Senator No and Governor Yes

The late Senator Kay Hagan’s one term and two campaigns epitomized the volatility of North Carolina’s Senate races. They also showed how our Senate elections rise and fall with national political tides – and how North Carolinians view the offices of Senator and Governor very differently.

Hagan was an unlikely and unexpected Senate candidate in 2008. A state senator, she was recruited by leading Democrats after better-known prospects declined to take on incumbent Senator Elizabeth Dole.

Kay Hagan

Dole was a formidable challenge. She was a national figure. She served in the Cabinets of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. She ran for President – briefly. She was married to Senator Bob Dole. She beat Erskine Bowles for the Senate seat in 2002. She replaced Jesse Helms, who had been in the Senate for 30 years, and she seemed set to stay there a while herself.

But Hagan won a bruising, expensive campaign. One Democratic group ran ads hinting that Senator Dole was too old. Dole’s campaign ran a last-minute ad suggesting that Hagan didn’t believe in God.

Hard-hitting ads have marked North Carolina’s Senate races since Helms won in 1972. His Congressional Club pioneered direct-mail fundraising and negative ads.

When Thom Tillis beat Hagan in 2014, it was the most expensive – and one of the roughest – races in the country. In 2020, even before what is sure to be a bitter and costly general election, Tillis faces a tough fight in the Republican primary. Carter Wrenn, who ran many of Helms’s campaign, is working for Tillis’s opponent, Garland Tucker.

For all the money and TV ads, North Carolina’s Senate races often track national politics.

Hagan won in a good Democratic year. Barack Obama carried North Carolina in 2008 – the first Democrat to do so since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Democrat Beverly Perdue was elected the state’s first female Governor.

Hagan wasn’t so lucky in 2014. That was Obama’s second mid-term election, and Democrats lost their U.S. Senate majority.

It helps to be on the right side of a landslide.

Helms became North Carolina’s first Republican Senator in the 20th Century thanks to Richard Nixon’s landslide over George McGovern. Helms won his toughest reelection fight, over Governor Jim Hunt in 1984, when Reagan swamped Walter Mondale.

Helms won five Senate races, but since he retired in 2002 his old seat has changed parties in every election – first Dole, then Hagan and now Tillis.

Senator Richard Burr has won his seat three times – in 2004, 2010 and 2016. Each year, he had the national political winds with him. Before Burr, that seat changed hands – and parties – in 1974 (Democrat Robert Morgan), 1980 (Republican John East), 1986 (Democrat Terry Sanford), 1992 (Republican Lauch Faircloth) and 1998 (Democrat John Edwards).

Republicans have won 12 of the 16 Senate races since 1972. But Democrats have won eight of the 12 Governor’s races since 1972. Governor Jim Hunt won four of them.

Why the difference? It’s that voters look at the two offices very differently. We elect Governors to do good things in Raleigh, which favors Democrats. We elect Senators to stop bad things in Washington, which favors Republicans.

Our tendency is to elect Senator No and Governor Yes.

When Kay Hagan won in 2008, Obama’s slogan was “Yes we can.” When she lost in 2014, the mood was more “No we won’t.”

Age wave hits North Carolina politics

A wave of new and young voters has come ashore in North Carolina – and could reshape politics in the state and nation in 2020 and beyond.

Political scientists have long said that millennials – born between 1981 and 1996 – are the biggest and fastest-growing bloc of potential voters. But will they vote?

Well, they did in Raleigh’s municipal elections this month, and they upended the City Council.

In 2020, millennials – bolstered by Gen Z (born after 1996) – could play a decisive role in the race for President and, in North Carolina, races for U.S. Senate, Congress, Governor and the General Assembly.

Polls show these voters are more liberal and more Democratic than older voters. They could take politics in a sharply different direction.

Raleigh: the wave hits

Two long-time Raleigh City Council members, Russ Stephenson and Kay Crowder, were unseated in October by two young, first-time candidates. The winners, Jonathan Melton and Saige Martin, are the first openly gay members ever on Raleigh’s City Council.

Virginia Reed, Melton’s campaign manager, said their strategy was to reshape the electorate: “We knew he couldn’t win if the only people who voted were the people who always voted in municipal elections. We had to turn out new, younger voters.”

Jonathan Melton

Those new voters helped Melton, who was elected city-wide, beat Stephenson by over 3,300 votes. They helped the new mayor, Mary-Ann Baldwin, beat her closest challenger by 3,800-plus votes.

