UPDATE: On Saturday, February 11, the North Carolina Democratic Party’s State Executive Committee voted 272 – 223 on a second-round ballot to elect Anderson Clayton as the new party chair.
Anderson Clayton was in middle school when Democrats lost the General Assembly in 2010.
They were still in the minority in 2015 when Clayton moved to Boone to pursue a political science degree at Appalachian State University, where she became the student body president. And four years later, when she left for rural Iowa to volunteer as an organizer for the presidential campaigns of first Kamala Harris and then Elizabeth Warren.
Organizing caucus-goers made Clayton optimistic about Democratic politics. But after working as a rural field director for Amy McGrath’s long-shot bid to unseat Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, she came away disillusioned.
“It was a really interesting experience to see a massive amount of money that was put into that campaign, $96 million, and none of it actually made it down to the infrastructure of the Democratic Party in eastern Kentucky,” Clayton, 25, told The Assembly.
She returned to Person County in 2021 determined to do something different. She volunteered to chair the county Democratic Party—a job no one else wanted—and says she knocked on every door in Roxboro, population 8,134, ahead of its municipal election. Democrats flipped three of five city council seats.
“That could happen across rural North Carolina right now,” Clayton said.
The opposite is happening. Over the last decade, Republicans have turned rural and exurban areas deeper red. Democrats are now competitive in fewer than 25 of the state’s 100 counties in statewide elections.
As an increasingly urban party, Democrats have lost every presidential and U.S. Senate contest in North Carolina since 2008. In November, Republican Ted Budd defeated Cheri Beasley by three points in the U.S. Senate race. Republicans also swept the six statewide judicial contests and came one House seat away from supermajorities in both state legislative chambers.
Democrats head into the 2024 election cycle in a precarious position. Their most popular politician, Gov. Roy Cooper, is a lame duck. And another underperformance could shatter perceptions of North Carolina as a swing state, potentially starving them of resources and exiling them to the political wilderness.
Some critics have accused the leaders of the North Carolina Democratic Party—especially Cooper-endorsed chair Bobbie Richardson—of mismanagement and strategic errors.
Richardson and her defenders say her record has been mischaracterized, and she’s being blamed for issues beyond her control.
On February 11, between 500 and 600 party insiders will decide whether to give Richardson a second two-year term. But more than that, they’ll be making a high-stakes bet: whether to stick with Cooper’s political machine or roll the dice on an uncertain course and untested leader.
Someone, for instance, like Anderson Clayton.
Fast-talking and always enthusiastic, Clayton announced her campaign to become the state party’s youngest-ever chair in late December. She’s spent the last month traveling to breweries and county party headquarters across the state, trying to assuage concerns about her youth and inexperience while pitching her workaholic energy as the antidote to an institution adrift.
Like the other Democrats seeking to oust Richardson—retired Marine Col. Eric Terashima and Durham teacher LeVon Barnes—Clayton argues that the party’s leaders are too tolerant of losing.
“I don’t understand why there isn’t more urgency, honestly, of like, let’s meet the moment right now,” she said, her Southern accent growing more pronounced. “Like, if we gon’ go down, we gon’ go down fighting.”
Among the rank and file, there’s a market for what she’s selling. The question is whether they’ll trust their future to the seller.
On the Frontline
If the 2022 election had gone poorly for Democrats everywhere, the recriminations in North Carolina wouldn’t be so fierce. But in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and other battleground states, far-right candidates and anger over the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling kept the predicted red wave at bay.
When Republicans romped in North Carolina, some Democrats blamed the NCDP for the election’s poor turnout and said the party’s messaging needed to change.
“We failed to establish an independent brand that helps North Carolina voters see what it is we want for our own state,” said state Sen. Graig Meyer, a Chapel Hill Democrat who has not endorsed a candidate for chair. “In order to create a state-specific brand, we have to have coherent messaging, particularly to reach beyond people who are not inside of the existing Democratic bubble.”
Others pointed to the party’s decision to funnel $1.6 million to a state Senate candidate who won by five points while four Democrats lost House races by fewer than 1,000 votes. In addition, the Young Democrats of Rowan-Cabarrus said they helped now-state Rep. Diamond Staton-Williams flip her district—thus preserving Cooper’s veto—despite the NCDP’s refusal to provide the resources they requested.
Still other Democrats resurfaced long-standing complaints about the influence of consultant Morgan Jackson, whose Nexus Strategies manages the campaigns of Cooper and his heir apparent, Attorney General Josh Stein. Some Democrats have claimed that Jackson sometimes steers the NCDP toward his clients’ strategic and ideological priorities at the expense of the party’s larger goals.
