A big blow to the Cooper political machine | Eastern North Carolina Now

N.C. Democrats oust their party chair over the weekend, weakening Gov. Roy Cooper's grip on state politics


By:  Andrew Dunn

In a major rebuke of Gov. Roy Cooper’s political machine, North Carolina Democrats voted to oust their state party chairwoman in favor of a high-energy 25-year-old promising to bring “bite” back to the party and battle for votes in rural areas.

Anderson Clayton was selected Saturday to lead the North Carolina Democratic Party for the upcoming two-year cycle. She’s a Roxboro native who moved back to Person County in 2021 after working as a field organizer on a handful of national campaigns.

Clayton promises to pour money into a year-round, paid statewide field organization and bring the liberal message to all corners of North Carolina, but has said little about what exactly that message will be.

Her election also throws a major wrench into Cooper’s plans to secure his legacy in the 2024 cycle and hold his grip on his caucus until then. We’ll explain how in a minute.

How it happened

Clayton takes over from 73-year-old Bobbie Richardson, a former state representative from Franklin County who critics said was too comfortable with defeat.

Republicans picked up a few seats in the General Assembly and swept all statewide races in 2022, including the U.S. Senate seat won by Ted Budd and the two state Supreme Court seats that gave the GOP a majority on the state’s highest court. Even though the national headwinds were solidly against Democrats, many in the Democratic Party were frustrated by the perceived complacency.

“Like, if we gon’ go down, we gon’ go down fighting,” Clayton told the Assembly while campaigning for the job.

Still, Richardson had the near-unanimous backing of the Democrat establishment, including Gov. Roy Cooper, Attorney General Josh Stein, Congressman Jeff Jackson, former candidate Cheri Beasley, and consultant Morgan Jackson. Cooper even cut a video on Richardson’s behalf that played for the Democrat executive committee meeting before the vote, WRAL reported.

But Saturday’s results weren’t particularly close. Energy and enthusiasm won out over the establishment. Clayton won by 10 percentage points on the second ballot.

Why this matters

Bobbie Richardson’s defeat is not just a symbolic blow to the Cooper machine. It’s a practical one, as well.

If a sitting governor is going to go out on a limb in intraparty politics, there must be a pretty good reason. Here, the reason seems pretty clear: With Richardson at the helm, Gov. Cooper has used the state party as a primary way to manage his political strategy.

Under North Carolina law, political parties can both accept and provide unlimited donations — making them a great way to funnel large amounts of cash.

Cooper’s personal campaign committee sent more than $4.5 million through the N.C. Democratic Party in the last election cycle alone, according to campaign finance reports. Most of the donations were made between August and October 2022.

The party then divvied up that money to people like Sen. Mary Willis Bode ($1.5 million), who held onto her seat by 4,000 votes; Sen. Sydney Batch ($1.2 million), who held her Wake County seat, and Diamond Staton Williams ($846,000), who essentially prevented a Republican supermajority in the House by winning her Cabarrus County seat by 600 votes.

Cooper also used the party to punish former Sen. Kirk deViere for voting to override his vetoes. The Democratic Party sent $1.3 million to Val Applewhite to beat him in a primary (not coincidentally, deViere backed Clayton to become the new party chair).

The short version is this: If Cooper controls the people running the state party, he can efficiently raise and send large amounts of money where he sees fit. If he doesn’t, the job gets a bit harder.

Going into 2024, Cooper is likely to still raise millions of dollars even as a lame duck. But he can only send a campaign $6,400 himself — he needs the state party or some other entity to send more.

If Josh Stein needs $250,000 in October 2024 for a final TV push, can he count on the N.C. Democratic Party to give it to him? Or will it go to field organizers in Alleghany County?

And if Reps. Garland Pierce, Michael Wray or Tricia Cotham break ranks and vote to override a veto, what will Cooper threaten them with? There are ways to do it, to be sure, but the governor has lost a major hammer in his toolbox.

Maybe that’s why Cooper immediately sent out a tweet congratulating Clayton on her victory.

How should Republicans respond?

Setting all that aside, some of Clayton’s ideas certainly have merit and her approach is worth examining and adapting to. For example, she wants Democrats to run a candidate for every seat in the state House and Senate in 2024, after an election in which 30 safe Republican House seats and 14 Senate seats were unopposed.

