North Carolina Democrats are focusing the hardest on the state’s suburbs in their quest to break the Republican veto-proof majority in the General Assembly.

But any scenario in which the Dems wield any real power statewide requires them to make inroads into rural North Carolina as well.

That’s going to be tough sledding. Over the past decade, the state Democratic Party has become more and more concentrated in North Carolina’s urban areas: the I-85 corridor through Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Durham and Raleigh.

With North Carolina’s urban areas booming and rural areas shrinking, this positioning has kept the party competitive in statewide races — enough even to take back the governor’s mansion in 2016. Focusing on running big-city candidates will likely only get more effective as urbanization continues.

But this strategy has hamstrung any efforts to force compromise in the legislature — the true lever of power in state government.

That’s likely why the state Democratic Party chairman, Wayne Goodwin, has announced a “Rural NC Listening Tour” primarily through the eastern part of the state over the coming weeks.

“Democrats are fighting for all of us here in this state,” Goodwin says in a video introducing the tour. “We’re one great North Carolina, and that includes the rural parts of our state, too.”

Wayne Goodwin. Photo via Facebook

Democrats have a rural N.C. problem.

Here’s how the state voted in 2016 for governor. Keep in mind that the votes racked up in Charlotte, the Triangle, Wilmington, Asheville, Greensboro and Winston-Salem were enough to propel Roy Cooper to victory.

Things were much worse, though, for Democrats in the presidential race.

But the picture gets truly scary for Democrats in the General Assembly. I don’t have any maps for this, but

Out of 120 members of the N.C. House, only 12 of them are Democrats from rural counties:

  • Larry Bell (Sampson/Wayne)
  • William Brisson (Bladen/Johnston/Sampson)
  • Jean Farmer-Butterfield (Wilson/Pitt)
  • Terry E. Garrison (Vance/Warren/Granville)
  • Ken Goodman (Hoke/Montgomery/Richmond/Robeson/Scotland)
  • George Graham (Craven/Greene/Lenoir)
  • Charles Graham (Robeson)
  • Howard J. Hunter III (Bertie/Gates/Hertford/Pasquotank)
  • Garland E. Pierce (Richmond/Robeson/Scotland/Hoke)
  • Bobbie Richardson (Nash/Franklin)
  • Shelly Willingham (Martin/Edgecombe)
  • Michael Ray (Halifax, Northampton)

In the 50-member N.C. Senate, there’s only three.

  • Erica Smith-Ingram (Bertie/Chowan/Edgecombe/Hertford/Martin/Northhampton/Tyrrell/Washington)
  • Angela Bryant (Halifax)
  • Don Davis (Greene/Lenoir/Pitt/Wayne)

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To be sure, some of this is due to legislative redistricting. But not all of it.

Republican leaders have created districts to minimize Democratic influence statewide — one reason you see some of the above Democrats representing pieces of so many counties.

But some of this is unavoidable no matter who’s drawing the maps. Democrats tend to cluster in cities, with Republicans in more rural areas. Voting districts are supposed to be geographically compact. Greater land area tends to mean more districts for Republicans.

The larger issue appears to be the issues each party has made their priority. As Democratic power has shifted to cities, so to have the policy positions they spend the most time on. Other big Democratic battles simply don’t resonate in rural areas.

Take Amendment One, the 2012 battle over a constitutional amendment defining marriage between a man and a woman1. Though nonpartisan, the electoral map looks awfully familiar.

I don’t think it’s just a culture war, though. The issues Democrats have fought their fiercest battles over just don’t appear to be as big a deal in rural areas.

Take redistricting. I haven’t seen any polling on it, but in a struggling small town or in an area that’s lost a manufacturing base, I don’t see a court battle over electoral districts carrying much water. Same goes for the legal battles over Gov. Roy Cooper’s ability to make appointments. These aren’t pocketbook issues.

The impact of reductions in classroom size in grades K-3 is not a big deal in smaller rural schools. And the basis of House Bill 2 — LGBT protections — also seem to be much a more pressing issue in big cities2.

Meanwhile, N.C. Republicans have been able to tout their tax reform that’s lowered personal tax rates and have fought to reduce regulations on offshore drilling and natural gas extraction, things that are adding jobs in rural areas.

Then there are all sorts of tertiary issues that have only pushed a wedge deeper between cities and everyone else.

Democrats have fought the state legislature’s efforts to exert control over the Charlotte airport, Asheville’s water system, Durham’s immigration policies and Greensboro’s council elections.

Downtown Greensboro. Photo by J.B. via Flickr (Creative Commons)


Goodwin will be focusing on these pocketbook issues.

In one of his videos announcing the listening tour, he says he’ll be focusing on “issues that matter to you,” like jobs, schools, clean water, health care and “what we can do to help our families be able to afford the things that they need.”

Goodwin has rural bona fides. He’s from the small town of Hamlet, in Rockingham County, and later represented Richmond, Scotland, Montgomery and Stanly counties in the N.C. House.

He took on the role of party chairman after being ousted from his position as insurance commissioner, a race that typically reflects generic party preferences.

Still, I’m not sure I like the optics here.

Leaving Raleigh for Down East might just reinforce the notion that Democrats ain’t from these parts. The exercise smacks of trying to convince people rather than elevating ideas from people who live there.

Goodwin has already stopped in the town of Washington and Chowan County and appears to have spent a lot of time apologizing on behalf of the party for abandoning rural areas.

According to the Washington Daily News:

“There are many notable differences between North Carolina Democrats and North Carolina Republicans, one of which is that the North Carolina Democratic Party is the party that truly reflects and represents how North Carolina looks. We are a diverse party in every respect. Yes, we can do better. That’s why I am returning to eastern North Carolina, rural North Carolina,” Goodwin said.

The “listening tour” also spends a lot of time in already blue areas.

They have stops lined up in Wilson, Elizabeth City, and Jarvisburg so far this week. There’s two more events later in March in Wadesboro and Manteo.

Wilson, Pasquotank and Anson counties are already pretty solid blue, going for Clinton and Cooper in 2016 by significant margins.

It’s not a complete victory lap. Currituck County, home to Jarvisburg, is as red as it gets — voting for Trump and McCrory with 70+ percent of their votes. Dare County, home to Manteo, is heavily Republican as well.

Can Goodwin and the Democrats hone their message over the coming months?

That could be a key toward the party’s goals in 2018.

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  1. Thank you for posting your column and analysis, and highlighting my mission.

    As a native son of rural NC who grew up on a small family farm in Hamlet and who spent most of his life in rural Richmond County, and with much of my extended family members mostly living in multiple NC rural counties today, I believe my cemented connection, deep empathy, and personal values and faith strongly resonate with rural communities that have become less Democratic.

    In fact, my Rural NC Listening Tour around the State (not just the East) for the rest of 2018 and my informal tour last year is a continuation of my countless Town hall meetings during my years as a legislator and state Insurance Commissioner. I know it is a challenge but rural North Carolinians will hear from me and have an opportunity to hear from the NC Democratic Party in a way they haven’t in a long, long time.

    Most importantly, I will listen, learn, and work with rural leaders to find common ground, remedies, relief, and transformative opportunities for rural NC.

    We will discuss how and why Democrats are a big tent party, and that many NC Democrats have divergent views; that we are emboldened by a diversity that strengthens America and more accurately reflects our state’s demographics.

    I will not leave any corner of the Tar Heel state behind, nor will this Party on my watch. I’m fighting for rural North Carolinians. So are Governor Roy Cooper (another native son of rural NC) and the Party. Stay tuned.


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