator, switched parties, giving Republicans a veto-proof majority in the legislature. At the state’s GOP convention last weekend, she was feted as a hero and Mr Pence gave her a shout-out. That enabled them to pass a 12-week abortion ban and override Mr Cooper’s veto.
In addition, during the convention, Mr Trump touted how he won the state twice and continued to repeat his lies about a stolen election. Ms Clayton said that she wants North Carolina to be a firewall against election lies.
“And for me, the case that I’m making is that, we don’t want to give election deniers a two-week window to make that case. We want to make sure this election is wrapped up on the November night,” she said.
Still, she added that she is not being a defeatist.
“I know it feels like that right now, I know that the defeatist nature of or the Republican extremism is hard to come out of right now,” she said. “But we have to, and we have to snap back as a population and, and being able to say we need to run somebody everywhere.”
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