Raleigh, N.C. – ‘Well you crazy people, is this the Democratic party or what?” That was David Parker, the embattled chairman of the North Carolina Democratic party, announcing on May 12 that he would continue to lead the state’s Democrats through the rest of the 2012 election cycle despite widespread criticism for his handling of a sexual-harassment scandal at party headquarters in Raleigh. Parker was using “crazy people” as a term of endearment for the hundreds of Democratic activists in the room. But many state and national Democrats — including those managing President Obama’s reelection campaign — think Parker is nuts, that any Democrats who would vote to keep him in power are nuts, and that the decision to hold the Democratic national convention in North Carolina may prove to be catastrophically nuts.
Political parties have to hold their nominating conventions somewhere, and it makes sense to try to leverage them to political benefit in a battleground state. North Carolina certainly qualifies; in 2008, the Tar Heel State voted Democratic for president for the first time since 1976, albeit by only 14,000 votes out of 4.3 million cast. This year, the battle for North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes will be fierce. If you average the results of the last three statewide polls, President Obama and Mitt Romney can each claim about 46 percent support.
The problem for Obama is that North Carolina’s Democratic party is an utter mess. Most of its recent leaders are either in trouble with voters, in trouble with the law, or both. It would be in President Obama’s political interest to stay as far away from the North Carolina party as he can, campaigning there via broadcast ads, social media, and appearances that do not include unpopular state Democrats. But with the national convention scheduled to begin on September 3 in Charlotte, the Obama campaign is finding it hard to disassociate itself completely from the host state’s Democratic infrastructure.
To illustrate the scope of the problem, let’s jump in the Wayback Machine and travel ten years into the past. In 2002, North Carolina Democrats could claim to have built one of the strongest records of electoral success in modern American politics. While other southern states were moving steadily toward the Republicans, not just in presidential elections but in key races down the ballot, North Carolina had continued to elect Democrats to most of the state’s top jobs. Republicans had gotten just two governors elected in the past century — Jim Holshouser (1973–77) and Jim Martin (1985–93). Democrats had controlled both houses of the state legislature since Reconstruction, except for a brief period of GOP rule in the state house in the mid-1990s. In 2002, Democrat Mike Easley was in his second year as governor, after eight years as state attorney general. Democrat John Edwards was in the U.S. Senate. The lieutenant governor, Beverly Perdue, other statewide executive officers, the leadership of both legislative chambers — all were Democrats. The only major exception to the trend was longtime conservative U.S. senator Jesse Helms, and he was about to retire.