Democrats May Face a Long, Bitter Battle

Now that three tiny states have voted, the talking and tweeting heads have jumped to the conclusion that Bernie Sanders is on the way to the Democratic nomination.

Hold your tongues and thumbs. Democrats instead may be in for a bitter, divisive battle that lasts months.

The media and political commentariat wants to keep winnowing the field. But it’s still a fluid race, and there’s every reason for every candidate to stay in and see what happens.

We’ve heard only from Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, which combined have just over 2 percent of the population – 7.5 million people out of 327 million. Only Sanders’ neighboring New Hampshire had an election; the other two had caucuses.

Sanders did well. But in Iowa and New Hampshire, the moderates (Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Joe Biden) won more votes combined than the liberals (Sanders and Elizabeth Warren).

Let’s call them Mods and Libs. In Iowa, Mods got 54 percent and Libs, 34. In New Hampshire, Mods got 53 and Libs, 34. In the Nevada caucuses, the Libs got 56 and the Mods, 43.

But there’s no guarantee that Warren voters would go to Sanders. There’s some bitterness there, remember.

The battlefield changes now. This Saturday, South Carolina votes. Next Tuesday, North Carolina and 13 other states get their say. Two additional, big-spending moderate candidates, Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, will be on the ballots.

Centrist Democrats worry that the moderate vote will split and Sanders, like Trump in 2016, will win the nomination thanks to a passionate minority of supporters. But Sanders isn’t as strong now as Trump was. In mid-February 2016, Trump had the support of 39 percent of Republicans. The latest New York Times polling average has Sanders at 28 percent of Democrats nationally.

This could come down to a contest between Bernie and ABB (Anybody But Bernie).

Sanders has said it would be “very divisive” if a candidate gets a clear plurality but not a majority of delegates and then doesn’t get the nomination. Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman, a North Carolina native, replied, “(It’s) even more divisive if a candidate wins the nomination with a majority opposing the nomination.”

The race has turned nasty. Bloomberg got bludgeoned in his debate debut. Sanders, as the front-runner, may be the next firing-squad target. Bloomberg might put his billions of dollars to work bludgeoning Sanders.

Those scars could last a long time.

This isn’t just an ideological fight. It’s strategic: Which is the best path against President Trump?

Sanders’ path is turnout-based. He argues he’ll beat Trump by bringing out a flood of new and young voters.

But turnout in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada wasn’t significantly higher than in past elections, especially as a percentage of eligible voters. If new voters don’t come out now, will they in November? And other Democrats worry that Sanders will scare off more voters than he brings in.

The moderates’ path is persuasion-based, appealing to swing voters ready to move on from Trump. If a Democrat wins all the states Hillary Clinton won plus Pennsylvania, which she narrowly lost, that’s 247 of the 270 electoral votes needed. Then the Democrats could go after, say, Florida (29 electoral votes), Michigan (16), North Carolina (15), Arizona (11) and Wisconsin (10).

But that’s no sure path against a revved-up incumbent who just beat impeachment, has his party in lockstep behind him and is sitting on a big pile of campaign cash.

By the time they pick a path – and a candidate – Democrats may be bitter, bloodied and deeply divided.

Correction: Last week’s blog, “David Zucchino Exposes Wilmington’s Lie,” said incorrectly that Zucchino won a Pulitzer while at The Los Angeles Times. He was at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Thanks to Bruce Siceloff for catching the error; Bruce wrote the N&O story when Zucchino was awarded the Pulitzer.

David Zucchino Exposes Wilmington’s Lie

“The killers came by streetcar. Their boots struck the packed clay earth like muffled drumbeats as they bounded from the cars and began to patrol the wide dirt roads. The men scanned the sidewalks and alleyways for targets.”

That’s how David Zucchino, perhaps the greatest reporter North Carolina ever produced, begins his gripping new book about the most evil and shameful chapter in North Carolina’s history: white supremacists’ massacre of black citizens in Wilmington in 1898, their violent overthrow of the city’s lawfully elected government and the ensuing entrenchment of white supremacy across the state.

In “Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy” (Atlantic Monthly Press), Zucchino tells the story as only a gifted reporter and writer can. Few people can write as well as he does. Even fewer can report like him.

Now a contributing writer for The New York Times, Zucchino won a Pulitzer Prize at The Philadelphia Inquirer for reporting on apartheid in South Africa. He’s a four-time Pulitzer finalist for reporting in Iraq, Lebanon, South Africa and inner-city Philadelphia. A graduate of UNC Journalism School, he began his career at The News & Observer.

