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North Carolina is not Virginia.
And 2017 is not 2018 or 2020.
But North Carolina Democrats and Republicans still watched what happened in our neighboring state’s elections last week for clues about next year’s elections in our state.
Although they are different states, there are similarities. Arguably, Virginia and North Carolina are more like each other than either is to any other state. They are about the same size geographically (Va. 42,770 square miles; N.C. 53,820) and population-wise (Va. about 8.5 million people; N.C. about 10 million). They share beautiful mountains, a similar Piedmont, a coastal plain and an Atlantic shoreline.
In each state, there is a remembrance of a long dominance by mostly conservative Democrats that was swept aside by the growing strength of conservative Republicans.
Today large parts of both states are rural and with small towns where Republicans are strong. Similarly, in both states, urban areas are growing rapidly, and Democrats are doing much better in those areas.
Politically, at least until last week’s election, the states were twins. Both have Democratic governors, making them a rarity among neighboring Southern states. And both have had legislatures controlled by Republicans (House: N.C. 75-45; Va. 66-34; Senate: N.C. 35-15; Va. 21-19).
It is understandable for North Carolina’s Democrats to hope and for its Republicans to fear that a similar Democratic wave could turn things upside down.
What can both political parties learn from the Virginia experience?
Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal columnist and former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, talked to Virginia Republicans in the days after the election. Her conclusion: “The Democrats had a big night Tuesday, and the president of the United States took it right in the kisser. And it was all about him.”
Of the Republicans she interviewed, “from centrists to hard rightists, none expressed surprise at the outcome. All acknowledged the cause was Donald Trump.”
A Republican official told Noonan, “It was a total repudiation of Trump — no other way around it. Voters, more women than men, were literally walking in and saying ‘I’m here to vote against Trump.’ The name of the victim on the ballot didn’t matter.”
The official conceded, “The suburban educated women problem will grow in states that are getting bigger and more diverse. We have hitched our wagon to the shrinking team.”
Voters under 45 and non-whites voted solidly Democratic. Virginia’s Republican Party chair wrote, “If we do not find a way to appeal to these two groups, the results will be grim.”
Trump makes the Republican chair’s challenge more difficult. Noonan explains, “The female backlash about Trump is in part a response to the resurgence of male chest-thumping following Hillary’s demise and Trump’s victory. Trump has unleashed men to be more oblivious to real sexism at a time when women are feeling liberated by the demise of Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, etc. They can’t vote against Harvey or Bill, but they can vote against Trump and anyone remotely near him.”
Another Republican campaigner expressed this frustration, “There is a Catch-22: We can’t win with Trump, and we can’t win without him.”
Or as another official lamented, “All the oxygen is Trump or anti-Trump.”
So can North Carolina Democrats look forward to Virginia-style victories next year?
Noonan cautions, “The threat for Democrats is that they’ll overplay their hand — that heady with their first big win since Barack Obama’s re-election, they’ll go crazy-left. If they are clever they will see their strong space as anti-Trump, socially moderate and economically liberal. Will they be clever? Hunger encourages discipline, and they are hungry. But emboldened progressives will want to seize the day.”
The lesson from Virginia: North Carolina Democrats have a good chance to gain a Virginia-type win next year, but only if they spend their energy fighting Trump and not each other.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.