(Jackson pointed out that holding the governor’s office is the NCDP’s top priority. “Obviously we work closely together,” he told The Assembly.)
Meanwhile, some NCDP staff members have criticized the party’s handling of contract negotiations with their newly established union. The dispute over “pay, safety, and healthcare concerns” went public in a Twitter thread weeks before the election, leading to a complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board in early November. The union withdrew the complaint in mid-November, but not after embarrassing the ostensibly pro-labor party.
The NCDP has seen hard times before. The state party was such a mess in 2014 that Sen. Kay Hagan famously ditched it during her failed re-election bid, choosing to work with the Wake County party instead.
But defeat breeds discontent. And though it’s hard to tell how deep the discontent runs, Democrats have suffered many defeats over the last 12 years.
The NCDP’s critics skew young and progressive, though they aren’t strictly defined by demographics or ideology. Mostly, they’re united by a desire to stop losing—and a sense that the status quo is broken. They see an anachronistic institution that hasn’t modernized its approach to politics or adapted to being out of power.
For some of them, Richardson, 73, embodies that broken status quo.
A former state representative who became the first Black woman to lead the NCDP in 2021, Richardson has argued that things could have been worse in 2022, pointing out that Democrats prevailed in North Carolina’s two competitive congressional races. She’s also reminded Democrats that she’s only run the party for two years and urged them to look to the future.
“We’re all in this together,” she said at a forum in Burlington last month. “And if we won, we won together, and if we lost, we lost together. We need to put our disappointment, our losses, and put our strength together and come together and be united for 2024.”
Not everyone is ready to move on.
“You can’t fake things,” Orange County Democratic Party chair Jonah Garson, who is running for a secondary NCDP leadership role, told the crowd. “Here’s the truth, y’all: You do not need to be steeped in the data to know what a total failure the past election cycle was.”
Many factors contributed to that failure; some had nothing to do with Richardson. But as the saying goes, failure is an orphan.
Get Out the Nope
The state party’s main job is turnout, Richardson told The Assembly. Last year, “turnout [was] our biggest Achilles’ heel.”
In 2018, a midterm driven by President Donald Trump’s unpopularity, 55 percent of registered Democrats voted in North Carolina. In 2022, 51 percent did. Turnout among young voters and voters of color, both core Democratic demographics, was well below what Democrats needed.
Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer has calculated that if all of the registered Democrats who voted in 2018 also voted in 2022, Beasley would have won.
The Democratic dropoff didn’t happen in other battlegrounds. Turnout increased in Michigan, Arizona, and Pennsylvania—states where Democrats succeeded.
Why was North Carolina different?
“It all begins and ends with money,” Jackson told The Assembly. “I think the party has a very important role to play in the election cycle, in how they generate enthusiasm and turn out voters. But you’d have to be a magician to do that without the resources.”
The NCDP raised about $29 million in the 2021-2022 election cycle, according to campaign finance records. That’s more than the $20 million the North Carolina Republican Party brought in and the $23 million the NCDP raised in its successful 2017-2018 midterm.
But national Democrats didn’t consider North Carolina a priority, Jackson says. They wanted to protect Senate incumbents in Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada. After that, they focused on Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which had high-profile races for both senator and governor.
Beasley’s campaign raised more than Budd’s: $39 million to $15 million, Federal Election Commission records show. But national Republicans and friendly political groups outspent Democrats $72 million to $23 million on the race, most of it to attack Beasley.
Facing such a disparity, Jackson says, Democrats’ messaging couldn’t break through. Across the country, Democratic voters were motivated by anger over abortion rights, denial of the 2020 election, and the January 6 insurrection. But in North Carolina, potential Democratic voters didn’t see Budd as an extremist “because Democrats didn’t invest money here so that voters knew who he was,” Jackson said. As a result, turnout suffered.
Richardson also believes that abortion didn’t resonate in North Carolina the way it did elsewhere—despite polls showing that most North Carolinians support the right to choose.
“We are a Bible Belt state,” she said. “So many people I know were angry about Roe v. Wade, but we probably did not generate that same kind of anger because of the religious influence that our people abide by.”
Meyer, the state senator, says North Carolina Democrats have become too dependent on outside groups to attack Republicans instead of doing it themselves.
“We do way too much that’s intellectual and not enough that really attaches to people at an emotional level. Right now, the political currency that really moves voters is moral clarity and emotional authenticity. If you put those two things into a package, you can get people excited to support you and vote for you.
