If you were reading this column a year from today, just days before the 2022 midterm elections, I’d tell you that North Carolina Democrats were about to experience a catastrophe.
Their hopes of replacing Richard Burr with a Democrat would be dashed. Their Republican rivals would be about to regain supermajorities in the state legislature. Incumbent Democratic sheriffs, county commissioners, and other local officials would be about to lose their posts in normally blue-tinted places.
But it’s only 2021. A lot could change in a year. Unfortunately for Democrats in North Carolina, they aren’t really masters of their political fates. It’s almost all about Joe Biden, and right now it’s almost all bad news.
The John Locke Foundation’s latest Civitas Poll, taken in mid-October, put President Biden’s job approval at 39%. That’s down from 48% as recently as May. Another recent poll, conducted by High Point University, had Biden at 38% approval among all North Carolina adults and 41% among registered voters.
With ticket-splitting now a rare occurrence, an unpopular president invariably acts as a heavy weight on down-ballot candidates of the same party. In Locke’s October survey, “generic ballot” tests for congressional and legislative races found some of the largest GOP advantages I’ve ever seen: +6.2 points for Congress and +6.3 points for the General Assembly.
One survey can, of course, be an outlier. Prior polls have shown smaller Republican leads. Still, if you want to understand why some progressive activists and Democratic pols are sounding increasingly unhinged — and contemplating such extreme measures as forcing Republican Supreme Court justices off constitutional cases or putting a local Democratic judge in charge of state appropriations — put yourself in their shoes.
They’ve spent the past decade telling themselves that their 2010 loss of the legislature was a fluke, continued GOP governance was a dirty trick, and its policy changes were illegitimate. Now their dreams of a Democratic restoration are starting to fade. And while they wouldn’t want to admit it, I suspect more than a few realize the man they venerate for bringing the Trump administration to an end, Joe Biden, has proved to be a bad president himself, although in different ways.
The economy is his — and their — biggest problem. With prices surging and jobs going unfilled, voters are no longer willing to blame a former administration for their current woes (voters rarely are). Biden has given them plenty of reasons to blame him. Incessant talk of spending trillions of additional dollars, most of its borrowed, sounds like more fuel for the inflation fire.
Furthermore, when Biden and his attorney general, Merrick Garland, injected themselves into raging local controversies about the decisions of school boards, they created yet another political mess for their party. Parents upset about COVID-era school closures and “woke” curriculum in public education may be mistaken. (Editorial clarification: they’re not.) But they are hardly “domestic terrorists” worthy of FBI investigation.
To the extent a few individuals have threatened violence against school boards or education officials, they deserve condemnation and investigation by local law enforcement. There was no evidence whatsoever of a national crisis meriting federal action, as most voters knew instinctively and the Biden administration should have known.
And while Afghanistan is no longer dominating the headlines like it was in late summer, the president’s humiliating retreat remains a big reason why so many voters have abandoned him. In the High Point University survey, only 25% of voters approved of Biden’s handling of Afghanistan, with 57% disapproving. It is his worst issue by far. The poll found 69% think the world is becoming more dangerous for the United States, and more North Carolinians say in retrospect we should have kept troops in Afghanistan than say we should have pulled them out.
Again, 12 months is a long time. Biden may recover somewhat. At the moment, however, what’s scaring North Carolina Democrats isn’t the latest horror flick in the movie theaters. It’s the horror show on TV newscasts.
John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist and author of the new novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.