A big blow to the Cooper political machine
N.C. Democrats oust their party chair over the weekend, weakening Gov. Roy Cooper's grip on state politics
In a major rebuke of Gov. Roy Cooper’s political machine, North Carolina Democrats voted to oust their state party chairwoman in favor of a high-energy 25-year-old promising to bring “bite” back to the party and battle for votes in rural areas.
Anderson Clayton was selected Saturday to lead the North Carolina Democratic Party for the upcoming two-year cycle. She’s a Roxboro native who moved back to Person County in 2021 after working as a field organizer on a handful of national campaigns.
Clayton promises to pour money into a year-round, paid statewide field organization and bring the liberal message to all corners of North Carolina, but has said little about what exactly that message will be.
Her election also throws a major wrench into Cooper’s plans to secure his legacy in the 2024 cycle and hold his grip on his caucus until then. We’ll explain how in a minute.
How it happened
Clayton takes over from 73-year-old Bobbie Richardson, a former state representative from Franklin County who critics said was too comfortable with defeat.
Republicans picked up a few seats in the General Assembly and swept all statewide races in 2022, including the U.S. Senate seat won by Ted Budd and the two state Supreme Court seats that gave the GOP a majority on the state’s highest court. Even though the national headwinds were solidly against Democrats, many in the Democratic Party were frustrated by the perceived complacency.
“Like, if we gon’ go down, we gon’ go down fighting,” Clayton told the Assembly while campaigning for the job.
Still, Richardson had the near-unanimous backing of the Democrat establishment, including Gov. Roy Cooper, Attorney General Josh Stein, Congressman Jeff Jackson, former candidate Cheri Beasley, and consultant Morgan Jackson. Cooper even cut a video on Richardson’s behalf that played for the Democrat executive committee meeting before the vote, WRAL reported.
But Saturday’s results weren’t particularly close. Energy and enthusiasm won out over the establishment. Clayton won by 10 percentage points on the second ballot.
Why this matters
Bobbie Richardson’s defeat is not just a symbolic blow to the Cooper machine. It’s a practical one, as well.
If a sitting governor is going to go out on a limb in intraparty politics, there must be a pretty good reason. Here, the reason seems pretty clear: With Richardson at the helm, Gov. Cooper has used the state party as a primary way to manage his political strategy.
Under North Carolina law, political parties can both accept and provide unlimited donations — making them a great way to funnel large amounts of cash.
Cooper’s personal campaign committee sent more than $4.5 million through the N.C. Democratic Party in the last election cycle alone, according to campaign finance reports. Most of the donations were made between August and October 2022.
The party then divvied up that money to people like Sen. Mary Willis Bode ($1.5 million), who held onto her seat by 4,000 votes; Sen. Sydney Batch ($1.2 million), who held her Wake County seat, and Diamond Staton Williams ($846,000), who essentially prevented a Republican supermajority in the House by winning her Cabarrus County seat by 600 votes.
Cooper also used the party to punish former Sen. Kirk deViere for voting to override his vetoes. The Democratic Party sent $1.3 million to Val Applewhite to beat him in a primary (not coincidentally, deViere backed Clayton to become the new party chair).
The short version is this: If Cooper controls the people running the state party, he can efficiently raise and send large amounts of money where he sees fit. If he doesn’t, the job gets a bit harder.
Going into 2024, Cooper is likely to still raise millions of dollars even as a lame duck. But he can only send a campaign $6,400 himself — he needs the state party or some other entity to send more.
If Josh Stein needs $250,000 in October 2024 for a final TV push, can he count on the N.C. Democratic Party to give it to him? Or will it go to field organizers in Alleghany County?
And if Reps. Garland Pierce, Michael Wray or Tricia Cotham break ranks and vote to override a veto, what will Cooper threaten them with? There are ways to do it, to be sure, but the governor has lost a major hammer in his toolbox.
Maybe that’s why Cooper immediately sent out a tweet congratulating Clayton on her victory.
How should Republicans respond?
Setting all that aside, some of Clayton’s ideas certainly have merit and her approach is worth examining and adapting to. For example, she wants Democrats to run a candidate for every seat in the state House and Senate in 2024, after an election in which 30 safe Republican House seats and 14 Senate seats were unopposed.
