In politics, at some point, you have to have ideas that appeal to the voting public. That lesson was taught to devastating effect on Election Day in North Carolina.
On the night of Nov. 3, Democrats were poised for what many believed to be a blue wave across the Tar Heel State. They had amassed enormous war chests, broad coalitions of outside groups electioneering on their behalf, and critical support from the mainstream press.
Democrats had set goals of retaining the Governor’s Mansion and flipping one — if not both — chambers of the General Assembly. While Gov. Roy Cooper was re-elected, the other goal was a failure. Not only did Democrats fail to flip either chamber, but it looks as if they lost seats in the state House. Further, Democrats failed to flip any legislative chamber anywhere in the nation.
Democrats also put in significant resources to claim Council of State positions they had controlled before 2016, but those also failed. Republican Mark Robinson was elected as the state’s first African American lieutenant governor. Cathy Truitt, also a Republican, was elected state superintendent. Dale Folwell, Steve Troxler, and Mike Causey were re-elected as state treasurer, commissioner of Agriculture, and Insurance commissioner, respectively.
Instead of a blue wave, North Carolina Democrats hit a wall of red.
But what happened? Was money the problem for Democrats?
In short, no. Third-quarter campaign finance data, compiled by the N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation, paints a stark picture for otherwise victorious Republicans running in North Carolina.
In House District 37, in southern Wake County, state Rep. Sydney Batch, a Democrat, raised more than $1 million, compared to her Republican challenger Erin Pare, who raised just over $227,000. Batch raised about $31.18 per vote in this race, had a four-to-one fundraising advantage, and was defeated.
Senate District 31, which includes parts of Forsyth and Davie counties, provides another example. Democrat Terri Legrand raised $1.9 million to unseat state Sen. Joyce Krawiec, a Republican, who raised $1.2 million. Voters re-elected Krawiec.
The race for state treasurer is another stark example. Republican incumbent Dale Folwell raised only $466,000, compared to challenger Ronnie Chatterji’s $1.56 million. Voters re-elected Folwell.
So, again, what happened? Money was not an issue. Media coverage and press endorsements weren’t issues.
Thus, we arrive at the fatal lesson of the 2020 campaigns — all the money in the world can’t overcome flawed policy ideas in an election cycle.
Defunding the Opportunity Scholarship Program — a school voucher program for low-income families — was a popular talking point for several Democrats running for office. House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, D-Wake, called the program “a band-aid that looks good in a press release.”
However, a statewide September poll by the Civitas Institute found that 69% of North Carolina voters support the Opportunity Scholarship Program, including 68% of registered Democrats. Fifty-two percent of voters said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate opposing the scholarships.
Defunding the police was another issue that likely hobbled Democratic electoral hopes. While Democrats and Republicans haggled in the press about “reallocating funds from the police” versus the term “defund,” Democrats were stuck with it.
Again, an August statewide Civitas poll found that the term “defund the police” had net-negative connotations across nearly every demographic. Seventy percent of likely voters viewed the term unfavorably, including a majority of registered Democrats and unaffiliated voters. Not precisely an electoral winner.
Democrats had other policy proposals that fit this mold, including tax increases, expanding Obamacare, endorsing policies that will necessarily lead to higher energy costs, and repealing North Carolina’s right-to-work law. The theme is that these policy positions are generally only popular among self-described liberals and broadly unpopular across other demographics.
Listen to your echo chamber to your peril.
Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of Germany in the late 1800s, famously said, “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.” In this phrase, the lesson is that politicians begin debates from their ideal policy; they will have to negotiate with competing interests to determine the best possible outcome. However, politicians must start from a position that can garner significant public support — otherwise, there will be a political price to pay.
We are still sorting out all that happened on Election Day 2020. But one lesson is already clear: All the money in the world cannot make up for bad ideas that are not appealing to voters. N.C. Democrats can chalk this one up to experience and, hopefully, re-center themselves after swinging so unpopularly left.