Surely this had to be some kind of mistake, or cruel hoax. It was the weekend before the second presidential debate, and the New York Times was reporting that Barack Obama had hunkered down in a battleground state to do his prep–while also holding a jubilant rally in local Republican territory and crashing the year’s most exclusive state Democratic fundraiser in a “surprise,” media-snatching visit. All of which made perfect sense. What defied credulity was the story’s dateline: Asheville, North Carolina.
My home state, where I spent decades suffering serial heartbreaks along with my fellow progressives, where Al Gore and John Kerry withdrew their campaigns by Labor Day, where George W. Bush won last time by twelve points–my home state was suddenly a toss-up. It had gone from red to pink to indefinite on the cable TV maps just since last spring. Best known to many as the place that gave us Jesse Helms, North Carolina now could–to the astonishment of almost every pundit inside and outside the state–shift its fifteen electoral votes and help seal the deal for the nation’s first African-American president. It was the most surprising thing this side of Indiana.
“When we started this campaign,” Obama crowed to 700 Democratic heavies and a bank of local-news cameras at the Vance-Aycock Dinner he’d “crashed,” “we said we were going to change the political map. And people said no, it can’t be done.” But “we kept coming down to North Carolina…. And despite the pundits, despite the prognosticators, despite the cynicism, thirty days out, we are right here in the hunt in North Carolina. We can win at the top [of the ballot] in North Carolina, and we can win at the bottom of the ballot in North Carolina.”
This was Obama’s third straight weekend in the state–eye-popping for a place that hasn’t gone Democratic for president since 1976, and has seen only one pair of nominee’s wingtips pounding its pavement since then–Bill Clinton’s in 1992, when he lost the state to George H.W. Bush by a hair. And if Obama was sounding triumphal in Asheville, it’s because winning North Carolina would be sweet not only for the obvious reason of helping him get past 270 electoral votes. It would also vindicate his campaign’s extension of Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean’s fifty-state project into the presidential election.
Like Dean before him, Obama was questioned for putting cash and people into states like Georgia and North Carolina, despite their increasing Democratic leanings and rapidly changing demographics. North Carolina, where 3.5 million voted in 2004, gained 1.5 million legal residents from 1996 to 2006– plenty of newcomers to fundamentally alter the state’s voting patterns. But while he’s given up on full-scale efforts in Georgia, Obama’s North Carolina campaign, undergirded by 1,700 volunteers, forty offices and close to 400 paid staffers (McCain has thirty offices but only thirty paid staff), has outregistered Republicans five to one in the state this year and drawn even in the polls heading into the campaign’s last weeks. In the first week of early voting, in mid-October, almost three times as many Democrats as Republicans were casting ballots in a record turnout; while African-Americans are only 22 percent of the state’s population, almost 40 percent of early voters were black. Obama’s been running many more ads in the state than McCain–and gearing them, spot-on, to the economic troubles shared by working-class Carolinians, who’ve suffered some of the nation’s highest job losses, and overspending white-collar families around Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte, which was recently rocked by the implosion of Wachovia, one of several banks headquartered in the city.
It does not hurt a bit that North Carolina Democrats, who have built a powerful grassroots machine under the leadership of innovative state chair Jerry Meek, have outhustled the Republicans. So has the Obama campaign. Obama, his wife, Michelle, and running mate Joe Biden have all stumped in the state’s swelling metropolitan areas–where they need to rack up a big margin, especially among the many younger independents from out of state working in banking, universities and tech–as well as in the military country of the coast and the largely white, conservative terrain of the mountains. Unlike McCain, Obama has fine-tuned his message for local ears, repeating, with the slightest hint of a twang, the themes that have consistently won Democrats most statewide offices–better jobs, better education, more responsible government. “I want y’all to listen to this,” he said in Asheville at his rally in blazing sunshine. “My opponent, Senator McCain–his campaign has announced they plan to, and I quote, ‘turn the page’ on the discussion about this economy and spend the final weeks of his campaign launching Swiftboat-style attacks on me.” The crowd hooted, just as they hooted at Obama’s invocation of McCain’s name.
“You’re trying to pay your bills every week and stay above water. You can’t ignore the economy!” Heads nodded all around, yes, yes. “You’re worrying about whether your job will be there a month from now. You can’t ignore the economy!” Whoo! “You’re worrying about whether you can pay your mortgage and stay in your house. You can’t turn the page and stop thinking about the economy!”
It’s the right message at the right time in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 46 to 32 percent. But was Obama–is he–the right candidate to preach this new populist gospel? A new North Carolina, one that would never have gone for Jesse Helms, is rapidly emerging. November 4 will test how far the evolution has come. It will also test how much of native, white North Carolina is ready to come along for the ride.
