North Carolina Republicans are trying to do what the Democrats did in our state for 50 years: hold back the tide.
Until about 1960, North Carolina was part of a “Democratic Solid South.” But a Republican “Southern Strategy” and changing loyalties brought about a rising GOP tide that attracted conservative Democrats who followed Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms into the Republican Party. That rising tide led to Republican control of most Southern state governments by the turn of the millennium.
But not in North Carolina.
Fighting back the rising tide, the Democrats didn’t lose control of both houses of the legislature until 2010.
How did Democrats do it? How did they stay in power for so long when the tide of voter preference was against them?
Democrats will tell you that it was the moderate progressive leadership of strong office holders whose programs appealed to North Carolina voters.
Republicans will say that Democrats gerrymandered legislative districts to give themselves unfair advantage, that they used their power to freeze Republicans from leadership positions and to extort political contributions that gave them an unfair advantage.
In short, they point out that Democrats built up a series of walls, bulwarks and other barriers to hold off the Republican tide.
Ironically, at the moment the Republican tide finally crashed through the Democratic bulwarks in North Carolina, the tide has turned against them.
According to figures that Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program of the Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, shared with journalists last month, the demographic trends in North Carolina do not favor Republicans.
For instance, since 1996, the percentage of voters who are white has declined from 80 percent to about 70 percent, while black, Latino, Asian and other voters increased from about 18 percent to about 30 percent. The Republican advantage among white voters is a declining benefit. More worrisome for them is a recent declining trend in Republican voter identification, which declined from 40 percent in 2004 to 33 percent in 2012, while the Democratic identification held steady at 39 percent.
The growth of North Carolina’s population from other parts of the country might have favored Republicans in earlier times. Not now. In the 2012 presidential election Romney got the votes of 55 percent of those who were born in North Carolina and 52 percent of those who moved here more than 10 years ago. But of those who moved here in the last five to ten years, he got only 38 percent.
So, can Democrats rejoice and ride these trends to victory and a return to control in the next election?
No. A rising tide is not a tidal wave. It will not lift all boats in every election contest.
To return to power, Democrats will have to overcome the same kind of bulwarks they built to hold off the Republican tide, which is not an easy task.
Meanwhile Republicans will use their hard-earned power to keep it, raising money, recruiting candidates, clearing out government offices, giving their loyalists positions and giving their supporters the government contracts and benefits that keep them happy and generous.
The favorable tide can contribute to Democratic success, but to win again Democrats will have to learn from Republicans how they finally seized power. Build a platform for North Carolina that resonates with the new electorate. Provide support for the thinkers who can articulate and sell that platform. Recruit and support candidates with an appeal broad enough to win crossover support.
In short, stop demonizing Republican leader Art Pope and his colleagues and learn from them how to take power away from an entrenched minority.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch
This week’s guest is Ping Fu, author of “Bend, Not Bread.”
A grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council provides crucial support for North Carolina Bookwatch.
Bookwatch Classics (programs from earlier years) airs Wednesdays at 11:30 a.m. on UNC-MX, a digital cable system channel (Time Warner #172 or #4.4).
The Feb. 20 guest is Pamela Duncan author of “Plant Life.”
One of North Carolina’s most successful and admired business leaders grew up in unbelievably oppressive circumstances in China during the Cultural Revolution. Starved, beaten, denied basic education, she survived and has prevailed. She tells this story of her challenging pathway to success in this country in her new book, “Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds.”