It’s no secret that North Carolina is one of the most politically competitive states in America. But recent decisions by the presidential campaign of late-entrant Michael Bloomberg demonstrate just how central the Tar Heel State is likely to be in the political melodramas of 2020.
Bloomberg, the media entrepreneur and former New York City mayor, launched his field operation Dec. 15 not in Iowa or New Hampshire but in Charlotte. He plans to have 11 field offices in North Carolina alone, plus dozens more in other battleground states.
North Carolinians are used to seeing presidential candidates make early and frequent visits to Charlotte. A significant share of the region’s media market is actually in South Carolina, a key early-primary state, and Charlotte is home to lots of political donors. There is also symbolism involved, as Charlotte hosted the Democratic convention that nominated Barack Obama for a second term and will do the same for the GOP’s re-nomination of Donald Trump next year.
Bloomberg, however, isn’t competing in South Carolina. He’s focusing on the 16 primaries and caucuses to be held on Super Tuesday, March 3, including North Carolina’s primary. More to the point, Bloomberg said that even if he isn’t his (new) party’s nominee — admitting that possibility is a refreshing sign of candor — he plans to keep his field offices open through the general election to boost Democratic fortunes in North Carolina.
Our political races have long attracted significant inflows of campaign contributions and independent expenditures from other parts of the country, going back to the days of former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms and former Gov. Jim Hunt. We should expect more of the same, perhaps a great deal more, in 2020.
Democrats and Republicans will contest many states and districts, to be sure, but North Carolina may prove to be a tipping point in more ways than one. For example, while it’s conceivable President Trump could prevail in the Electoral College without one or more of his 2016 prizes along the Great Lakes, it’s hard to imagine a successful scenario without North Carolina (and two other vote-rich states in the reddish Southeast, Florida and Georgia).
In the contest for control of the U.S. Senate, Republicans currently hold 53 seats. Democrats and their allies hold 47. To take over, Democrats will need a net gain of four if they don’t win the White House or three if they do.
Unless something truly weird happens, Alabama will replace Democrat Doug Jones with former Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions. Three races in Republican-held seats are widely considered toss-ups: Cory Gardner in Colorado, Susan Collins in Maine, and Martha McSally in Arizona. If Democrats won all three but lost in Alabama, they’d need another Senate victory to get to 50-50. That probably means defeating North Carolina’s Thom Tillis. (If Trump/Pence wins, Democrats would then likely need a victory in Georgia, Iowa, or Kansas to net four seats and the Senate majority.)
As to control of state governments and legislatures, North Carolina is again in the thick of the battle. After securing a “trifecta” in neighboring Virginia, Democrats hope to flip at least the N.C. House in 2020, aided by more-favorable districts, a highly energized ground game, and fundraising help from Gov. Roy Cooper. While national Democrats seeking to maintain their U.S. House majority aren’t as interested in Cooper’s own race — unlike in other states, North Carolina’s governor has no role in redistricting — both parties see governors not only as important in their own right but also as strategic assets in building and deploying strong partisan coalitions to win the Senate and presidency. So expect out-of-state investment in our gubernatorial race, too.
In polls of expressed party preference, which is more telling than party registration, North Carolina is among only a handful of states where Republicans and Democrats are roughly tied. Our electoral outcomes aren’t preordained. Surprises aren’t really surprising. Non-North Carolinians understand that. They’re coming here to win, not just to play.