The opening lines of the University of North Carolina’s fight song go like this: “I’m a Tar Heel born, I’m a Tar Heel bred, and when I die, I’m a Tar Heel dead.” These are hardly profound sentiments when you look at them on the page or yell them at basketball games, but they say some revealing things about the state where I lived my first thirty-six years–in other words, about the old North Carolina. We’ll get to the new one shortly.
The Tar Heels I grew up around in the ’70s and reported on in the ’90s carried the spirit of that song in their DNA: funny, proud and self-deprecating all at once. After all, there we were, cheering to the notion that when we die, well, that’s all she wrote. We’re dead Tar Heels. Yee-hah!
The state has always been one of the nation’s weirdest political places. While North Carolinians have long been prone to noting that someone once called us “a valley of humility between two mountains of conceit”–those being South Carolina and Virginia–we have also had a tendency to make bold and cranky choices, both liberal and conservative, when it comes to electing people. At the ballot box, we were never humble. We were closer to schizophrenic.
It is true, as Democratic consultant Mac McCorkle says, that North Carolina qualifies as “the most advanced outpost of liberalism in the South.” That’s been the case, in fact, since the nineteenth century, when the state led the country in funding higher education and other such socialistic things. A century ago, Governor Charles Brantley Aycock advocated free, universal public education for blacks and whites alike. A few decades earlier, North Carolinians had voted down secession, only to have their legislature capitulate. The state lost more men in the Civil War than any other, but also welcomed home an outsize share of Confederate deserters. Fool us once… While Democrats dominated here for the rotten hundred years after the war, as they did everywhere in Dixie, there was a difference: North Carolina had not only a strong traditionalist wing fighting for Democratic dominance but also a moderately progressive wing with some electoral oomph.
The seminal twentieth-century showdown between the traditionalists and the modernists (excellent terms for the state’s dueling ideologies, courtesy of Democratic legislator and historian Paul Luebke) came right at its midpoint: the 1950 primary battle for US Senate between former marine and aggressive liberal Frank Porter Graham and segregationist rabble-rouser Willis Smith. It was a doozy. Fliers were plastered around the state with the Klan-like warning White People, Wake Up and a doctored photo of Graham’s wife supposedly dancing with a Negro. Another flier was circulated, pretending to support Graham as the candidate of the “National Society for the Advancement of Colored People.”
The dark side won that one narrowly, in a runoff, but the Graham campaign spawned progressive Terry Sanford. In 1960, at the height of the South’s civil rights backlash, Sanford beat a staunch segregationist to become governor. (He also became the first major Southern politician to give JFK his blessing, and the Catholic candidate carried the state.) At his inaugural, two years before George Wallace’s famous “segregation forever” speech, Sanford declared segregation over, sending shock waves through the South and making headlines across the country. Twelve years later, we elected Jesse Helms to his first of five interminable terms. Go figure.
Helms wrecked our reputation. But while the rest of the country, understandably enough, began to characterize our politics with the misleading evidence offered by the bespectacled bigot, the state remained mostly Democratic through the reigns of Nixon, Reagan and the Bushes. Most of the Republicans who broke through statewide were from the politer, Chamber of Commerce wing of the party–folks who held their noses whenever Jesse and his true believers came around.
Helms-style Republicanism never flew in North Carolina–unless it was being delivered by the man himself, who had a strange connection with the antic, nonconformist, hell-raising side of us. Helms and his band of right-wing fundraisers repeatedly backed cloned candidates for Congress, Senate and governor, and they usually didn’t make it out of the GOP primaries. That’s partly because the millions of nonnative Republicans who moved to the state, swelling the party’s ranks in the 1980s and ’90s, tended to be social moderates who didn’t like being married to the religious right–and who have shown a tendency to be swing voters when the Republican candidate is too hard-core, or when they simply like the Democrat better. (This time, the Democrats are poised to pick up another Congressional seat, giving them an 8-to-5 edge in North Carolina, with former textile worker Larry Kissell leading five-term incumbent Robin Hayes [see Moser, “Mill Hill Populism,” May 12].)
According to longtime Republican consultant Paul Shumaker, who advised first-term Senator Richard Burr in his 2004 victory over former Clinton aide Erskine Bowles, Republican candidates in 1980s North Carolina could count on winning 85 percent of their party’s base from the get-go. “These days, candidates like Richard Burr start out their campaigns assured of only about 60 percent of their party’s vote,” he estimated in 2006. Considering that there are already a lot more Democrats than Republicans in the state, that lack of GOP loyalty could be deadly for many Novembers to come.