David Zucchino and Jim Jenkins at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh

For nearly a century, what happened in Wilmington was portrayed, even in history texts, as a “race riot.” It wasn’t, Zucchino shows. It was deliberate, premeditated murder of blacks by whites.

On November 10, 1898, the killers swept through black neighborhoods. They met little resistance. They murdered blacks indiscriminately. At least 60 died. More than 2,000 fled the city. Many never came back.

The overthrow of the city’s government, a coalition of blacks and white Republicans, was orchestrated by Furnifold Simmons, chairman of the state Democratic Party, and Josephus Daniels, founder and publisher of The News & Observer.

Afterward, Simmons and Daniels worked together to disenfranchise black voters and assure white control of North Carolina’s government for decades to come.

Both the Democratic Party and the N&O changed later. Beginning the 1960s, the Democratic Party embraced civil rights and voting rights for African-Americans. The N&O, owned by the Daniels family until 1995, become a strong progressive voice.

But Zucchino says racial politics isn’t dead. After Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2010, he writes, “white legislators reprised a tactic perfected by their forbears in 1898: suppressing the black vote.”

They passed a voter ID law “that included a set of restrictions aimed at black voters.” They “adopted yet another tool of Wilmington’s white supremacists: gerrymandering.”

The past is not always past.

On a personal note, I was at the N&O in the 1970s when Zucchino worked there. Everyone in the newsroom knew “Zook” would be a star.

Jim Jenkins, the retired editorial writer at the N&O, recalls a story about an officious newsroom editor who ordered reporters to write memos about their plans for each day.

Zucchino’s memo began: “10:15: Try to slip in late without being noticed. 10:30: Get Sun Drop from snack bar. 11:15: Start planning where to go for lunch. We went to Marcus’ yesterday, so the Mecca might be good.” And so on.

Enraged, the editor stormed into the office of Claude Sitton, the N&O’s legendarily no-nonsense editor, and declared, “We can’t have this kind of insubordination.”

Sitton stared at him and said, “Well, I’ve been in journalism a long time. I worked at The New York Times. David Zucchino is one of the best young reporters who’s ever come through this newsroom. If it’s you or him, you better start packing.”

I don’t know what became of the editor. But Zook proved Sitton right.

The Two M’s Rule in Politics

James Carville, the political consultant, once said, “Good campaigns focus relentlessly on the two M’s: money and message. And money comes first, because without it you can’t get across your message.”

It’s customary – in fact, it seems mandatory – to denounce money in politics as evil. And money can be the root of political evils like bribery, corruption and improper influence.

Yet, money also enables a candidate or a cause to get information to voters. To educate them so they can make wise decisions. To inform them about the choices before them.

That includes information about a candidate’s background, public record and stands on issues. Or an opponent’s lack of honesty, questionable past or dangerous ideas.

Right now, in North Carolina, we’re seeing the importance of money and message. We see it in the Presidential race and in the Democratic U.S. Senate race. We see it because we’re seeing the ads.

We see ads from Mike Bloomberg about himself and President Trump. Bloomberg’s ads tell us that he supports gun safety laws, action against climate change and protections for people with pre-existing health conditions. The ads tell us that Trump opposes all of those.

In the Senate race, we see ads from Cal Cunningham and from VoteVets, a super-PAC supporting him. The ads say Cunningham is a veteran who won a Bronze Star, was a progressive legislator and will fight corruption in Washington.

Cal Cunningham

Last week, we began seeing ads, reportedly from a Republican group, boosting state Senator Erica Smith in the Democratic primary.

Now, we know that ads on TV and Facebook may or may not be true. But my experience is that voters are pretty good at sorting out what to believe – or, at least, what they’re going to believe. After all, we have thousands of hours’ experience in our lives watching television and deciding what and who to believe. And if something sounds fake, you could look it up.

The Bloomberg and Cunningham campaigns raise two issues about money.

Some Democrats don’t like Bloomberg using his billions to compete with candidates who raise money the usual way: begging other people for it. But I’ve listened to voters talking in polls and focus groups about self-funded candidates. They typically say, “It’s his money. He can do what he wants with it.” And, “At least he can’t be bought.”

That’s what Trump’s supporters say about him.

