North Carolina: Deep Dixie Purple?

In a recent profile of North Carolina politics, The New York Times labeled North Carolina as “neither red nor blue, but a shade of deep Dixie purple.” The piece went on to paint a picture of a state divided and in flux.

It’s a fascinating portrait of Duke’s home state that panelists at the latest installment of the Duke University Election Discussion series, focusing on North Carolina, largely echoed.

“The interesting thing that’s been happening in North Carolina is the rise of the independents,” said Frank Hill (MBA ’83), chief of staff to former Senator Elizabeth Dole (R-NC). “These are the people that have decided not to be Republicans, not to be Democrats.”

However, as fellow panelist and long-time Democratic consultant, Pope “Mac” McCorckle (L ’84), pointed out, this does not mean that individual North Carolina voters are moving any closer to the center.

“Independent [as a political label] has grown so large it’s no longer a proxy for ‘moderate,'” McCorckle said. There are independent liberals,  independent conservatives,  independent radicals — people that don’t want to be besmirched with party label.”

And these are the voters upon which the outcome of the 2014 midterm races will depend — especially the contest pitting incumbent Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) against Speaker of the North Carolina General Assembly Thom Tillis for the United States Senate.

“It’s going to come down to get out the vote efforts, in which voters are interested in voting,” Hill said. To that end, Jim McCleskey (T ’85), a former director of federal relations for the North Carolina governor’s office, said North Carolina is an “inversion” of the nation-wide enthusiasm gap that polls are showing the Democrats to have.

“North Carolina feels a little bit different,” McCleskey said. McCorckle attributes these “counter-veiling” winds in the state to voter displeasure with the North Carolina legislature and Governor Pat McCrory.

“The key to this Senate race is that Tillis is not a generic republican candidate,” McCorckle said. “If he were a generic ‘R,’ with no association with the General Assembly, you’d see him up by 5 to 7 points.”

For her part, Senator Kay Hagan has proved a “resilient” candidate, McCorckle said. Her campaign has steered the conversation toward public education, which in Hill’s mind has made the race feel “for a long time like a State Senate race instead of a national race.”

Looking down the ballot at state-wide races, the panelists agreed that Republicans were unlikely to lose control of either the General Assembly or the State Senate, but Democrats did have a chance to pick up a few Senate seats in Wake County and around the Asheville area. McCorckle also said he would be watching the judicial races, especially the Supreme Court races, as they could be close.

All three agreed that North Carolina is in transition. No longer is it a smear on your resume to not be a native North Carolinian — McCleskey noting that many of the names at the top of state leadership from Hagan and Tillis to McCrory and leader of the State Senate Phil Berger were not from “around here.”

What that means for the future of North Carolina politics is anyone’s guess. When he looks at the next generation of voters, he sees a group of people that “aren’t interested in fighting. They want to make a decision and get things done.”