Donald Trump needs to win North Carolina to have a chance of becoming the next president. But Democrats have more than just the presidency on the line in the state’s elections. If their base’s liberal activism on policing and race relations is a political winner, they’ll need to prove it in a swing state where recent race riots have disrupted the state’s politics six weeks before the election.
North Carolina, which has voted Republican in five of the last six presidential elections, was recently looking like a bright spot for Democrats. Hillary Clinton has narrowly led in many state polls, and is spending disproportionate time in the state to turn it blue. Despite disappointing showings so far in other high-profile Senate races, Democrats have been thrilled by the campaign of former state legislator Deborah Ross, who is running competitively against two-term Sen. Richard Burr. In the governor’s race, state Attorney General Roy Cooper has been consistently leading the Republican incumbent, Pat McCrory, capitalizing on liberal opposition to legislation regulating which bathrooms people can use.
But Democrats are a growing a bit jittery after last week’s riots in the heart of downtown Charlotte. To win North Carolina, Democrats need to generate a strong black turnout and flip suburban white voters away from the GOP. With Trump heading the GOP ticket, North Carolina Democrats were confident they could do both. But with the recent chaos in Charlotte, the second part of the equation is now less certain—especially in the Senate and gubernatorial contests.
Remember: It was the GOP-leaning business community that bolted from the party on the bathroom bill, prompting several sports leagues to move events out of the state. But it’s that same business-friendly constituency that watched in horror as shops were vandalized in downtown Charlotte. Unlike many of the riots that occurred in poorer parts of other cities, this one happened in its affluent core.
Despite its diversity, North Carolina is one of the more racially polarized states in the country. In 2012, President Obama won only 31 percent of the white vote, while carrying a whopping 96 percent share of the African-American vote. In 2014, then-Sen. Kay Hagan did slightly better with white voters (33 percent), but the dropoff in black turnout allowed the GOP to win the Senate race. Democrats are hoping that race-related issues will remobilize the African-American community, but they also could cause the party’s share of the white vote to fall even further.
If the culture wars now decisively favor Democrats, a statewide sweep this year would offer a clear sign that the party would be strategically secure veering to the left on social issues. But if Burr and McCrory come from behind to hold a Senate seat and the governor’s mansion for the Republicans, it would be a signal of a backlash.
1. For a clear sign that there’s no anti-Trump wave emerging, just follow the money in battleground House races. Democrats hoped that a mass revulsion among suburban voters would jeopardize many previously safe House Republicans, giving them an outside shot at the majority. Instead, Democrats are lowering their sights, pulling money away from some top recruits because Trump is proving to be less of a drag on swing-seat Republicans than they expected.
Rep. Erik Paulsen of Minnesota, running in a suburban Twin Cities district that Obama carried twice, now looks like the clear favorite against Democratic state Sen. Terri Bonoff. House Majority PAC, the official Democratic super PAC for House races, canceled its TV reservations in the district—even as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been airing ads connecting Paulsen to Trump. In a suburban Wisconsin seat being vacated by GOP Rep. Reid Ribble, Democrats have pulled a week’s worth of ad time for prized recruit Tom Nelson, who has underperformed against Republican Mike Gallagher, an Iraq war veteran.
Another sign of significant split-ticket voting: A poll released by the campaign of LuAnn Bennett, the Democratic challenger to GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia, shows the incumbent leading by 4 points—even as Hillary Clinton is routing Trump by 14 points in the suburban Washington district. That’s a whopping 18-point swing from the presidential ballot.
In fact, Trump may even offer positive coattails to one of the most endangered House Republicans. The Cook Political Report just upgraded the prospects of freshman Rep. Rod Blum of Iowa, who is looking in better shape because Trump is expected to carry his eastern Iowa district. Blum, a conservative firebrand, was the heavy underdog in a district that President Obama carried with 56 percent of the vote in 2012.
2. One bright spot for Democrats this year is red-state Missouri. Trump is expected to win comfortably in the presidential race, but Republicans are struggling to take back the governorship and hold a critical Senate seat that could determine which party controls the upper chamber in 2017.
A Republican operative familiar with Sen. Roy Blunt’s polling told National Journal that the incumbent leads Democrat Jason Kander by only 1 point—consistent with recent public polling showing the race as a statistical dead heat. Blunt’s biggest problem is that he is a dated symbol of the GOP establishment (he served in House leadership with Dennis Hastert and Tom DeLay) at a time when voters are looking for fresher faces. The Cook Political Report moved the race into toss-up territory this week.
In the governor’s race, a new Remington Research Group survey found Democratic state Attorney General Chris Koster leading Republican Iraq war veteran Eric Greitens by 16 points. It’s an example of how governor’s contests often operate on a separate track from federal races. Koster, who switched parties to become a Democrat, was endorsed by the National Rifle Association and has been touting his bipartisan credentials throughout the campaign.