Cunningham has a financial advantage in the primary because he has the backing of Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, who controls the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. That helps Cunningham raise big money. It’s why VoteVets is running ads for him.

That galls his opponents, like Senator Smith. It galled Deborah Ross, the Democratic Senate nominee in 2016, and state Senator Jeff Jackson, both of whom wanted to run this time.

It just goes to show the power of party caucuses today, in both parties. Senator Thom Tillis got the same support from Mitch McConnell.

Certainly, it can feel unfair when your opponent has money and you don’t. But how do we solve that? If you limit spending, you favor incumbents and career politicians over newcomers and outsiders. You deprive citizens of what they need and deserve to have when they vote: information.

Politics is – and should be – about getting information to voters.

Which reminds me of what a wise old politician told me years ago: “Never underestimate the intelligence of voters. But never overestimate how much information they have.”

This Impeachment Lacks a Star From NC

This is the first presidential impeachment that hasn’t had a North Carolinian in a starring role.

Congressman Mark Meadows got air time defending President Trump last year, but then announced his retirement. No other N.C. House member had a big role. Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis were safe votes against witnesses and for President Trump.

It wasn’t always thus.

The first Presidential impeachment was of Raleigh’s own Andrew Johnson in 1868. Johnson came within one vote of being removed from office by the Senate. He may have been saved by well-placed bribes.

More than a century later, North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin chaired the Watergate hearings that led to Richard Nixon resigning before being run out of town.

Ervin said of Nixon’s crowd, “What they were seeking to steal was not the jewels, money or other precious property of American citizens, but something much more valuable – their most precious heritage: the right to vote in a free election.”

He added, “The Founding Fathers, having participated in the struggle against arbitrary power, comprehended some eternal truths respecting men and government. They knew that those who are entrusted with power are susceptible to the disease of tyrants, which George Washington rightly described as ‘love of power and the proneness to abuse it’.”

At the hearings, Rufus Edmisten launched his political career by placing his chair – and his face – between Ervin and co-chair Howard Baker of Tennessee and on national TV for weeks. Rufus is still regaling us with those stories.

Bill Clinton’s 1998 impeachment starred three – count ‘em, three – Senators from North Carolina.

Republicans Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth are credited with, or blamed for, engineering the appointment of Kenneth Starr to investigate Clinton. They allegedly urged a federal judge to replace the prior independent counsel with Starr. Starr is now defending President Trump and warning, “impeachment is hell.”

That November, Faircloth lost his seat to political newcomer John Edwards. Edwards had never served a day in public office. He was a trial lawyer. So what’s the first thing the Senate did after he was sworn in? A trial. Bill Clinton’s trial.

Democrats put Edwards on the team that deposed Monica Lewinsky about her affair with the President. During the Senate’s closed-door debate, Edwards was credited with giving a persuasive speech against conviction. He called Clinton’s conduct “reprehensible,” but argued that it didn’t justify removal from office.

It was a strong start for a freshman. A decade later, Edwards’ career and presidential campaign ended after his affair and lying about it became public.

In the Trump trial, Burr got some notice for not wearing socks and for passing out fidget-spinners and stress balls to his Republican colleagues. Tillis got a mention when he left the floor and listened from the visitors’ gallery.

But Tillis may yet be in the spotlight. Both he and Trump will be on the ballot in November. No President has ever run for reelection after being impeached. No one knows how impeachment – and the Senate’s verdict – will affect the election.

After Nixon resigned in 1974, Republicans suffered historic election losses across the country and in North Carolina.

In 1998, Faircloth and Republicans nationally tried to make the election a referendum against Clinton. It didn’t work. The GOP lost a number of Senate seats. Newt Gingrich, architect of the strategy, lost his Speakership.

This year, the Senate’s verdict is a foregone conclusion. The voters’ verdict in November is anything but. The trial will be on trial. So will the jurors.

Bitter Fight Over Women’s Rights Still Resonates Today

Just before triggering a bitter battle over gun rights this month, the Virginia legislature quietly passed a measure on women’s rights – the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The vote recalls a bitter battle in North Carolina over ERA more than 40 years ago. That battle presaged today’s polarized politics and culture wars. It raised concerns that persist today about gender and economic inequality.

With Virginia’s vote, ERA has passed in 38 states. That’s the three-fourths required for ratification. But Congress set a 1982 deadline for ratification, so the amendment is in legal limbo for now.