David McLennan, political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh, said, “When I talked to young people, it was clear they were energized about the City Council races.”

Reed said, “I believe that younger, more diverse people are more likely to vote if they see themselves in the candidates on the ballot.”

The Trump Factor

Reed and McLennan agreed that young voters, in Raleigh and across the county, have been energized by President Trump.

“Under-30s didn’t think their votes mattered,” Reed said. “Then Trump won in 2016.” Young voters’ opposition to Trump contributed to Democratic gains in the Virginia legislature in 2017 and in mid-term elections in North Carolina and across the country in 2018, she said.

This fall’s Meredith Poll found that millennials and Gen Z in North Carolina are more negative about Trump than older voters. Trump’s job approval among all voters was 40-55 negative; with millennials and Gen Z it was 34-59 negative.

McLennan said national polling shows that millennials and Gen Z favor Democratic candidates and Democratic policies by a margin of two-to-one. They favor Medicare For All and gun-safety laws.

What it means for 2020

Millennials and Gen Z have the numbers to significantly impact future elections, McLennan said.

Trump is President because he won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by a total of 80,000 votes. He won North Carolina by 173,000 out of nearly five million votes.

In North Carolina next year, Democrats will target congressional and legislative races in newly redrawn districts in metropolitan areas, where the population of young voters is growing fastest.

Young voters could swing the Democratic presidential primary here March 3 – and help the Democratic candidate in November.

The Meredith Poll found:
• Among all North Carolina voters, Trump leads Joe Biden 38-34, Elizabeth Warren 39-33 and Bernie Sanders 39-33.
• But among millennials and Gen Z, Biden leads Trump 39-28, Warren leads 36-28 and Sanders leads by a whopping 48-26.

Sanders’s lead suggests he’ll have strong support from young voters in North Carolina’s March primary.

Will Democrats whiff their shot at the White House?

A Republican friend of mine was down in the dumps after the 2008 election. Democrats had won the White House, both houses of Congress and, in North Carolina, the U.S. Senate race, the Governor’s office (for the fifth straight election) and both houses of the legislature.

My friend feared for his party’s future. “Don’t worry,” I assured him. “We Democrats will screw it up.”

Sure enough, in 2010, Democrats suffered devastating defeats up and down the ballot.

I’m reminded of that experience today as Democrats celebrate polls showing President Trump’s approval ratings falling and support for his impeachment rising.

There are two big reasons Democrats shouldn’t get too cocky. The first is the economy. The second is the party’s uncertain search for a candidate who can beat Trump.

As James Carville said, it’s always the economy, stupid

Americans are upbeat, if anxious, about the economy. One poll suggests that Americans have more confidence in Trump’s ability to handle the economy than a Democrat’s.

An October 6-8 Internet Economist/YouGov poll of 1,500 people (including 1,241 registered voters) found that:

  • By 61-39, people say the news about the economy is positive.
  • While Trump’s overall approval rating is under water (43-49 negative), his handling of the economy gets a 47-42 positive rating.
  • If Trump is reelected, 33 percent think the economy will get better and 37, worse. That’s not great, but only 29 percent think the economy will get better if a Democrat wins; 39 percent say it will get worse.

Which Democrat can beat Trump?

Last week’s 12-candidate Democratic debate showed how split the party is on a presidential nominee. The big split is between moderates and progressives, and there are divisions over race and age.

Elizabeth Warren’s surge in the polls worries moderate Democrats. In the Economist/YouGov poll, 42 percent of people said Democrats are “too liberal.” Only 34 percent said Republicans are too conservative.

That’s why the moderates on the stage – Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg – targeted Warren. They said Medicare For All would cost too much, take away people’s insurance and scare away swing voters.

Front-runners at last week’s debate

Bernie Sanders might be over his heart attack, but he gave some Democrats a heart attack when he said out loud what Warren wouldn’t say: Taxes will go up to pay for Medicare for All, although he claimed that premiums, co-pays and, thus, total costs would go down.

Klobuchar and Buttigieg clearly think Joe Biden is fading, thanks to his shaky debate performances and the Hunter Biden questions. They calculate that the moderate lane to the nomination is opening up to an alternative. But the Democratic Party’s debate rules kept other moderates – Steve Bullock, Michael Bennett and John Delaney – off the stage.

Then there’s race. Barack Obama won the Presidency twice by turbocharging minority turnout. But neither Kamala Harris nor Cory Booker are winning strong support.