It’s a good strategy. If Sens. Phil Berger or Jim Perry have even token opposition, that means money and time they’ll need to spend in their district that would otherwise be used to elect Republicans elsewhere.

However, choosing Clayton might come back to bite Democrats electorally, even setting aside the Cooper machine. Here are four ways Republicans can respond.

Fight for the suburbs. Use Democrats’ new emphasis on rural areas to our advantage. Today’s Democratic Party has little to sell a rural voter and knocking on doors in Valdese will do little to change that. General Assembly members can do a great job carrying the Republican message in rural areas. Instead, the N.C. Republican Party can dedicate more resources to suburban areas that were only recently solidly red but have since hemorrhaged GOP support.

In any other year, you’d call the 2022 election a great one for Republicans. The GOP comfortably won the two biggest prizes of the night — the U.S. Senate seat and control of the N.C. Supreme Court. But with the national headwinds blowing firmly in the GOP’s favor, Democrats feared getting wiped out in North Carolina. That didn’t happen. Divided governm…
Nominate excellent candidates. Cooper and his allies have long said the Democratic Party’s hopes in North Carolina hinge on securing money from national groups. I can’t see deep-pocketed donors being too excited about dumping money into an idealistic dream. However, their pitch gets a bit easier if Republicans nominate weak candidates that give Democrats an opportunity to pick off a seat.

Recommit to GOTV. Get-out-the-vote efforts are a good use of time for state and local party committees. Republicans have historically lagged behind Democrats in this arena, and the new Dem party chair could threaten to drive that margin wider. Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida has shown the power of a solid statewide GOTV push, one that’s worth copying in North Carolina.

Stay united. The best way to take advantage of the wedge between the grassroots and the establishment on the Democrat side is to eliminate that wedge on the Republican side. That, of course, is easier said than done.


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( February 13th, 2023 @ 1:35 pm )
Democrats running candidates against Phil Berger and Jim Perry??? That should be conservative Republicans running primary candidates against them. That pair of phonies has been helping Democrats pass major leftwing legislation through the General Assembly. Perry and Berger have been major waterboys for the left on some key woke legislation. They need primary opposition from real Republicans, not Democrat opponents. Berger even endorsed a liberal Democrat judge in the last election. Perry is a spear carrier for a whole phalanx of nasty special interests. We can do something about Perry locally, and hopefully we will.
( February 13th, 2023 @ 11:27 am )
One sometimes questions this writers knowledge of politics due to his lack of specifics. What does he mean by "excellent candidates"?? McConnell has his definition and that is wishy-washy candidates who stray from the party platform. To me an excellent candidate is one who is principled, politically savvy, a good communicator, and good one-on-one with voters. The McConnell formula does not care about any of those things.

GOTV (get out the vote) and "staying united" are going to require getting back to basics in the GOP, particularly at the state level, and there will be resistance to that. Fifty years ago, Republicans prided ourselves that our party ran from the bottom up instead of top down like the Democrats. The Democrats have suddenly flipped to a bottom up party, which will strengthen their grassroots, while over the last 25 years, the state GOP has calcified into a top down operation. If we are going to succesfully fight the Democrats, that is the very first thing we are going to need to change. Changing back to a bottom-up party may initially bring a level of division because some may resist returning power back to the grassroots, but is necessary if we are going to successfully fight the Democrats in the trenches.

The Democrats change in direction offers both challenges and opportunities for Republicans and we need to position ourselves to meet the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities. Business as usual from the state party as it has operated for the last 25 years is not going to cut it.

The most important thing about staying united is avoiding one group trying to purge another. There are going to be contested races for various party offices but when the smoke clears and one side has won, everyone ought to be given seats at the table. I well remember the Holshouser purges in 1973-74 that led to the election disaster in 1974. That is NOT a recipe for success.
( February 13th, 2023 @ 7:58 am )
NCGOP Chairman Whatley drove that wedge very deep with his recent power plays, calling off district party conventions and refusing to properly pass a budget for the state party. Any "unity" in the GOP needs to be behind someone other than Michael Whatley.

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