The Democrats Still Don't Understand the South

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The Intercept put out a piece on Thursday detailing Sen. Chuck Schumer’s so-far lackluster recruiting efforts for the Senate elections in 2020. Tucked into it is an anecdote about North Carolina which goes a long way towards explaining why the Democrats have lost so much ground in this state and the South writ large.


Sen. Thom Tillis is up for re-election next year in North Carolina. He is, perhaps, the easiest Republican target in the whole state. In his former role as speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, Tillis oversaw the implementation of the state’s far-right turn: tax cuts, gerrymandering, the motorcycle abortion bill. He had a hand in pretty much anything horrible that you heard about North Carolina between 2011 and 2014. Then he got elected to the Senate.

Despite North Carolina’s recent red bent in presidential elections, the state is still solidly purple, with Democrats winning the gubernatorial and attorney general races in 2016 despite Donald Trump winning by 4 points. Tillis’ popularity has also taken a nosedive; just 23 percent of North Carolina voters approved of the job he was doing in a poll in June, and even the Republican base is skeptical of him, due to his initial opposition to Trump’s border emergency earlier this year. (Tillis has since fallen in line, and has been handsomely rewarded for it.)

One thing Tillis does have going for him is that the bench for North Carolina Democrats is admittedly pretty thin, as there’s only three Democratic statewide elected officials: Roy Cooper, who’s running for re-election as governor; Josh Stein, who’s running for re-election as attorney general; and Elaine Marshall, the secretary of state.

As North Carolina Democratic operative Thomas Mills detailed in this 2013 blog post, Marshall handily won the Democratic nomination for Senate in 2010 despite the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pressuring her to drop out in favor of a young, moderate white guy lawyer and Army Reserve member (with experience in Iraq) who had served a single term in the state Senate from 2001 to 2003. Marshall once beat North Carolina NASCAR god Richard Petty in a statewide election in North Carolina. Try to imagine someone in New York City who could beat Derek Jeter if he ran for mayor, and you’ll get some idea of how difficult that task was.

As Mills wrote, the DSCC and practically the entire Democratic infrastructure abandoned Marshall, and she lost. She is understandably not going to run for Senate again. Schumer and the DSCC reportedly tried to recruit Stein, but those attempts to woo him away from running for a second term as attorney general failed. State Sen. Jeff Jackson, a progressive Democrat from Charlotte who’s been rumored to have statewide ambitions, bowed out of the running earlier this week.

Meanwhile, other Democrats began announcing their intention to run, including state Sen. Erica Smith. Smith, a former and engineer and high school teacher, represents a part of the state that was decimated by Hurricanes Florence and Matthew. As the Intercept notes, Smith—who would be the first African-American elected to the Senate from North Carolina—is focusing her campaign around the environment and criminal justice reform, although she expressed openness to the death penalty for mass shooters. Smith is not a dyed-in-the-wool leftist, or even a progressive Democrat; if elected, she’d firmly be in the center of the Democratic caucus. An early poll taken in June also showed her with a seven-point lead on Tillis.


Nevertheless, the Democrats apparently weren’t enamored enough with Smith’s campaign, and kept looking until they found Cal Cunningham. Remember that “young, moderate white guy lawyer” who the DSCC boosted in 2010, just to be beaten by Elaine Marshall? Yeah, that’s Cunningham. In the ten years since his primary loss, he hasn’t run for any political office. Nothing has changed about him except that he’s gotten nine years older, and nine further years away from almost anyone in North Carolina having any idea who the hell he is. But he’s got the “look”—that’s never doomed North Carolina Democrats before—and that apparently is enough for top Democratic donors. Per the Intercept:

The DSCC has not yet endorsed in the 2020 primary, but there is speculation that it may support Cal Cunningham, an attorney, veteran, former state senator — and previous DSCC pick. Cunningham has raised a significant chunk of his $521,757 from donors linked to Schumer. He’s contributed an additional $200,000 of his own money to one of his campaign committees. (Trevor Fuller, a former commissioner for Mecklenburg County, and Eva Lee, a tax attorney from Raleigh, also announced their candidacies early.)


Apart from all of this feeling like the punchline to a joke about mediocre white guys getting jobs they aren’t qualified for, it shows that some of the most important people in the Democratic Party still have no earthly clue that the old New Deal coalition is dead and buried in the South, and that there’s a new kind of coalition emerging that they’ll need to coalesce in order to win in states like North Carolina and Georgia. (Schumer reportedly tried to court Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate, to run for Senate, but this came after she got within a hair of becoming the first black woman elected governor in the history of the country in a former Jim Crow state, so he can’t exactly be credited for his political brilliance there.)

That Democrats are still unaware of this—after Abrams and Andrew Gillum’s near misses for governor last year in Georgia and Florida, respectively, and Doug Jones’ win on the back of black voters in Alabama in 2017—is something approaching political malfeasance. It’s almost as if the fear of Republicans calling their candidate “too liberal” or “socialist” overrides everything else.


But guess what? They’re always going to do that. They’re doing it to Dan McCready, the political equivalent of a bump on a log, as we speak. If the Democrats want to win the “New South,” they need a coalition and political leadership which looks like the New South, not the old one.