Winston-Salem, North Carolina— “Look around!” a young man shouted repeatedly, as Reverend William Barber transfixed an overflow crowd at Union Baptist Church with a sermon about the backlash to what he calls the “Third Reconstruction,” the progressive “fusion” movement that’s been uniting North Carolinians of every race in the last decade. It wasn’t clear if the young witness was telling us to “look around” at the movement, or at the ominous threats to democracy in North Carolina that are trying to thwart it. On the even of this crucial election, you can see both everywhere you look in this divided but thoroughly energized state.
In 2008, the new multiracial North Carolina elected Democrats Barack Obama president and Kay Hagan senator. In 2010, the old white conservative North Carolina fought back. With cash, energy, and ideas aggressively provided by Variety Wholesalers mogul and former state representative Art Pope, the conservative arm of the Republican party elected a GOP governor and legislature, which proceeded to pass voter-suppression laws and attack women’s rights and LGBT rights. They organized to vote down Obama in 2012 and vote out the popular Hagan in 2014. But Barber’s “Moral Mondays” movement, which since 2013 has grown to include those fighting the ugly anti-transgender “bathroom bill” HB2, as well as the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant backlash here and nationwide, has gotten ever more powerful. On November 9, Americans may be looking around at a new South, led by North Carolina.
In rural Smithfield, a day before Barber’s sermon, Democratic Senate nominee Deborah Ross was looking around for votes even in this rural Republican stronghold. Like Barber, in her own way, Ross is trying to include white people, as well as independents and even Republicans of good will, in her crusade to take back the seat held by incumbent Richard Burr. When I ask what happened to the state since the great victories of 2008, she tells me quickly: “It’s not a different North Carolina. North Carolina changed in 2010 because it was an off-year election. I don’t think that the people of North Carolina have changed, which is why I think this election is so ripe for turning it back.”
A lot is at stake on the ballot in North Carolina, but the Senate race could matter most. This is one of two swing states, along with New Hampshire, where there’s a race for governor and senator. In most recent polls, Clinton has a slight lead over Donald Trump, and Democrat Attorney General Roy Cooper has an even better lead over Governor Pat McCrory, the former Charlotte mayor who was seen as a moderate and then rivaled Wisconsin’s Scott Walker in playing backlash politics once he got into office. Ross, a former ACLU director who left her seat in the state house in 2013, isn’t well known, and was considered a long shot against incumbent Burr, who barely campaigned in the state until recently. Since the fall, though, she’s run neck and neck with him. A Quinnipiac poll released Monday showed Ross and Burr tied at 47 percent each.
At Union Baptist, Barber didn’t mention Ross’s name, but he did mention Burr’s. The incumbent has been hurt in recent days by the revelation of several unfortunate boasts to supporters, captured on tape. In one, he expressed disappointment that a gun magazine put Clinton on its cover, without putting her in rifle sights. He’s declared “If Hillary Clinton becomes president, I’m going to do everything I can do to make sure that four years from now, we’ve still got an opening on the Supreme Court.” And this weekend, CNN broadcast tape in which he bragged, “I have the longest judicial vacancy in the history of the United States in the Eastern District of North Carolina. ”