North Carolina has long seemed to be on the verge of breaking from its reactionary past. Time and time again, the state has looked like it might actually depart from a historical legacy defined by low wages, poor education, and racial hostility, only to revert at the last minute to its old, conservative, Southern ways. In light of this past, the current effort of Sen. Kay Hagan to win reelection is freighted with great historical and political significance.
It was only six years ago that North Carolina voters issued one of the most shocking upsets of the 2008 election, when Barack Obama narrowly won the state’s electoral votes. Obama was the first Democrat to do so since Jimmy Carter won with a more comfortable 11-point margin in 1976. Bill Clinton came within an ace of winning the state in 1992 (losing by less than 1%), but for most of the last 40 years North Carolina has remained steadfast in its loyalty to the national GOP, ever since the formerly Democratic “Solid South” began to switch its partisan allegiance in the late 1960s.
The 2008 election also elevated Kay Hagan to the US Senate, when the former state senator defeated incumbent Elizabeth Dole in her bid for reelection. Hagan is now caught in a tough reelection battle of her own against Thom Tillis, the Republican Speaker of the House who has helped lead the state’s sharp turn to the right since the GOP took control of the legislature in 2012.
Hagan looked doomed to fail for much of the campaign season, for the usual reasons—the Democrats’ strongest supporters, such as minority and young voters, generally do not turn out in force for midterm elections, when the electorate tends to be much older and whiter (an advantage for Republicans). And Hagan only surfed into office on the Democratic wave of 2008, as enthusiasm for Barack Obama’s candidacy and a rejection of the Bush years lifted the fortune of Democrats in many unlikely places (hello, Alaska’s Mark Begich). Add to all this the fact of living in a post-Citizens United world, where Democrats can expect to be swamped by massive amounts of shady money from rich Republican donors, and it’s not surprising that Hagan would face a very uphill battle this year.
Yet the polls seem to suggest that Hagan is faring slightly better than many of her erstwhile Democratic colleagues. (Check coverage here, here, and here.) According to RealClearPolitics.com, Hagan maintains a modest 3.7 point lead over Tillis in polls, usually notching around a 44% share of the vote. That means she has seldom polled above the critical 50% threshold that would suggest a candidate had a comfortable path to victory, but her lead has been described by journalists as “small but sturdy.”
It’s not exactly an occasion for popping the champagne: a narrow advantage, well below 50%, and close to or within the margin of error. But Hagan is doing better than other Dem hopefuls in similarly challenging territory, such as Georgia’s Michelle Nunn or Kentucky’s Alison Lundergan Grimes, who both appear to be falling behind in their quest to pick up Republican seats in the Senate. Could it be that North Carolina is finally tipping ever so slightly in a more progressive direction?
The Tar Heel state has been rather like Lucy’s football for liberals for decades. Apart from Clinton’s near-miss in 1992, there have been many times when a more progressive candidate appeared to be within arm’s reach of victory in a state that, for all its self-presentation as more enlightened or moderate than its Southern peers, has remained politically in-step with the South as a whole. In the late 1940s, for instance, a relatively populist and racially moderate governor, Kerr Scott, appointed UNC president Frank Porter Graham to a vacant Senate seat. Graham was among the most broad-minded men to hold office in the South, having pushed the limits of Jim Crow and Southern conservatism about as far as a prominent public official could in the 1930s and 1940s. Graham, however, was brutally beaten in his 1950 bid to remain in office, when a virulent segregationist, Willis Smith, employed race-baiting and fear-mongering to tar the sitting senator with the brush of miscegenation—a political lesson that was not lost on future office-seekers, who determined not to get clobbered by the “race issue” the way Graham was.
One such aspiring pol was Terry Sanford, an ambitious young lawyer and state legislator who sought the governorship in 1960. Sanford’s own views were more liberal and integrationist than the majority of North Carolinians at the time, though even he had to thread the needle of segregationist sentiment by vowing to oppose integration when he ran against a more vociferously racist opponent, I. Beverly Lake. Sanford managed to win office despite this challenge from the segregationist right, and went on to boost public education in the state in a variety of ways.
Sanford, though, was but one of many Democrats who aspired to overcome the right in North Carolina—and most failed. Nick Galifianakis, a moderate, antiwar US House representative from Durham, sought to best a right-wing commentator named Jesse Helms in the 1972 Senate election, and lost. (More on that election here.) Moderate Democratic governor Jim Hunt attempted to unseat the hard-right Helms from office in 1984, and narrowly lost. Harvey Gantt, an architect and the first black mayor of Charlotte, tried twice to beat Helms in 1990 and 1996, and came close to winning despite the fact that no black Senator has been elected from the South since 1874. (Indeed, that barrier remains unbroken—but South Carolina Republican Tim Scott will most likely shatter it this Fall.)
The takeaway? Even though Helms—the dean of the most hardcore anti-gay, anti-civil rights, anti-Communist wing of the GOP—won again and again over the course of thirty years, there was still a very substantial portion of North Carolinians who voted against the right-wing agenda. Looking at the losses of Galifianakis, Hunt, and Gantt, that percentage looks to be about 46% (albeit over the course of thirty or forty years, amid shifting issues and a changing electorate).