Obama also energized young people. Can a 70-year-old-plus nominee do that? At the other extreme, is America ready for a 37-year-old – and gay – President Pete?

Trump’s at his best one-on-one

Here’s what will likely happen now: The House will impeach Trump. The Senate will acquit him. Trump will claim victory. And he will end up in a head-to-head, WWE-style mudwrestling death match with one Democrat.

It won’t be Trump against “somebody else.” It will be Trump against somebody. He’ll do just what he did against Hillary Clinton in 2016: He won’t try to build up his numbers. He’ll try to tear down his opponent’s.

And Trump is good in that wrestling ring.

The unpredictability of impeachment

Somehow America got through nearly 200 years and impeached only one President: North Carolina’s own Andrew Johnson. Now we’re going through our third presidential impeachment in just 45 years.

We’ve just about normalized impeachment.

Three of the last nine Presidents have faced it – Nixon, Clinton and now Trump. Four more – Reagan, both Bushes and Obama – heard mutterings about it. The other two, Ford and Carter, maybe weren’t in office long enough to be impeached.

What can we learn from the Nixon and Clinton experiences?

Public opinion on impeachment can change fast – and dramatically

Since Democrats took over the U.S. House last November, they’ve fretted that impeaching Trump would backfire on them, like it did on Republicans who impeached Clinton in 1998.

But the polls have shifted. Several recently showed that public support for impeachment has grown.

Nixon leaves the White House

In 1972, Richard Nixon won reelection with one of the biggest landslides in history. Less than two years later, his standing with the public had fallen so far that he didn’t have enough votes in the Senate to be acquitted. Nixon resigned.

(One Senator who stood by Nixon to the end was North Carolina’s Jesse Helms, who had been elected in 1972.)

Public opinion can also swing against impeachment.

When Monicagate broke in 1998, it looked like Clinton would have to resign within days. But he hung on and fought back.

By the time the House voted, public opinion was against impeachment. The Senate acquitted him.

Impeachment will have a huge impact on 2020

In the 1998 mid-terms, Republicans lost big. Newt Gingrich, who bet the House on impeachment, lost his Speakership.

In the 1974 mid-terms, just three months after Nixon left office, Republicans were almost wiped out. And the impact went way beyond Congress.

Take North Carolina. 1972 had been a breakthrough year for Republicans. For the first time in the 20th Century, they won races for Governor and U.S. Senate. They made big gains in the legislature.

After 1974, there were only 10 Republicans left in the 120-member House – and, in the 50-member Senate, just one lonely Republican.

2020 will be different from 1974 and 1998 in one big way. Nixon and Clinton were in their second terms when they were impeached. This time, barring resignation or removal, President Trump will be running for reelection.

The White House and both houses of Congress will be at stake. And the state legislatures elected in 2020 will control congressional and legislative redistricting in 2021. We’ve seen that movie in North Carolina.

Impeachment will have unlikely consequences

After Watergate:

  • North Carolina’s Senator Sam Ervin, who chaired the Senate Watergate investigation, went from being an anti-civil rights Southern segregationist to lovable Uncle Sam, champion of the Constitution.
  • Ervin’s aide Rufus Edmisten was elected Attorney General in 1974 and became a long-term fixture in North Carolina politics.
  • An unknown peanut farmer from Georgia became President. And he’s still building houses.

After Clinton’s impeachment:

  • He left the White House with sky-high ratings in the polls.
  • Vice President Al Gore couldn’t decide whether to embrace or run away from Clinton. He ended up losing the closest presidential race in history.
  • North Carolina elected a political newcomer, John Edwards, to the U.S. Senate. Edwards ran against Washington – and both parties. “The politicians up there spend all their time fighting each other,” he said. “I’ll fight for the people.” He narrowly upset incumbent Lauch Faircloth.

As wild as politics is today, there’s no telling what this impeachment battle will bring.

She left Wall Street to fight gerrymandering here

Mary Wills Bode was on the New York City subway last year when her life jumped tracks.

A chance encounter led her to leave the Wall Street law firm where she was on a partner track. She came home to North Carolina, and now she’s working to end gerrymandering in the state.

Bode celebrates this month’s court ruling that directed the legislature to redraw legislative maps for the 2020 elections. But she said in an interview, “it’s not going to deliver a long-term fix and long-lasting reform.”

Mary Wills Bode

Bode is Executive Director of North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform (NC4RR), founded by Tom Ross, former President of the University of North Carolina system.

