Historically, North Carolina has behaved much as other Deep South states have, voting Democratic at the local and state level and Republican at the Presidential level. However, since the new century North Carolina has undergone a rapid demographic and political shift. This culminated in 2008 with Democrats knocking out an incumbent GOP Senator and winning the state’s 15 electoral votes for the first time since Carter Even in 2010 during the GOP wave, Democrats did not lose a single Congressional seat. Democrats subsequent losses in 2012 can be attributed to a new GOP controlled redistricting map.
North Carolina’s electoral history dates back to Reconstruction. Newly empowered African-American voters gave Republicans a base in the state. Combined with a contingent of Northern whites Republicans were dominant until the dawn of the 20th century. Northern whites eventually left the state in large numbers and Africa-Americans began to turn against the GOP. Meanwhile, Southern whites, the basis of Democratic support, continued to give Democrats their support in multiple elections. Unsurprisingly, the result was that North Carolina behaved much as other Southern states did becoming consistently Democratic at all levels of governance by the time FDR gained the White House.
It would take Republicans over 40 years, 1968 to be exact, to win the state again. Since 1968, the state has only voted Democratic twice for President (76, 2008). Even as Republicans have dominated in the state at the federal level their dominance has been far from absolute. In 1980 Reagan won the state by 2% compared to winning nationally by 9%. In both 92 and 96 while Republicans carried the state they did so by low single digits. In 2000 and 2004 the same situation occurred. Undoubtedly the state is more Republican than the nation but not nearly as Republican as the rest of the South. Indeed, the state is behaving more like Virginia in becoming a Mid-Atlantic battleground state.
This, along with demographic and population shifts in the state allowed Democrats to capitalize in 2008. Democrats carried the state for the first time since 1976, knocked out an incumbent Senator and gained a larger majority in the state legislature and easily held the Governor’s mansion. Much as in prior elections, Democrats strength came from heavily African-American counties. The key difference was that the Research Triangle (Wake, Raleigh and Durham) made up a disproportionate share of the electorate and they went heavily for Obama and Kay Hagan.
Since this time the state has re-orientated slightly. The GOP wave of 2010 gave the party the legislature for the first time since Reconstruction and in 2012 Republicans gained the Governor’s mansion. GOP controlled redistricting gave them a majority of the Congressional delegation as well. Now Senator Kay Hagan, first elected in 2008, is running for reelection in 2014. The state is far more Democratic in the past but it is far from a purple state like Virginia. Compare the Senate maps of 2008 and 2010 S and the Presidential maps of 2008 and 2012.
One can see from comparing the 2008 and 2012 Presidential maps that Romney ran better than McCain in the heavily Republican Southwest of the state. Romney won more counties and more importantly ran up bigger margins in those counties. While turnout in the Research Triangle increased between 2008 and 2012 by over 30,00 votes Romney made up for it with his margins in the Southeast of the state.
The 2008 Senate map looks very different from the Presidential map. Dole, a weakened incumbent plagued by allegations she did not focus on issues the state cared about lost over a dozen Southeastern Counties. She also was beaten in the heavily white Southwest of the state. This culminated in Hagan winning by 9% as opposed to the less than 1% Obama won by,
The Senate landscape shifted however in 2010. Incumbent GOP Senator Richard Burr faced off against Secretary of State Elaine Marshall. Marshall had never run for a truly partisan office, Secretary of State is not one. Buoyed by the strong GOP wave nationally, Burr dominated traditionally Republican areas of the state and he actually won Democratic Wake County. The end result was Burr winning reelection by over 12% even if the basic fundamentals of the electoral map since 2008 remained the same.
This is what Kay Hagan faces entering reelection for 2014. While the state is controlled by Republicans it is far more competitive than in the past. Furthermore, voters in the state appear to not be happy with the direction the new GOP majority has taken the state with massive tax cuts and a renewed focus on social issues. That said, the state did approve a Constitutional Amendment banning gay marriage in 2011 (likely helped by the fact Democratic African-Americans voted in massive numbers for the ban).
The GOP field to face Kay Hagan is muddled. Physician and Tea Party activist Greg Bannon, Heather Grant, Mark Harris, President of he Baptist State Convention of North Carolina have all lined up to face Hagan. The GOP’s current lone top tier candidate is House Speaker Thom Tillis. There is a distinct possibility more candidates could enter the race.
Prior election results show the roadmap for victory for both Hagan and her eventual opponent. Hagan will need to dominate the Research Triangle and bring out African-Americans in majority-minority counties. The GOP nominee, likely Tillis, needs to run up his/her margins in the Southeast of the state and hold down Hagan’s margins in the Research Triangle. Burr’s win in Wake County in 2010 should give the GOP hope they can be competitive in the Research Triangle. However, in 2012 Obama won the county by 11% over Romney even as GOP Gubernatorial nominee Bill McRory narrowly carried it.
Scant polling has been done on the race. What polling has been done has been conducted only by partisan pollster PPP (D) and it has shown Hagan well ahead of Tillis. One should take a partisan poll’s results with a grain of salt. One should take PPP’s results with an even bigger grain of salt when analysts such as Nate Silver have called them out on their methodology.
Even so, there is little doubt the GOP will have an uphill climb in the state. It is younger, more diverse and less conservative than in the past. Hagan will start out with a huge cash advantage in the race and she proved in 2008 she can appeal to culturally conservative Democrats and business friendly Republicans. Republicans will have to find a way to combat these advantages and turn the race into a referendum on the President and Hagan’s support for deficit spending and Obamacare. A tall order indeed.