Is North Carolina a swing state?

September 12, 2013

The Fix and GovBeat's Reid Wilson spend most of our time chewing the fat about politics. So, after Reid made a sojourn to North Carolina -- and wrote, among other things, a great piece about 27 other things that the state's voter ID law did -- we started chatting about the state and its political future. Our email conversation -- which touches on the presidential race, Sen. Kay Hagan's re-election fight in 2014 and the governor's mansion -- is below.

REID: Chris, I just got back from a week in Raleigh covering the legislature’s special session, the dysfunctional relationship between the legislative and executive branches, Sen. Kay Hagan’s race for re-election and as many cool little brew pubs as I could find.

By the numbers, Democrats should run the state – there are almost 2.8 million registered Democrats and just 2 million registered Republicans, according to the state Board of Elections. But in reality, Republicans hold filibuster-proof majorities in both the state House and Senate, they control 9 of 13 Congressional seats, and it was one of just two states, along with Indiana, that voted for President Obama in 2008 but flipped to the red column in 2012.

So, I put the question to you: Is North Carolina still a swing state?

FIX: I say yes.

Here's why: The current governor is a Republican. The governor before him was a Democrat.  The Senator are one Republican and one Democrat — both of whom, had real races to get elected the first time around. Obama, as you mentioned in 2008, narrowly won North Carolina and Romney, as you also mentioned, narrowly won it in 2012.

Add that all up and I see a swing state.  And, in some ways, that's nothing new for North Carolina. After all, this is the state that gave us Jesse Helms (iconic southern Republican) and Jim Hunt (iconic southern Democrat).  At the presidential level the state has clearly moved toward Democrats since 1976 when Carter carried that state — the last Democrat before Obama in 2008.

Here's what I don't know. Have the demographic shifts that moved the state into the toss up column at the presidential level stopped? Or are they ongoing — meaning the state will continue to move for Democrats?

REID: A lot of Republican strategists in North Carolina are worried about that very question. Exit polls from the last three elections suggest Democrats have a higher ceiling than the one they reached in 2008: In both 2008 (when Democrats won the state) and 2012 (when Republicans won it), African Americans made up 23 percent of the electorate, the exit polls showed. But in 2004, when George W. Bush won the state by 12 points, exit polls showed African Americans made up 26 percent of the electorate. There may be more unregistered voters out there.

That means the next Democrat on a statewide ballot – Sen. Kay Hagan – is going to need the kind of field program that spends a year registering voters, signing them up for absentee ballots and getting them to early voting polling places (How will North Carolina’s new election reform law change the way North Carolinians vote and challenge Hagan’s team? Glad you asked, I spent most of a Saturday writing that very story).

And I think that hints at one of the fundamental political questions out there today: Democrats don’t have a winning coalition nationwide, or even in some of these swing states. A guy named Barack Obama has a winning coalition. Can the next Democratic appropriate his unique appeal, and his campaign’s unique approach to politics? If they do, it’ll be very hard for Republicans to win a presidential campaign until they come up with a formula that alters the balance. If they don’t, we’re still a tossup nation.

What do you think about Hagan’s chances?

FIX: I don't think anyone — including Kay Hagan — thinks she wins in 2008 without Barack Obama on the ballot. [Editor's note: We stand corrected -- by Senate Democratic flack Matt Canter who notes that Hagan beat Elizabeth Dole by eight percent and 400,000 votes, 100,000 more votes than Obama got that same day.] 

So, no Obama = Hagan loss? Eh…not so sure. I think she is clearly vulnerable — freshman Senator elected in a wave year in a swing-ish state — but I think she has two things going for her. The first is, as you mention is that I do believe that the theoretical high of the Democratic ceiling in North Carolina is pretty damn high.

The second is that you don't beat someone with no one in politics. And, at the moment, Republicans have lots of candidates — Rev. Mark Harris is the latest — but no one that has shown any real promise.  Republicans I know seem to be highest on Thom Tillis, the speaker of the state House, but he has been, in a word, unimpressive thus far in the campaign. I am somewhat amazed that a state that has been so heavily targeted in 2008 and 2012 at the presidential level doesn't have a better state party that can really find a stellar recruit against Hagan, who is beatable.

Agree? Disagree? And riddle me this: Is North Carolina a swing state for Democrats in 2016 if Hillary Clinton is the party's nominee?

REID: Tillis is clearly the front-runner in the Republican primary, with a few caveats:  The Republicans I talked to last week said they’re keeping an eye on Harris, the president of the state Baptist Convention, and on Greg Brannon, a physician who’s making the rounds in Tea Party circles. An X factor Republicans face in taking back the Senate in 2014 is that they’re snake-bit – think Sharron Angle, Richard Mourdock and Christine O’Donnell throwing away winnable Senate seats. There are plenty of opportunities for conservative Tea Party types to beat more establishment-favored candidates this time around – Alaska, Georgia, Kentucky and Louisiana leap to mind – and North Carolina is in that mix.

The other guy to watch is Phil Berger, the state Senate president. Most of the controversial legislative initiatives that made it to Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk this year were driven by Berger, who many people believe is the single most powerful politician in the state. He’s launched a TV ad that touts his accomplishments and sure looks like a Senate ad (it even mentions Hagan by name). Most people think he won’t run in the end, but he’s sure keeping his options open.

Whether North Carolina is in play in 2016 if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee is a function, I’d think, of how well she’s able to make inroads with white women. No winning presidential candidate has ever received a lower share of the white vote than President Obama did in 2012 – which further underscores the changing face of the American electorate – and if Clinton can improve on Obama’s performance among white voters, it’s game, set, match. Obama won just 33 percent of white women in North Carolina in 2012 and 38 percent in 2008. If Clinton can match that 38 percent, or maybe even boost her performance as high as 40 percent, you can color the state Tar Heel blue. Or maybe Duke blue, depending on your basketball preferences – which, by the way, is a touchy subject in the Research Triangle.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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