This progressive minority has always existed in North Carolina, but it has only managed to push ahead in a few instances. Of course, voters continued to elect moderate Democrats like governors Jim Hunt and Mike Easley to state-wide office, even as they sent the likes of Helms, Reagan, and Bush to Washington. But in only a few instances have Democrats been able to win national office from North Carolina, and their cases are especially instructive for Senator Hagan’s chances.
If Hagan wins, it will be a departure of truly historic proportions. No Democrat has won reelection to the US Senate from North Carolina since conservative Sam Ervin won his third term in 1968. Democrat Robert Morgan was elected in 1974 to replace Ervin, but lost a close race to Republican John East in the Reagan sweep of 1980. Liberal icon Terry Sanford returned to politics in 1986 to win a Senate seat, only to lose to Republican Lauch Faircloth in 1992.
And then a little-known trial attorney named John Edwards managed to steal the seat back in 1998, in what turned out to be both a narrow victory and his first eruption of world-historical egomania. Edwards, of course, did not run for reelection in 2004, instead choosing to pursue his presidential ambitions—a wise choice, since the prospects for a Democrat winning national office in North Carolina amid the War on Terror frenzy of 2004 were slim. (George W. Bush won the state by over 12 points that year.)
All this is to say that, from a historical perspective, a reelection victory by Kay Hagan in 2014 would be a milestone. North Carolina has had fits of progressivism throughout its history, from the Populism of the 1890s to the liberalism of Sanford in the early 1960s to the momentary flip of 2008, when the state supported a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in over thirty years. That switch has been attributed to the robust turnout prompted by Obama’s candidacy, as well as the much-vaunted “demographic shift” that is making the electorates of states like North Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia potentially more hospitable to Democrats. (The Latino/a share of North Carolina’s population doubled between 2000 and 2010, mirroring that of neighboring states; Georgia’s growing diversity has been thought to give candidates like Nunn a better shot this year.)
Whether that trend holds, or grows stronger, remains to be seen. Certainly, an off-year election like 2014 is not the time most observers expect to see younger, more diverse voters shift politics to the left—especially when most of the crucial Senate contests just so happen to be in more conservative states, such as Alaska, Arkansas, Kentucky, and, yes, North Carolina.
But if Hagan were re-validated by voters this year, it may signal a significant shift. If a Democrat who voted for the Affordable Care Act could survive a tough reelection challenge in the South, in an off-year election, with all the additional baggage of Citizens United—that would be a true watershed. It would also symbolize a repudiation of the right-wing takeover in North Carolina in the last few years, which has seen the state drop to the bottom in rankings for public education—in spite of decades of effort to lift the state’s educational performance. (ToM has covered the debacle of conservative governance in NC here and here.) Republican candidate Thom Tillis is, after all, the Speaker of the state House, and an architect of the conservative agenda in the state. It would be hard to read a loss for Tillis as anything but the first electoral verdict on the Republican program in North Carolina.
All that being said, I have my doubts. Every state has a political center of gravity—and for North Carolina, it remains on the right. If you’re looking at a close race in New York or Massachusetts, you can be reasonably confident that a larger share of undecided voters will ultimately break toward the Democratic candidate because that’s where voters’ preferences have been for some time. In North Carolina, Hagan has seldom posted above the mid-40s in polls, meaning that even if she leads Tillis 44-40%, there are still 16% of voters who remain unaccounted for. Those voters might break evenly among the two main-party candidates, or they might plump for Libertarian Sean Haugh, who appears to be pulling 4-5% of the vote in polls so far. Third-party candidates generally receive less support on election day than they do in polls, and it would not be surprising if much of Haugh’s support ultimately goes to Tillis.
However, there is one silver lining for Hagan: North Carolina does not require run-off elections. In both Georgia and Louisiana, Democratic candidates are locked in tight battles—Louisiana Dem Mary Landrieu looks unlikely to beat Republican Bill Cassidy in a run-off, while Democrat Michelle Nunn currently picks up only about 40% of the general election vote in Georgia, versus 44% for Republican David Perdue, with Amanda Swafford winning about 4%. As Time recently pointed out, the Libertarian Swafford could keep both major-party candidates under 50%, thus requiring a run-off in January. It’s imaginable that Nunn could squeak by Perdue with something like 46 to 45% of the vote in the general election, but it’s hard to see the Democrat pulling above 50% in a run-off, in the absence of a major controversy or catastrophe for Perdue.
Kay Hagan does not have the same problem, and could potentially skate past Tillis with under 50% of the vote. I may remain unconvinced that the senator can close the deal, or that the ardently anti-Obama voters of rural and small-town North Carolina will not ultimately carry the day. But the numbers suggest she has at least a fighting chance. And for beleaguered progressives in North Carolina, a real chance is more than enough. After the likes of Sanford and Edwards scored their one-time victories, and countless others came close but failed, a win by Hagan would say a great deal about where North Carolina is and where it’s going.