“But you can’t do moral clarity and emotional authenticity if you’re running scared.”
Richardson says the answer to the party’s turnout woes isn’t to change its messaging but to build on what the NCDP is already doing.
“We will continue to go into those communities and try to register and educate people on what the Democratic Party does, and let them know that the Democratic Party lifts all people,” Richardson said. “We are going to work much harder on that and double down on that investment.”
The NCDP launched its first permanent organizing program, Building Blue, in March 2021, soon after Richardson became chair. The party hired more than a half-dozen organizing directors to support get-out-the-vote efforts for state and local elections.
The program was designed to be ongoing, but the NCDP shut it down and laid off its organizers after the 2022 election.
Meanwhile, the party’s election-year get-out-the-vote initiative—a joint effort of the state and national parties and the Beasley campaign called the coordinated campaign—became a debacle.
It struggled to hire organizers, hit the ground months behind schedule, and, a party source says, missed its voter-contact targets by hundreds of thousands of voters. (The NCDP did not provide details about the coordinated campaign’s goals and accomplishments, but a spokesperson told The Assembly that “our people were being told by national groups that they were on track with other battleground states despite less staff and shorter timelines.”)
Richardson partly attributes the hiring difficulties to a tight job market and her decision not to hire out-of-state organizers. Another factor was that the coordinated campaign’s director took a leave of absence before the campaign was fully staffed, she says.
Discussing the party’s organizing efforts at the Burlington forum, however, Richardson suggested there was more to the story: “When we hire people, they interview well, they say all the right things, but when you put them to work, you realize that they do not have the understanding, or the process, or the skills to carry out the job.”
To fill the coordinated campaign’s personnel gaps, the NCDP loaned out its Building Blue team in July 2022—something the party told them wouldn’t happen until just before it did, said Michael Careccia, a former Building Blue regional organizing director. (The organizers were then told they’d return to Building Blue when the coordinated campaign dissolved after the election; instead, they were laid off.)
The coordinated campaign didn’t begin canvassing until late August, months after GOTV efforts began in other battleground states.
“It’s a failure of oversight,” said Ryan Jenkins, who chairs the NCDP’s Progressive Caucus. “Somebody at the state party should have noticed this way earlier and fixed it.”
Careccia suspects that behind-the-scenes missteps influenced national Democrats’ decision not to spend more money in North Carolina.
“If I had to put myself in the [Democratic National Committee’s] shoes, or [Senate Democratic leader] Chuck Schumer’s shoes, and I saw the mismanagement that was happening, I don’t know that I would feel secure investing,” Careccia said.
Beacon of the South
Richardson’s challengers for NCDP chair agree that the party needs a robust organizing program. But they can be vague about how they’d pay for it.
Eric Terashima, 54, a retired Marine colonel who chairs the Brunswick County Democratic Party, told The Assembly that he’d rely on volunteers. “What I’m talking about is me, Eric, getting a list with my local Democrats and knocking on my neighbors’ doors, talking,” he said.
“Let’s just be honest about it,” said LeVon Barnes, 40, a teacher who previously ran for office in Durham. “There’s never enough money in politics. If you’re not doing the job that we’re paying you to do—that’s the reason folks got laid off, outside of the fact that there was no money to pay them.”
The NCDP says the Building Blue layoffs had nothing to do with job performance. The party just ran out of money.
Clayton told The Assembly that donors will open their wallets if there’s a clear vision for how to make North Carolina “what it used to be—a beacon of the South.”
“They want to see your investment in organizing,” she said. “They want to see a structure that really reaches every county.”
Garson, who helped raise $225,000 for the Orange County Democrats’ GOTV campaign last year, offers a similar assessment.
“The money is there, and then some,” he told The Assembly.
“I know from being in conversations with donors, mainly in the context of resourcing legislative campaigns, but also as chair of the Orange County Democrats, that there are a number of donors in state and out of state who would love to fund and feel a part of aggressive, on-the-ground field operations,” he said. “But you just need a strong, credible vehicle for building out strategies and executing plans.”
Donors won’t board a sinking ship. Clayton points out that North Carolina lost nearly 200,000 registered Democrats from October 2016 to October 2022, though the state gained 605,000 registered voters during that period.
“People don’t want to affiliate with our party, and that should be a concern to people everywhere,” she said.
Clayton says the NCDP needs to aggressively court young voters who stayed home in November and rural Democrats who feel like the party has abandoned them.
