As President-elect Biden prepares for a transition to a sane Presidency, despite the lack of cooperation from the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and his creepy band of d-list lawyers, we in North Carolina are reflecting on Election 2020 and basically saying, “What the f**k did I just watch?”
The pundits on tv and at leading newspapers are wringing their hands over down-ballot races that went well for Republicans, wondering of the Democrats were too “far left” or if liberals didn’t spend enough time trying to “reach out” to those they disagree with.
But let’s get real here. Just what was this election all about?
You can waste time looking at campaign platforms, pressers with candidates, and those useless little voter guides that the BOE puts out for judges that tell you about the candidates in very polite terms. What NC voters respond to is news coverage and advertising. And that’s where the results of this election are very telling.
As a tv, radio, and Internet viewer in my own county and district over the past few months, I was inundated with advertisements and flyers in my mailbox every single day. This advertising painted a very stark picture.
Typically, the Democratic candidate advertised themselves as “normal”. They supported education. They wanted to bring back jobs to NC. They have nice families. They’re involved in their community. It was the same with the Republican candidates. “I’m fighting for you!” “Family values!” “Project NC jobs!” The real dirty work - and the bulk of the advertising - was left to dark money groups, almost exclusively on the right.
And what did voters hear about Democrats from these dark money organizations?
“Socialism!” “Scandals!” “Dishonest!” “Supports illegal immigration!” “Socialism!” “Did I mention socialism?!?”
All of it peppered with ominous slow motion, de-saturated footage of large crowds of Black and brown people.
In 1990, it was a national scandal when Jesse Helms came out with his racist “Hands” ad that tapped into white fears of Blacks taking their jobs. Now, this tactic has been normalized in campaigns around the country and especially here in North Carolina.
The proof that this bulls**t works is in the results.
In Senate District 24, Amy Galey, portrayed herself in her own advertising as a smiling, harmless soccer mom next door. The dark money backing her had on air, on the Internet, and in the mail a constant barrage of racist ads associating Wooten with socialism, riots of Blacks, and vague scandals. Wooten ran ads with the usual mix of heartfelt appeals on funding education, community and other niceties.
Galey won by about 6,000 votes. And, honestly, the considerable news coverage of Galey, as the Chair of the Alamance County Board of Commissioners, practically dry-humping the Confederate statue in Graham and working in conjunction with Alamance right-wing sheriff Johnson to coddle potentially violent Neo-Confederates probably helped Galey in her race.
I saw this tactic being used up and down the ballot, whether it was a few vague remarks about Blacks, immigrants or gays to full-blown racism seen in many of the tv, Internet, print mail ads.
Even the historic race for Lieutenant Governor featuring a Black man and woman running for the office succumbed to this. The Democrat, Holley, only ran positive ads about herself, pointing out her dedication to funding education, community, etc. Republican Robinson ran similar ads as well, highlighting his working class background. But Robinson’s campaign and the dark money went right for the racism card, running ad after ad associating Holley with images of menacing illegal immigrants.
There was only one race where I didn’t see these racist tactics used to any significant extent. Dan Forest focused his marketing on “freedom”, anti-mask nuttery, and Cooper destroying jobs. Of all the major Republican candidates that didn’t make racism a central part of their hard sell for NC voters, Forest lost, proving about as appealing as a case of head lice across the board.
There are a few races where the racism and bigotry didn’t work. In House District 63, Stephen Ross and his dark money supporters threw the same shouts of “Socialism! And images of menacing Blacks and Hispanics at Hurtado, even appearing to darken Hurtado’s skin in at least one flyer I saw. District 63, however, is more suburban and the fear-mongering fell flat with voters. (The Galey racist campaign, in the same general area but skewed more in the rural part of the county, was a success.)
During the campaign season, I got almost daily push-poll survey calls trying out different “pitches” on me to respond to on the NC legislative and federal Congressional races. All of them measured your support for the candidates, your impressions of them, then offered different variations of racist pitches against the Democratic candidates to see how that influenced your support.
The Republicans know these tactics work with rural voters and have the marketing survey data to prove it.
The takeaway from me on all of this is that the NC GOP understands that using fear and division as a marketing tool works. Their racist, bigoted hard sell motivates their base. Democrats aren’t going to appeal to rural voters with even more talk about funding education, fiscal responsibility, or basic competence. Just being “nice” and “normal” and "competent" isn’t going to cut it.
So, how do we move forward? How do we minimize the damage from the crazy-train GOP?
First, the NC Democratic Party needs to do some solid, detailed market research in sold red, sorta red, and purple counties and districts. The party needs to look at races not in terms of policy issues, but the values, beliefs, and tolerance of various demographic groups of voters and, most importantly, what kind of messaging can diffuse racist and bigoted campaigning in these areas. Are there certain demographics in rural areas that can act as a moderating force against these ideas? Are there respected leaders that can help set a tone and start to change the conversation?
Second, the party needs to look at this problem as a long-term day to day issue with rural NC voters. It’s not something to try and combat every couple of years during the campaign season, but every month and every week of the year.
Some of that can be done by partnering with grassroots political or community organizations in those areas. It might be some mix of advertising and promoting tolerance, but also taking advantage of racially charged controversies in some areas, like Alamance County, to support local leaders in speaking out or having a platform. Some of, quite frankly, is getting queer people, people of color, and the diversity of NC’s Democratic Party on the ground on a regular basis and visible in these local communities.
Time and again, the NC GOP has used racism, bigotry, and fear as a way to detract from basic Democratic values like access to healthcare, supporting education, supporting the working poor and middle class that poll really well with voters. And, time after time, just sitting back and hoping the racism and bigotry will just “go away” or being afraid to take any kind of stand for fear of offending rural voters has been the strategy the NC Democratic Party has used as a response.
As a gay man, I saw first-hand this wasn’t working thirty years ago. And is sure as hell ain’t working in the age of Trump.
Mark my words: there will be no progress on liberal or progressive issues until the Democratic Party takes the lead in making racism, bigotry, and division a liability for the NC GOP, not an asset.