NC4RR is pushing for an amendment to the State Constitution that would abolish partisan gerrymandering for good and forever, for all elections.

Bode said the fundamental problem is the power – and abuse – of personal data: “Big data has caused big problems for democracy.”

Gerrymandering isn’t new, in North Carolina or any state. Democrats and Republicans have done it. What’s new is the level of computer-driven granular detail that can be manipulated to slice and dice voters and districts, guaranteeing victory for one party or the other.

Unlike reform proposals that establish an independent redistricting commission, NC4RR would put rules in place regardless of who draws the maps. The rules would:

• Prohibit use of any detailed personal data that could predict voting behavior.
• Require transparency in redistricting.
• Require that districts be “contiguous and compact” and “respect county and geographic lines.”

Bode said that, instead of being the poster child for gerrymandering, “North Carolina can be the example of bipartisan redistricting reform for the rest of the country.

“Our state has a historic opportunity to show that good government can be good politics.”

“I come by my politics honestly,” she said. Her mother, Lucy Hancock Bode, was Deputy Secretary and Secretary of the Department of Human Resources under Governor Jim Hunt. Her father, John, is an attorney and lobbyist in Raleigh. Mary Wills grew up in Raleigh and graduated from Cardinal Gibbons High School in 2006, then went to Wake Forest University and UNC-Chapel Hill Law School.

In New York, she worked in capital markets and leveraged finance at the Wall Street firm Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP and then later at Proskauer Rose LLP.

On the subway one Sunday in July 2018, she and a friend were talking about North Carolina politics. An elderly gentleman overhead them and struck up a conversation.

He turned out to be Franz S. Leichter, a Holocaust survivor who served for 30 years in the New York legislature and was called “the conscience of the Senate.”

He and Bode became friends. A few weeks later, Bode told him she was thinking about coming home and working on redistricting reform. Having been gerrymandered out of his own district three times, he told her, “This is a serious issue for democracy. You have to go back to North Carolina.”

“My definition of success changed,” she said.

Success for NC4RR is achieving comprehensive reform before the next redistricting in 2021. It’s pushing House Bill 140, the FAIR Act – Fairness And Integrity in Redistricting. As a constitutional amendment, the bill needs a three-fifths vote in both the House and Senate. Then it goes to a statewide referendum.

Bode said that requires bipartisanship. So NC4RR has Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

The co-chairs are Ross, a Democrat, and Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican. Members include former legislators Margaret Dickson, a Democrat, and Skip Stam, a Republican; Rhoda Billings, former Chief Justice of the NC Supreme Court; Democratic political consultant Courtney Crowder; Sharon Decker, former NC Secretary of Commerce conservative commentator John Hood; Allen Joines, Mayor of Winston-Salem; Raleigh developer David Meeker; Bob Orr, former Associate Justice of the NC Supreme Court; Vicki Lee Parker, Director of the NC Business Council; Southern Pines publisher David Woronoff and Julian Wright, Charlotte attorney and civic leader.

Will Governor Cooper’s club beat Speaker Moore’s gavel?

Speaker Tim Moore used his gavel last week to give North Carolina Republicans a big legislative win. He also gave Governor Roy Cooper a club to wield against Republicans.

It was one of those rare times when a legislative moment bursts into a reality-TV moment.

Last Wednesday morning, the Speaker called for a surprise vote to override the Governor’s veto of the legislature’s budget. Most Democrats weren’t in the chamber, but Republicans were. The override passed.

The Democrats went ballistic. They said Republicans had lied and told them there would be no floor votes that morning.

Representative Deb Butler of Wilmington angrily berated the Speaker: “Mr. Speaker, you are making a mockery of this process. You are deceiving all of North Carolina.”

Rep. Butler confronts Speaker Moore

When Moore tried to cut her off, she thundered, “I will not yield! I will not yield!”

There were no TV cameras on hand, but Democratic Rep. John Autry of Charlotte pulled out his cell phone and recorded the raw scene. It went viral. Now T-shirts are being sold online with Butler’s image and “I will not yield!”

Within hours, Governor Cooper was on television calling it a “deceptive, surprise override of my budget veto” and accusing Republicans of using “bribes and lies” in the vote and in redistricting.

As I watched this unfold, I thought about something my friend Carter Wrenn, a veteran Republican political consultant, always said: “There are two worlds in politics – the inside world and the outside world.”