It’s a good strategy. If Sens. Phil Berger or Jim Perry have even token opposition, that means money and time they’ll need to spend in their district that would otherwise be used to elect Republicans elsewhere.
However, choosing Clayton might come back to bite Democrats electorally, even setting aside the Cooper machine. Here are four ways Republicans can respond.
Fight for the suburbs. Use Democrats’ new emphasis on rural areas to our advantage. Today’s Democratic Party has little to sell a rural voter and knocking on doors in Valdese will do little to change that. General Assembly members can do a great job carrying the Republican message in rural areas. Instead, the N.C. Republican Party can dedicate more resources to suburban areas that were only recently solidly red but have since hemorrhaged GOP support.
Nominate excellent candidates. Cooper and his allies have long said the Democratic Party’s hopes in North Carolina hinge on securing money from national groups. I can’t see deep-pocketed donors being too excited about dumping money into an idealistic dream. However, their pitch gets a bit easier if Republicans nominate weak candidates that give Democrats an opportunity to pick off a seat.
Recommit to GOTV. Get-out-the-vote efforts are a good use of time for state and local party committees. Republicans have historically lagged behind Democrats in this arena, and the new Dem party chair could threaten to drive that margin wider. Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida has shown the power of a solid statewide GOTV push, one that’s worth copying in North Carolina.
Stay united. The best way to take advantage of the wedge between the grassroots and the establishment on the Democrat side is to eliminate that wedge on the Republican side. That, of course, is easier said than done.
4 things of note
Parents' Bill of Rights passes the Senate, moves to House
The Parents’ Bill of Rights legislation that we explored in depth last week moved quickly through the Senate, passing strictly along party lines. It now goes to the state House, where it’s currently been assigned to a committee.
House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters on Monday that he believes it will get a hearing at some point, though perhaps not right away, the AP reports. Moore indicated the House may write its own version of the bill in an attempt to get more Democrat support.
Former state rep, JAG officer announces bid for attorney general with high-powered list of supporters
Tom Murry, a former Wake County state representative and current officer in the Army National Guard, has announced a campaign for state attorney general.
The Republican pledged to make combatting fentanyl a key priority and touted a list of big-name supporters, including state Sen. Tim Moffit, Rep. Jason Saine, and former Rep. Skip Stam.
Murry is the first Republican to formally declare intentions to run for state attorney general in 2024, though we reported last week that N.C. Chamber general counsel Ray Starling is considering a bid, as well.
Both have the resume to be strong candidates in the general election, and perhaps become North Carolina’s first Republican attorney general elected since 1900. (North Carolina had a Republican attorney general for a few months in 1974 when Gov. Jim Holshouser appointed James Carson to the position when AG Robert Morgan resigned to run successfully for U.S. Senate.)
Josh Stein case closed, Wake DA says
Wake County DA Lorrin Freeman announced last week that her office’s investigation of Attorney General Josh Stein is now closed, the AP reports. Stein had been near indictment under a North Carolina law that makes it a crime to knowingly lie to influence an election. A campaign ad Stein aired in the 2020 election may have violated the law, investigators believed.
Stein’s legal team fought the investigation, saying lies in campaign ads are First Amendment-protected speech. A federal appeals court agreed, blocking prosecution. Freeman said her office is now limited by the two-year statute of limitations for misdemeanors.
Richard Burr joins national law firm as policy advisor
Just a few weeks out of office, former U.S. Sen. Richard Burr has landed a gig as a policy advisor with the law firm DLA Piper, the Winston-Salem Journal reports. Under the law, he's not allowed to lobby the Senate for two years, but he will be responsible for helping the law firm's clients navigate the regulatory process around new drug development and other healthcare areas, Burr said in a statement. In office, Burr was one of the leaders of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
1 good idea from another state
Maryland considering giving parents of special-needs children more rights in school
Under federal law, children who need special services in school — due to a physical or learning disability, for example — receive what is known as an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. However, each individual state gets to determine who's responsible for making sure it's adequate. In North Carolina, the burden is on parents. Schools get a lot of leeway to decide what they think is sufficient to educate a child, and parents have to go through a complicated legal process to challenge it if their public school district isn't doing a good job.
Maryland is the same way, but their state legislature is now considering a bill that would reverse that and put the burden on school districts to prove that the IEP they create adequately serves the child. Currently, families often need to hire a special education attorney or consultant for help if they are unhappy with the IEP they receive.
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