North Carolina is likely to become a presidential battleground for several cycles. That means more national Democratic money and presence–and, ironically, uncertainty for the dominant state Democrats. “In terms of presidential politics, we’ve been kind of on the fringe,” state chair Meek told me in the spring of 2007. Has that cost NC Democrats? I asked him. “There are mixed perspectives,” he said. “If the DNC thought North Carolina was important enough in play to spend significant resources here, then the RNC would probably have the same reaction. Is it a wash?… Clearly in terms of infrastructure, in terms of organization, in terms of resources, the NCDP is in much better shape than the North Carolina Republican Party. And we kind of like it that way.”
On the other hand, Meek said all those months ago, “I’m much more optimistic about the prospect for a Democratic nominee winning in North Carolina in 2008 than at any time in the recent past. There are a lot of changes going on. We’re one of the fastest-growing states in the country, and people who are moving into places like RTP [Research Triangle Park], to the Charlotte area, the Triad area [Winston-Salem, High Point and Greensboro] are increasingly willing to vote Democratic at the federal level. They tend to be fiscally conservative, but they don’t tend to have so many hang-ups about the cultural issues. That doesn’t seem to drive their vote in the way that it does for some of the more traditional Republicans in North Carolina.”
This year moderate Republicans and independents have one GOP candidate they can cheer wholeheartedly: former Charlotte mayor and gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory, the sort of Republican who raised taxes in his city to pay for mass transit. McCrory is quick-witted, accent free, like so many new North Carolinians, and despite some unpopular stances (including on education, where he has talked about rolling back innovative Democratic programs), he has a good chance to knock off Lieutenant Governor Bev Perdue, an awkward debater and spawn of the corrupt Democratic machine in Raleigh. That’s the bright spot for Republicans. Elsewhere it’s gloom, doom and desperation for the NC GOP.
By contrast, North Carolina progressives are giddy as hell and worried sick, both. What we remember, most vividly and horrifyingly, is 1990–the other seminal matchup of the last century. Ol’ Jesse was running for re-election for the four millionth time, all the while conducting surgical strikes against the National Endowment for the Arts, the judicial system and global democracy. His opponent was former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt, a handsome, genial Democrat with personal integrity and the guts to say that he was “proud to be a liberal.” He was also the African-American who had famously integrated Clemson University in 1963–at a time when Helms was rabble-rousing nightly on the state’s widest-reaching TV station. The same year that Gantt matriculated at Clemson, Helms blustered into the camera, “The Negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that has thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic and commerce and interfere with other men’s rights. Mob action invites mob action. Violence invites violence; lawlessness invites lawlessness.”
The symbolism of Helms versus Gantt was thick as grits. The question in 1990 stared North Carolinians in the face: are we finally, once and for all, better than that? For most of the year, it looked like we were. Gantt, running on an energized grassroots, led in the polls right up to election day. Celebrations were in the works. A few days before the voting, a Gantt organizer called me up and cracked, “Does anybody have a copy of ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’?”
But while we were busy planning victory parties, aglow with the thought of Jesse losing to a civil rights hero, Helms unleashed his infamous “white hands” ad: a close-up of a pair of white male hands opening, reading and then crumpling a rejection letter. “You needed that job and you were the best qualified,” the narrator somberly intoned. “But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair? Harvey Gantt says it is. Gantt supports Ted Kennedy’s racial quota law that makes the color of your skin more important than your qualifications.” Just like forty years earlier, the dark side prevailed. Gantt had come close, but his slight advantage in the final polls had disappeared by the time North Carolinians went to vote. We weren’t there yet.
John McCain has done his darnedest to help Obama in North Carolina, running a campaign that has been alternately angry and absent. The news that the Democrat had drawn even in the state was apparently slow to register with them. Until a visit on October 13, the GOP nominee hadn’t set foot in the state since June, when he huddled privately with the Rev. Billy Graham. McCain had talked to Tar Heel voters before the May primary, when he told a crowd at Wake Forest University that he appreciated “the hospitality of the students and faculty of West Virginia.” Maybe that’s why it took him so long to show his face again.
Right after the second debate in October, the McCain camp roused itself and sent Sarah Palin to East Carolina University in Greenville, the red heart of Jesse Helms’s eastern North Carolina base. It was quite the Helmsian scene, starting with the invocation, when local pastor Walter Leake prayed: “We know the truth is out there, and the truth is that the other side is lying, unbelievably lying…. God, we ask you to close their mouths.”