“People look at me and they say, ‘Anderson, how do you win in red rural areas?’ And I’m like, ‘It’s not about winning,’” Clayton said. “To me, it is about showing these people—folks that I grew up with, people in my party right now—that they can feel safe here, that they can grow here, that they can have a community here around them that will rally with them. And I’m like, people need to see that Democrats care about people again, rather than just winning elections.”
To do that, she says Democrats must field candidates in every legislative race. Last year, Democrats didn’t contest 30 of 120 House races and 14 of 50 Senate races.
Richardson says there were practical reasons Democrats didn’t contest every race. Legal battles over district lines ended just weeks before candidates had to file for office, keeping recruitment in flux. And there was little incentive for some candidates to run hopeless campaigns.
“People who have never campaigned before and are in red districts, they sometimes say that once they are identified as Democrats, they get harassed and they get bullied,” Richardson said. “We talked to some people who ran, and they said, ‘I’m ostracized now in my community because they know I’m a Democrat.’”
State of Affairs
A decade ago, Florida was the quintessential swing state. But in 2022, Republicans won landslide elections for governor and senator and secured legislative supermajorities.
The Florida Democratic Party’s chairman wrote in his resignation letter that after years of narrow but consistent losses, Democrats gave up on the state. “National Democratic organizations contributed just 2 percent of the amount they invested in 2018,” he wrote.
North Carolina’s situation isn’t analogous. Republicans claim a consistent but narrow advantage, but unlike Florida, which hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1994, Democrats have held the governor’s office here all but four of the last 30 years.
Florida nonetheless offers a cautionary tale: Lose for long enough, and people give up. Eventually, the dam will break.
“This  election, given all that is at stake not just for North Carolina but for North Carolina’s contribution to national elections as well, I think is making people really antsy in ways that I did not necessarily see in this midterm,” said Kimberly Hardy, a professor at Fayetteville State University and board member of The New North Carolina Project, which organizes communities of color.
Hardy considered a campaign for chair before running for a lower-level position on a slate with Garson.
“We are too big and too important as a state for us to keep performing so consistently poorly. We have to be a battleground state again,” she continued.
Ahead of the party’s leadership elections, this urgency has sparked two disparate reactions.
The first reaction: This is no time to screw around.
Last month, as he did two years ago, Cooper backed Richardson to lead the NCDP, praising her “proven leadership, meaningful investments in our party, and commitment to our Democratic values.” Jackson says the governor believes she’ll build a quality team. (Importantly, the next chair will help select the party’s new executive director.)
Richardson has also claimed the endorsements of Stein, Beasley, and all of the state’s Democratic members of Congress, among other party luminaries.
The second reaction: “My grandaddy used to say, ‘If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got,’” Durham state Sen. Mike Woodard tweeted on January 31, announcing one of Clayton’s highest-profile endorsements.
Garson hasn’t made an endorsement in the race for chair. But he said the party suffers from “institutional inertia and paralysis.”
“North Carolina Democrats deserve better, richer political imaginaries. Who are the leaders who are going to, you know, pronounce things into existence, embrace the generative power of leadership, and set the course?” he said.
For the last month, Clayton has sought to portray herself as that kind of leader, apparently with some success. Though Richardson is favored, two knowledgeable party sources—both neutral—told The Assembly they believe Clayton has a shot.
In addition, Clayton won 69 percent of the 130 party members who participated in a straw poll after a January 29 candidate forum hosted by the Progressive Caucus. This week, she got the endorsement of the progressive Triangle newspaper INDY Week and was the subject of a glowing Charlotte Observer column.
Another sign the race is unexpectedly close: Eight days before the election, Richardson launched a website touting her “Commitment to Change.”
“I’ve heard your frustration and the calls for change,” Richardson promised on the site. She asked for more time. “We cannot fix everything in one two-year cycle.”
If Clayton wins, it will mark the first time since 2013 that party members rejected the establishment’s choice for chair. (Perhaps unhelpful to Clayton’s case: The chair elected that year, Randy Voller, was widely seen as a disaster.)
“I can change the future of this party,” Clayton told The Assembly, unabashedly earnest. “I am so convinced that I can bring young people back and I can re-energize people, that I can bring the belief and hope in the institution that is this party back.”
A minute later: “Like, it can’t just be me. It could never be just me, right? But it has to start with somebody, and it starts with that culture reset at the top of our party.”
What does that look like?
“This party needs bite again.”
Jeffrey Billman reports on politics and the law for The Assembly. He is the former editor-in-chief of INDY Week in Durham. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.