In the end, 2022 proved to be another disappointing year for North Carolina Democrats, despite hopes that Cheri Beasley could give the party its first US Senate victory in 15 years.
Not only did Republicans succeed in sending Ted Budd to Washington, they also captured several seats in the state legislature — landing a supermajority in the Senate and a near-supermajority in the House of Representatives. Republicans also won statewide judicial races, including two seats on the NC Supreme Court.
“It was hard not to wake up to the now-familiar feeling that Democrats are doing relatively well nationally but falling short in North Carolina,” said Asher Hildebrand, a Duke University professor and former chief of staff to retired Rep. David Price. “In fact, it was also very much the feeling we woke up with after the 2020 election.”
It could be worse. But it’s still a frustrating outcome for North Carolina Democrats, who have spent years chasing victories that remain largely unattainable.
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It’s not hard to figure out why. While supporting the Democrats has been successful in North Carolina’s fast-growing urban areas, the party has continually struggled to gain a foothold in other parts of the state.
One explanation for this is what longtime Democratic strategist Mac McCorkle, now a professor at Duke University, calls the “countrypolitan problem.”
McCorkle is referring to counties that are a mix of urban and rural—they border large metropolitan areas but retain many small-town dynamics. Important examples include Johnston County in the Raleigh area and Union County near Charlotte. Many of these are fast-growing suburbs, with residents commuting to the larger cities for work.
There is evidence that Democrats are making progress in these areas. Diamond Staton-Williams won a hard-fought seat in the NC House of Representatives in Cabarrus County by just a few hundred votes. Cabarrus County is growing rapidly, and that growth is being driven primarily by people of color. Wiley Nickel defied expectations in a swing neighborhood that spans all of Johnston County.
Still, Budd Beasley routed in both Johnston and Cabarrus counties, earning as large a share of the vote as Donald Trump did in 2020. Anson County, another area McCorkle classifies as countrypolitan, was carried by Joe Biden in 2020 but switched to Budd in 2022.
“The acid test for Democrats is in these rural areas,” McCorkle said. “Republicans are still winning these districts by 20 points or more. And until the Democrats start cracking that number, they will always be behind the eight.”
The other problem for North Carolina Democrats lies in the rural areas, which in many cases are only leaning more Republican.
“Democrats tend to think rural areas are unreachable, so they don’t go there,” said Douglas Wilson, a Democratic strategist. Wilson pointed out that a handful of Democratic officeholders from rural counties lost re-election to the state legislature this year, including James Gailliard in Nash County and Linda Cooper-Suggs in Wilson County.
“Our strategy of making it big in urban areas and hoping for the best — that’s just not going to work,” Wilson said. “We need to get into these rural areas, but we know it will take time. It may take a decade, but we must move on.”
The majority of North Carolina’s 100 counties aren’t where Democrats stand much of a chance of winning outright, at least not any time soon. But they don’t necessarily have to win big, at least not in national races – they just have to lose by a narrow margin.
According to unofficial results, Beasley has surpassed Biden’s share of the vote in most rural counties in 2020. Some counties that wore Biden in 2020 voted for Budd this year, including Nash and Pasquotank counties. That is not unexpected in a difficult half-year – but it is not enough to win either. In Pennsylvania, where Democrats flipped a Senate seat this year, John Fetterman outscored Biden in almost every district, including rural areas.
“There has been a lot of talk from the national party about the need to invest in local organizing,” Hildebrand said. “But, as far as I can tell, that hasn’t happened nationally as it should.”
In a way, the Democrats’ biggest problem might be complacency. There seems to be a belief that North Carolina will get bluer on its own — that as the state gets bigger and more diverse, it will eventually give the Democrats the majority of the vote. But Democrats have been saying that for years, and it hasn’t happened yet.
“You have to have a good turnout, you have to have a good mobilization of votes, but it just seems so obvious to me,” McCorkle said. “We need to expand the spectrum of democratic elections in the state.”