Then out came Helms’s replacement senator, Elizabeth Dole, locked in the fight of her life (now uphill) against scrappy Democratic State Senator Kay Hagan, to carry on about how the outsider Democrats were ganging up on her. In her impossibly honeyed Hollywood drawl, Dole complained vociferously about a most terrible person called Senator Chuck Schumer, who had already poured some $5.5 million into ads attacking her for voting with Bush 92 percent of the time and coming in ninety-third in one Senate effectiveness ranking. (Two good ol’ boys argue whether she’s “92” or “93” in a devastating Democratic commercial, not so subtly playing on Dole’s record and her age, which is 72.) “He’s try-un to buy North Carolin-uh with his New York money, and we’re naht goin’ to let that happ-un,” she instructed the folk. (It has been reported, coincidentally, that Dole’s percentage of out-of-state contributors far exceeds Hagan’s.) Loud boos were aimed at this Schumer character. The crowd later roused itself into a gleeful, guttural chant: “Nobama! Nobama! Nobama!”
The main speaker was not about to lighten the tone. “Here in North Carolina,” said Sarah Palin, just getting warmed up, “you can help put us there in Washington, DC.” That was about as positive, or specific, as she got. But she did have something to say. It was in Greenville where she first asked the immortal question, whether Obama really “didn’t know that he had launched his political career in the living room of a terrorist?” The folks cheered themselves hoarse. And when the next set of polls came out, Obama had taken a slight lead in the state.
The GOP’s attack strategy, its only strategy in North Carolina, hasn’t–so far–paid dividends any more than Hillary Clinton’s fervid populist effort last spring, in the primary that ended her nomination hopes numerically and realistically with a 56-to-42 drubbing. At the height of the hoo-ha about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Bill Clinton had been dispatched to some four dozen small-town arenas and community college auditoriums, talking to overwhelmingly white audiences and basically delivering the message: “You know, remember now, we’re all right, we’re one of you. Not like that other fellow.” But Obama rode the metropolitan areas, where the swing votes and new votes reside, to a victory bigger than the polls had suggested.
The night of his primary triumph in May, Obama was all swole with joy and uplift–and in full sales mode. After calling North Carolina “a swing state, a state where we will compete to win if I am the…ominee for president,” Obama raised the roof with his big preacherly finish: “In this country, justice can be won against the greatest odds. Hope can find its way back from the darkest corners…. We answer with one voice, ‘Yes we can.’ North Carolina and America…don’t ever forget that this campaign is about you. It’s about your hopes, it’s about your dreams, it’s about your struggles, it’s about your aspirations.”
There is something about North Carolina, both the old one and the new one, that has an ear for that kind of thing. And an ear, too, for the folksier and more focused (on economics) Obama of the general election. In early October he sounded just like a successful NC Democrat, speaking the language of sound, responsible, inarguable progress and duly noting the 24,000 manufacturing job losses in the state this year, part of an avalanche of layoffs with the collapse of textile, furniture and tobacco industries. And he snatched the high road–the one that always works best for North Carolina Democrats. “Senator McCain and his operatives are gambling that they can distract you with smears rather than talk to you about substance,” he said, his body swaying more animatedly than usual. He looked loose here, at home. “They’d rather tear our campaign down than lift this country up. That’s what you do when you’re out of touch, out of ideas, and running out of time!” Cheers.
“I’m going to keep on talking about issues that matter…. I’m going to talk about healthcare. I’m going to talk about education. I’m going to talk about energy. I’m going to keep on standing up for hard-working families who aren’t getting a fair shake in this economy.” Whoops all around. “We’re not going to let John McCain distract us. We’re not going to let him hoodwink ya, or bamboozle ya”–here, Obama could not help chuckling at himself. “We’re not going to let him run the okey-doke on ya. The American people are too smart for that, because they want to move this country forward.”
It was pretty good talk. And it had nothing to do with guns, or NASCAR, or “life,” or “faith,” or any of the sorts of cultural shtick national Democrats have trotted out so uncomfortably in the South and Midwest. Here was Obama, crisply dressed in his usual white shirt and tie, harking back to Tar Heel politicians like Aycock and Sanford and four-time governor Jim Hunt, who appealed to people’s common sense in order to advance progressivism. At the same time, he was also establishing himself as the torchbearer of a whole new brand of rational progressivism that appeals mightily to the new North Carolina.
But the Republican robocalls cranked up soon after Obama’s visit. More disturbingly, Helms-style “white hands” made a comeback, courtesy of an RNC mailer that infected mailboxes across North Carolina in mid-October. The main image is a close-up of a big, weathered Caucasian hand resting on a chest decorated with an American flag pin. “It used to be easy to recognize patriotism,” reads the main headline. The flier mostly criticizes Obama and Biden on taxes, but the racial implications are anything but subtle.
There is, surely, worse to come. Everybody in North Carolina knows that. What nobody will know, until November 4, is whether such tactics can still work their satanic charm in a state that’s at the vanguard of a new, and increasingly blue, South.