RALEIGH — Democrats still trying to figure out their comeback in North Carolina politics found more obstacles in 2014.
Sen. Kay Hagan narrowly lost to Republican Thom Tillis in what became a GOP year nationwide. Republicans won another U.S. House seat and will hold 10 of the state’s 13 in 2015. Democrats and their allies spent several million dollars on key General Assembly races, only to gain two more seats overall. And activists within the state Democratic Party also have been fractured.
The party “is still learning its role in an environment where we don’t have a majority, and there’s division in the party about what that role is,” said Chris Hardee of Manteo, the Democrats’ chairman in the 3rd Congressional District.
But Democrats found positives in the midterms they hope to build on with municipal races in 2015 and campaigns for governor, U.S. Senate and president in 2016.
They drew up successful game plans to win Asheville and Triangle-area legislative seats that could be copied elsewhere. Donors beefed up two independent expenditure groups that spent about $3 million blitzing Republican incumbents with mailers and radio and TV ads, like GOP groups did previously to Democrats. And the three Supreme Court candidates endorsed by Democrats in officially nonpartisan races won.
“I want you to understand that we made some progress in this election,” former four-term Gov. Jim Hunt told a crowd of liberal-leaning donors and activists in December. “Now we only made so much progress, but we made some important progress.”
The small legislative improvement reinforced the potency of districts drawn by Republicans in 2011, when they took over the House and Senate simultaneously for the first time since 1870. The General Assembly will reconvene Jan. 14 with Democrats holding 46 of the 120 House seats and 16 of the 50 Senate seats.
Democrats believe they have a big opportunity in 2016 with Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and GOP U.S. Sen. Richard Burr facing re-election in a presidential election year that’s historically meant stronger Democratic turnout. Two Democratic candidates interested in challenging McCrory are Attorney General Roy Cooper and lawyer Ken Spaulding.
Democrats have done a lot of hand-wringing about whether Hagan and other 2014 top-tier candidates should have embraced President Barack Obama and his policies or distanced themselves. Tillis repeatedly linked Hagan to Obama. While Obama won’t be on the ballot in 2016 — the last year of his final term — Republicans are likely to make the election a referendum on his years in office.
Ken Lewis, a 2010 Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, said a positive, persuasive message is needed to attract voters beyond the Democratic base.
“Progressives have to do a better job at articulating to the broad public why our policies help the things that they care about, which are creating more jobs, creating more opportunities and creating more security,” Lewis said. “We have grown too accustomed of talking to people who already agree with us.”
Party leaders acknowledge a long-term strategy is targeting the 2020 elections, when those holding the majority in the legislature will control redistricting. Party First Vice Chairwoman Patsy Keever said she’s intrigued by the idea of Democrats attending annual training camps to learn how to be effective candidates or campaign managers in the coming years.
“We need to be building those resources. We need to be looking to our younger people,” said Keever, the only announced candidate to date for party chair when Democrats meet in February. Current Chairman Randy Voller has said he won’t seek re-election.
Thomas Mills, a longtime Democratic consultant, said things aren’t that dire for Democrats, pointing out that Hagan almost retained her Senate seat in a year where, nationally, “everybody else got clobbered.”
“I’m not nearly as pessimistic as a lot of people,” Mills said.