Democrats’ road to Southern success runs through North Carolina

House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin administers the House oath of office to Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., during a mock swearing in ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington in January.
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin administers the House oath of office to Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., during a mock swearing in ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington in January. AP

If Democrats are to recapture the majority in Congress next year and begin winning consistently in the South, the effort could begin with baby steps in North Carolina.

Democrats are eyeing the politically purple Tar Heel State as a place where they can make gains. The party is targeting four House incumbents in the state, notably Charlotte-area Rep. Robert Pittenger.

"North Carolina is a good place to see if there’s a political wave developing," said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Inside Elections web site. "If Democrats are on the verge of picking up a House seat in North Carolina, then they are probably at or near regaining the majority." 

Flipping GOP districts in the state will be tough. Democrats still must find viable candidates in districts configured to protect incumbents, and energize African American and millennial voters who were largely unenthusiastic about the party’s candidates in 2016.

"There are a lot of dominoes that all have to fall in the right direction," said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C. "Not saying it can’t happen, but it has to be targeted and a lot has to fall in Democrats’ favor."

After a devastating 2016, Democrats are looking to reclaim both the House and the Senate in 2018 but there are a few obstacles in their way.

Democrats have been steadily losing House and Senate members from Southern states. In 2008, North Carolina voters elected eight Democrats to House seats as well as a Democratic senator. Today, the state has two Republican senators and three Democratic House members.

The House Blue Dog Coalition, a group of moderate Democrats, mostly from Southern states, had 54 members in 2009. A year later, two dozen were gone in a year when Republicans regained the House majority. Centrist Democrats have never rebounded.

But buoyed by President Donald Trump’s unpopularity among traditional Democratic and independent voters, Democrat Roy Cooper’s election as governor a year ago, and mid-term election history, Democrats in North Carolina and Washington see fresh opportunities.

In addition to Pittenger, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee plans to commit resources in North Carolina to defeat incumbent Republican Reps. George Holding, Ted Budd, and Richard Hudson. 

Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats to win control of the House. Their best chances are regarded as the 23 districts with GOP House members that Democrat Hillary Clinton won last year. But they need more, and think they can find it in North Carolina.

Jaime Harrison, former South Carolina Democratic chairman and now associate national party chairman, used North Carolina as an example of where Democrats could be competitive.

State and national Republicans dismiss such optimism. They note that Democrats have yet to come up with viable candidates to run against Budd and Hudson.

"They’re daydreaming," Maddie Anderson, a regional spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee said of Democrats. "I think they have 75 targets (nationwide), or something like that, and I would say that these (North Carolina seats) are on the low end of the list. To me, it seems to be a waste of time on their part."

Although Trump is wildly unpopular with North Carolina voters overall, he still has strong support among the state’s Republicans.

While 58 percent of North Carolinians overall disapprove of Trump’s performance in the White House, 75 percent of self-identified Republicans in the state approve of the job he’s doing, according to an Elon University poll released last month.

Still, some Republicans say there could be cause for concern. The out-of-power party has gained House seats in each of the last three elections. Democrats gained 30 seats in 2006 when George W. Bush occupied the White House and Republicans won a net of 63 seats in 2010 when Barack Obama was president.

The president’s party has lost House seats in 20 of the last 22 mid-term elections. Sixteen involved double-digit loses.

"If you’ve been around politics long enough you’ve seen these kind of wave elections that can happen," said Carter Wrenn, a Raleigh-based Republican strategist. "The Democrats can’t control that, but anybody like Bob (Pittenger) or George (Holding) who are in areas that have a lot of urban/suburban voters, it’s going to affect them."

Pittenger is in a particularly precarious situation. He could not only face one of the toughest House Republican primaries in the country but, if he survives that challenge, would run against a well-funded Democrat. He’s in a primary rematch against Mark Harris, the former pastor of Charlotte’s First Baptist Church, who lost in 2016 by only 134 votes. 

The primary is shaping into a proxy war between former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon and Karl Rove, Bush’s political adviser. Rove headlined two fundraisers for Pittenger last month. McClatchy reported that Bannon, annoyed that Rove criticized him in a Wall Street Journal editorial, may aid Harris. 

If Pittenger wins the primary, he could face Democrat Dan McCready, a former Marine from Charlotte who raised $416,000 in the third quarter, bringing his campaign total to $875,000. He’s one of three candidates running in the Democratic primary. 

Pittenger has been one of Trump’s consistent defenders and has voted with the president’s positions 95.7 percent of the time, second only to Rep. Patrick McHenry’s 98 percent among North Carolina’s 10 House Republicans, according to an analysis by website FiveThirtyEight.

That’s not stopping Harris’ primary campaign from trying to cast Pittenger as an anti-Trump establishment Republican. Andy Yates, Harris’ campaign consultant, questioned how Pittenger can call himself a Trump supporter when he’s backed by Rove, who’s been critical of the president.

Pittenger told McClatchy that he and Trump "walk the same line in terms of economic policy and national security policy."

Brian Murphy and Emma Dumain of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau contributed to this story.

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas