Obama Returns To Tar Heel State, The One That Got Away

The "Red State" swing state proved to be vexing for Obama and Democrats. Will it stay that way?

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Kevin Lamarque / REUTERS

U.S. President Barack Obama greets students during a visit to Mooresville Middle School in Mooresville, North Carolina June 6, 2013.

On Thursday President Barack Obama will take his second trip back to North Carolina since the November election.

The visit to the swing state he won by a hair in 2008 but lost last time around is to announce a new program called ConnectED, a five-year initiative to bring high speed Internet to 99 percent of American students. But the repeat state visit—one of only a handful so far in the second term—also highlights the Democratic Party’s frustrations in North Carolina, its toehold into the South.

In 2008, bolstered by record African American turnout and a commanding hold on the youth vote, Obama became the first Democrat to win the Tar Heel state since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Despite increased turnout, a four-year field operation, $24 million in television ads, and the party’s national convention in Charlotte—not to mention frequent visits by Obama and surrogates—the state flipped back red in 2012. In November, Mitt Romney won by 92,000 votes, and a conservative Republican, Pat McCrory, was swept into the statehouse, carrying both houses of the general assembly with him.

For Obama, North Carolina, the state he won by the narrowest margin in 2008 and lost by the tightest margin in 2012, is the one that got away.

But the feeling doesn’t seem mutual. North Carolina’s general assembly, roughly 65 percent of which is Republican following redistricting, has of late tried to push through legislation befitting a deep red state, considering bills establishing Christianity as the state’s official religion (it failed to pass), eliminating the earned income tax credit, and cutting the number of early voting days before elections. Sen. Josh Stein, the Democratic Minority Whip, told TIME that Republicans “are governing us as if we are a deep red state, when we are decidedly a purple state.”

Hundreds of liberals, organized by the NAACP, have protested outside the state capitol each week for more than a month against those and other proposals. More than 150 demonstrators were arrested after this week’s “MoralMonday” protest.

“The general assembly is simply going too far,” Stein said, “and that’s going to show in the next election.”

Democrats would like to believe the state’s political future is up in the air. Hispanics have been flocking to the North Carolina—their number more than doubled between 2000 and 2010—as diverse and largely liberal cities continue to grow. Democrats already have an 800,000-person edge in voter registration, according to figures from the State Board of Elections.

National Democrats, who are growing increasingly bolder in their attempts to make gains in Republican territory, say the 2012 defeat and McCrory’s policies only make the state more of a target in the future. “Democrats have been contesting North Carolina for five years,” said one Democratic Party official. “2012 wasn’t a banner year for Democrats there, but the electoral landscape has shifted to a degree. This is going to be a state that Democrats continually look at and keep going on there.”

But Rob Lockwood, a Republican communicator and former spokesman for the state GOP, says that 2012 proves 2008 was an aberration in North Carolina’s political history.

“The modern ultra-liberal Democratic Party will struggle to win in North Carolina,” he said. “It is an instinctively conservative state evidenced by conservative Democrats choosing to reject Barack Obama’s re-election. Obama put up what was heralded as the ‘greatest ground game ever.’ He had more staff, more offices, the DNC convention, and four year head-start and still couldn’t win.”

“Voters In the last election rejected the policies of President Obama pretty clearly… This is a solidly Republican state,” agreed North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes. “It mystifies me that he’s coming here.”

Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, who is up for reelection in 2014 and is trying to carve a path in the state as a conservative Democrat, will not attend Obama’s event, according to a spokesperson—a decision that Republicans are pointing to as a sign both of Obama’s liability to Democrats in the state and Hagan’s vulnerability.

Gary Pearce, a former adviser to four-term Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt (when the state voted for Republicans nationally) and a longtime political observer in the state, admitted Obama fell in 2012 at the hands of conservative Democrats and moderates. “He did not do as well with moderate swing voters as he did in 2008–Obamacare, taxes, and the cost of government hurt him.”

Scandals dominating the state party didn’t help Democrats either. “We picked a pretty bad year to melt down,” Pearce said.

In September, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz told Fox News that the state was picked to host the convention so it could be a beachhead for DNC efforts in the South. “We were planting a flag in the South and sending a strong message across the country that we weren’t going to cede any region of this country to the Republicans,” she said.

In 2012 those efforts fell short, but what’s clear is that the state Obama just missed holding onto will be the site of some of the nation’s most intense political battles for the foreseeable future as Democrats look to expand their map and Republicans work to recover from national defeats. “Republicans can’t win the White House without us,” Pearce said. “And it’s probably more closely divided here than in any state.”