The inside world is the 2,000 or so people who are in and out of the Legislative Building every day: legislators, staffers, reporters, lobbyists and all the people who are deeply invested and involved in state government day in and day out. They live it and breathe it.

Then, Carter said, there’s the outside world: the world of almost seven million registered voters in North Carolina.

Most of the time, the outside world pays little attention to the inside world. But, now and then, something happens inside that gets attention outside. Usually, it’s something that makes people mad.

That can be explosive. Because, ultimately, the source of all political power is the outside world. That’s the world of voters – and elections. Nobody gets power in the inside world without winning in the outside world. When voters on the outside get riled up, they can wreak havoc on the inside.

Now the question is how Moore’s ploy will play in the outside world.

Do voters care? Some insiders said that what Moore did was business as usual, there’s nothing new about parliamentary trickery and both parties do it. They said Cooper and the Democrats are whining because they got outfoxed.

Even some Democrats were critical of the House Democrats. One texted me, “You know what’s a lot worse than Republicans lying about the vote? Falling for it.”

On the other hand, one nonpartisan veteran of legislative wars said, “It was the most underhanded thing I’ve seen in 30 years.”

Regardless of what insiders say, what matters is what happens in the outside world – the 2020 elections.

Democrats are using the episode to fire up activists and donors.

In a fundraising email titled “we will not yield,” Governor Cooper said: “These officials were elected under illegally gerrymandered districts and I believe they are the last gasp of a dying majority….Together, we can ensure that they answer to the people of North Carolina.”

Speaker Moore posted a long “true recap…to debunk outrageously false claims that House Republicans misled their Democratic colleagues.”

The fight moves to the outside world.

NC races pose dilemmas for both parties

This week’s special congressional races in North Carolina show that both Republicans and Democrats face big dilemmas in 2020. The difference is that Democrats have a choice about what to do, but Republicans don’t.

The Republican dilemma: Will President Trump hurt or help them in 2020?

One way you can look at the 9th Congressional District result is that Trump spells real trouble for Republicans in 2020: Dan Bishop won by less than two points in a district Trump won in 2016 by 12. It’s a district that was gerrymandered “with surgical precision” to favor Republicans, as a special three-judge panel recently wrote.

Or you can say Trump saved Bishop and he’ll boost Republicans in 2020: Bishop won even though he was opposed by a central-casting Democrat, a centrist businessman and Marine veteran who was well-funded and had been campaigning for 27 months. Bishop won, as Trump himself noted, after Trump had a rally in the district the day before the election, made a TV ad for Bishop and turned out his famously loyal base.

President Trump and Dan Bishop at election eve rally in Fayetteville.

Either way, Republicans have little choice next year. Like it or not, they’ve got Trump. Their fate is tethered to his.

Democrats, on the other hand, have a choice. Their problem is that Tuesday didn’t make it any clearer what’s the right choice to beat Trump in 2020.

Nominate a Dan McCready-like centrist who can take swing voters from Trump – Joe Biden, for example? Or roll the dice, pick a candidate who risks being tagged a “socialist” and bet on turning out minorities, millennials and new voters looking for someone totally different from Trump?

One millennial Democrat described the choice to me this way: “Do we want a revolution or a restoration?”

Liberal and moderate Democrats were at each other’s throats before Tuesday. The results didn’t resolve the dilemma and debate.

As a former Democratic political consultant, I confess I have no idea what the right choice is. But I can assure you that Democrats are perfectly capable of making exactly the wrong choice, whatever it is.

Here’s a thought to ponder.

Something strange has happened in American politics the last few years. Maybe it started with the 2008 financial meltdown and the recession. Maybe it started on that terrible 9/11 day.

People all over the political spectrum, and from all walks of national life, are angry, disillusioned and anxious. They have lost confidence in politics, politicians and public institutions. They may be doing okay financially or they may be on the brink of bankruptcy, but they’re all uneasy about the economy.

They’re willing to throw the dice. In fact, they already have. They have elected the two most unlikely Presidents you could imagine: a cerebral African-American man who was serving his first term in the Senate and, then, a flashy promoter and reality TV star who had never served in public office.

Americans rejected the most traditional and respectable candidates you could imagine: John McCain, Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton. In fact, Democrats almost rejected Clinton in 2016 in favor of Bernie Sanders, not even a Democrat, but a “democratic socialist.”

Maybe we want a return to normalcy. Or maybe politics has left the gravitational pull of earth. I wouldn’t bet against anything happening in 2020.