First proposed in 1923, ERA was passed by Congress in 1972. By 1977, it had passed in 35 states.

North Carolina became a crucial battleground. A bipartisan coalition of politically active women championed ratification. In 1973, 1,000 backers gathered in Durham to launch North Carolinians United for ERA. One of their leaders was Martha McKay, who got in politics with Governor Terry Sanford.

Opponents organized North Carolinians Against ERA. Their leader was Phyllis Schlafly of Illinois, who was campaigning around the country against ERA. They recruited two prominent Tar Heels: former Senator Sam Ervin and state Chief Justice Susie Sharp.

Before he famously chaired the Senate Watergate Committee, Ervin was best known as an outspoken opponent of civil rights legislation. Sharp was the first woman on the bench, but she was no supporter of ERA.

Sam Ervin opposed ERA

In 1977, Ervin and Schlafly spoke at a Dorton Arena rally jammed with 1,500 opponents, many from fundamentalist churches in rural parts of the state. They wore red “Stop ERA” stickers.

Supporters, who wore green ERA stickers, organized their own rallies around the state. Actor Alan Alda highlighted one event.

Supporters said ERA was needed to end discrimination against women in matters like divorce, property and employment. The amendment reads: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Opponents said the language was too open to interpretation by judges. They said unintended consequences would jeopardize women and rip apart the fabric of society. Women might have to serve in the military and share bathrooms with men.

The battle came to a head in 1979. Lobbying was intense at the legislature. One member hid in the legislative chapel to avoid Betty McCain, an ERA supporter and state Democratic Party chair. The irrepressible McCain found him crouching behind a pew.

Governor Jim Hunt endorsed ERA in his State of the State speech. House Speaker Carl Stewart, a progressive Democrat from Gastonia, supported it. ERA passed the House 66-51.

But the Senate was dominated by conservative men from rural areas, Democrats in those days. Crusty, chain-smoking Lt. Governor Jimmy Green, a Democrat, was against it; he was against most anything Hunt was for.

A crucial vote was Senator R.C. Soles, a Democrat from Tabor City. Hunt pushed for his support, and Soles said he would decide over the weekend.
When he came back to Raleigh Monday, he voted no. His excuse was that his mother opposed it.

ERA lost 26-24. Its momentum stalled nationally.

In the years after the setback, ERA supporters focused on changing laws one by one to ensure equal rights and protections for women on issues including divorce, equitable distribution of marital property and domestic violence. Always, a prime concern was the pay gap between men and women.

Whatever happens now with ERA, the issues it raised – and the battle lines it drew – aren’t going away.

Bloomberg Blooms in North Carolina

While the other Democratic presidential candidates slug it out and slog through snowy Iowa, Mike Bloomberg is busy planting seeds across the country – and in North Carolina.

His campaign is unlike any before: It has unlimited money. It’s taking an untried path. And it’s not just about electing Bloomberg.

Last week, Bloomberg gave a small group of North Carolinians a look behind the curtain. He and his campaign leaders hosted a conference call for about 30 political donors, fundraisers and business leaders from across the state.

One person who listened in on the call reported that Bloomberg said he won’t keep running if “my dear friend” Joe Biden is successful. But Bloomberg will run hard if “the old math” doesn’t work and Biden falters.

Why? Because the campaign’s polling says Trump would win reelection today “in a landslide.”

Bloomberg believes Democrats have to nominate a moderate, mainstream candidate to win in November.

He’s taking a road not taken before. He’s skipping the sacrosanct early states of Iowa and New Hampshire and going directly to the March 3 Super Tuesday prizes of California, Texas, North Carolina and 11 other states.

The people who every four years decry the outsized role of two small, snow-bound and nearly all-white states should celebrate that.

Since Bloomberg is targeting North Carolina, you see his strategy playing out here. You see it on TV – two or three Bloomberg ads every half-hour. You see it on Facebook – ubiquitous targeted Bloomberg ads. You see positive bio ads about Bloomberg (“Mike Will Get It Done”), and you see ads slamming President Trump on health care, jobs and economic insecurity. But not impeachment.

Nationally, Bloomberg has already spent $200 million on TV. It could end up being a billion-dollar campaign. But even that won’t dent Bloomberg’s $30 billion fortune. Which he made, one ad tells us, after he was fired at age 39.

