As the rest of the South moved solidly Republican in recent decades, North Carolina held out, remaining reliably Democratic at the state and local level except for brief fits and starts. Election 2012 may have changed that — but Republican leaders will have to work hard to make the change a lasting one, rather than just another bump in the road for NC Democrats like others over the last 30 years.
That’s important for North Carolina, because in other Southern states voters have rewarded a message of limited government linked to more freedom and prosperity. Meanwhile, North Carolina, once a leader in the region, has seen government and regulation grow and its economy stagnate under Democratic leadership.
There have been many political experts who have analyzed North Carolina’s political history and interpreted it as proof that it is fundamentally different than the rest of the South – that it is a “purple” state, not red or blue. I believe that North Carolina’s failure to follow the rest of the South is not necessarily demographic as much as it is cultural and political. The Democrats in North Carolina had always been very careful to keep a distance from national Democrats. They also went out or their way to cultivate the business community. These two actions meant that the outward appearance was of a North Carolina Democratic Party that was not that much different from other states’ Republican parties. Internally, it was much different, but that difference has only become apparent to the general public over the last few election cycles. As voters are given more information and decide there is a difference, we will most likely see a shift towards the GOP as we have seen in other Southern states.
First, a quick look back. As the South moved solidly Republican, North Carolina made fits and starts towards joining the rest of the south. In 1972, the state barely elected a Republican governor, but only for one term. Then in 1984 the state elected a Republican governor and in 1988 added a Lieutenant Governor and enough state House members to forge a coalition with dissident Democrats to take control of the House. These changes were short-lived and by the end of 1992 Democrats were firmly back in charge.
1994 brought a Republican tidal wave and control of the NC House and one vote short of a tie in the NC Senate. This Republican wave even extended down to local offices. Again, however, the realignment was only temporary. In 1998 Republicans lost the House majority. Republicans continued to gain in elections through the first decade of the 21st century. They started picking up statewide elections and actually won control of the state House — until a few GOP members defected and joined with Democrats in electing a “Co-Speakership” in 2003-4 that in reality put the Democrats back in charge, most crucially in the case of redistricting.
Democrats drew legislative boundaries friendly to their candidates, and the status quo returned. By the middle of the decade Republicans were dominating judicial elections, so in a highly partisan move, the Democrat-dominated legislature removed the party label from every judicial office candidate in the state. Without that vital information on the ballots, voting in those races plummeted.
During this time North Carolina’s population ballooned from 5.8 million in 1980 to 9.5 million in 2010. Many of these new residents migrated to the urban areas of the state. They never saw or read anything about Republicans except for the negative impressions given by the large newspapers and TV stations. They had little incentive to support local Republicans even while they supported national Republicans. Despite that, many did, In addition, native Tar Heel Democrats have long been relatively conservative, and many grew more receptive to the GOP message as the national Democratic Party lurched to the left. North Carolina became no longer securely Democratic at the state level.
With the 2010 election, Republicans swept into power in both chambers of the General Assembly. This gave them the power to draw legislative districts, a move which on election night 2012 helped bring in GOP supermajorities in both the House and Senate. The Republican majority also governed in a way that was appealing to both the swing voters that have moved to the state and to native North Carolinians who held conservative views.
In the 2011-2012 sessions, the new Republican legislature balanced the budget without raising taxes and they tackled many festering but long-ignored problems. The GOP majority started fixing the state employee health care plan and reforming Medicaid to slow its out-of-control growth. They passed education reform initiatives to make traditional public schools more efficient and transparent, while giving families more options of where to educate their children. The General Assembly gave voters the right to decide a Marriage Amendment that had languished for a decade in the Democrat-controlled legislature. (Voters approved it by almost a 2-1 majority.) The GOP also passed medical malpractice, tort and workers compensation reform. All of this was accomplished despite numerous vetoes from Gov. Bev Perdue.
As a result of the complete legislative takeover, the media had to cover Republican policies. Before that, many citizens only read the headlines and glanced at political ads as elections neared, but with the GOP in charge news audiences began to hear about Republican policy initiatives. Even though the reporting was often slanted, the initiatives still sounded good to a large majority of voters. Also key has been the rise of an alternative media that is a source of information to voters, especially the most active voters. It helped that in the 2012 campaign the Republicans were able to get their message out. Prior to 2012 they had always been massively outspent by Democrats, but not this year.
This brings us to the historic election of this month. For the first time a Republican gubernatorial candidate ran ahead of the presidential candidate in North Carolina. Along with super majorities in the legislature, a Republican Lieutenant Governor and numerous local Republicans were voted into office. Voters rewarded the actions and campaigns of Republican politicians. Why will now be different?
First, the media will have little choice but to give more coverage to Republican initiatives. Also, before now the North Carolina GOP did not have a clear advocate for its policies. While there are individual GOP legislators who are excellent, no lawmaker can command a pulpit as big as the one a governor has. Governor-elect McCrory has an opportunity to not only make North Carolina a great place to live and work, he has an opportunity, working with the legislative leadership, to establish the Republican Party as the dominant party in North Carolina as it is in other Southern states.
How does this happen? The governor and legislative leaders will have to embrace bold policies that address the problems that have plagued North Carolina fiscally and educationally. They will need to advance a program that empowers families and creates a climate that encourages a more prosperous North Carolina that offers an opportunity for all of its citizens to thrive. They have to advance a freedom agenda that makes North Carolina an island of prosperity in a nation that appears to be rapidly becoming a sea of high taxes and red ink.
While pursuing good policy, they will have to also remind voters that these things just did not happen in a vacuum, they happened because voters trusted them to do what they said, and they did. Time will tell if North Carolinians trust Republicans going forward, or if this election is just another blip.