You don’t see everything that Bloomberg’s money buys. Like the 80-100 staffers he’s putting on the ground in North Carolina. They’re being paid, I’m told, $6,000 a month. That’s two or three times what they’d make in other campaigns. And the checks don’t bounce.

You also don’t see – not directly, anyway – the millions of dollars the campaign spends on polling, focus groups, ad-testing, data analytics and voter targeting.

Bloomberg says he’s here through November, even if he’s not the nominee. “We won’t be returning our rental cars March 4,” one of his campaign people said on the call. Beating Trump is the big goal, but voter registration and turnout are important in the races for Governor, U.S. Senate, the legislature and down the ballot.

The campaign road-tested its operation last year in Kentucky, where a Democrat unseated the Republican governor, and Virginia, where Democrats took the legislature.

Bloomberg called North Carolina “the new Virginia,” likely to tip toward Democrats in the years ahead.

The person who described the call admitted to being a “jaded” veteran of campaign conference calls. But this one was different: “It was crisp, business-like and impressive.”

And there was no fundraising pitch. Because Bloomberg is paying for everything.

Which some Democrats don’t like. They don’t like rich guys “buying” the race. They blame the “billionaire class” for much of what’s wrong in America.

Wouldn’t it be the height of irony if billionaire-bashing Democrats were saved by a billionaire?

Could Bernie Sanders Win the Nomination?

Throughout 2019, few observers thought Bernie Sanders had a real chance to win the Democratic nomination. The media treated him more like a gadfly than a serious contender.

Then 2020 dawned, and it dawned on people that the “democratic socialist” who for years wasn’t even a Democrat might end up as the party’s candidate against President Trump.

Today, Sanders leads the Democratic field in the two ways we keep score in politics: money and polls.

He raised way more than any other candidate in the last quarter of 2019 – and more than anybody else has raised in any quarter. Sanders hauled in $34.5 million, compared to Pete Buttigieg, $24.7 million, Joe Biden, $22.7 million and Elizabeth Warren, $21.2 million.

Sanders leads in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. A Des Moines Register/CNN poll has him ahead in Iowa with 20% to Warren’s 17, Buttigieg’s 16 and Biden’s 15. A CBS News/YouGov poll says Sanders leads in New Hampshire with 27%. Biden has 25, Warren 18, Buttigieg 13 and Amy Klobuchar 7.

If Sanders wins both states, he’ll take his money and momentum into Nevada and South Carolina in late February and to Super Tuesday March 3, when 14 states, including North Carolina, will pick 40 percent of the delegates.

The Democratic race could come down to Sanders, a moderate or two (Biden, Buttigieg or Klobuchar) and maybe a billionaire or two.

The billionaires, Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, might be the only candidates who can keep up with Sanders’ money. It’s not just that Sanders has raised nearly $100 million total; it’s all from small-dollar donations. He’s received more than five million contributions, at an average donation of $18. He can go back to that bank again and again.

Sanders has other things going for him. In an increasingly liberal party, he and Warren are the most liberal candidates. In a time of possible war, he’s the most antiwar candidate.

Sanders has an air of authenticity. There’s no artifice to his irascible, grumpy-grandpa persona. And he’s familiar. He’s been saying the same things since he nearly beat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

His supporters are passionate. In Iowa, 67% of his voters said they “enthusiastically” support him. The only other candidate close is Warren; 61% of her voters said they’re enthusiastic; 52% of Buttigieg’s voters and 49% of Biden’s voters were.

Last year he addressed concerns that he’s long been an Independent by declaring that he is a Democrat.

Sanders has broadened his support, according to a Vox analysis. In 2016, his base was heavily white, male and young. Now he has more women and minority supporters, though not many older voters.

Many Democrats fear there’s a ceiling on his support. They worry he’s too liberal to win in November. A number of Democratic candidates and operatives in North Carolina have told me they don’t want Sanders heading the ticket.

Above all, Democrats just want to beat Trump. Desperately so. Impeachment and Iran make them more determined.

Democrats, then, have two theories of the race.

Many believe Americans are ready to move on from Donald Trump and just want a safe, stable alternative.

Sanders supporters’ theory is that he’ll reach millions of Americans who don’t vote because they believe all politicians are crooked and don’t care about them. They believe that, just as an optimistic newcomer reached those voters in 2008 and a dystopian outsider reached them in 2016, Sanders can reach them with a radical departure from politics as usual.

Over the next two months, Democrats across the country – including in North Carolina – will decide which theory they’ll test in November.