A Conditional Identity: Blue Dogs and Changing Rules in North Carolina

By Wilhelmina Makepeace Thackeray

This is the third of four articles Humane Pursuits will run on state politics.

North Carolinians are Democrats.

Sort of.

As far as I know, only three exceptions exist to the Democrats’ one-party rule of the General Assembly since the Civil War. These are Reconstruction (Republicans in power due to disenfranchised Confederates and newly enfranchised African Americans), a few years in the 1890s (coalition government), and the Republican Revolution in the 1990s. (It was actually mostly Democrat between Pres. Jackson and the Civil War as well.) Our federal Senators and Representatives have been a mix, with more Republicans than Democrats in the last 50 years.

Currently, the banner on the State Board of Elections website declares that very little has changed. It reads:

Voter Registration as of 3/23/2010

Democratic: 2,759,133

Republican: 1,932,777

Libertarian: 7,090

Unaffiliated: 1,400,485

Total: 6,099,485

Of course, what “Democratic” means, exactly, seems to be at best unclear.

Look through the position statements of Democratic candidates in the past couple of elections in various voter guides, and you will find that they tend to be devoutly religious, reticent if not outright prohibitive of abortion, and completely uninterested in advocating gay rights and same-sex marriage. Many are moderately fiscally conservative. And indeed, the Democratic Party in NC was formerly called the Conservative Party (19th c.).

Perhaps this is why, when my mother was about to register to vote for the first time (probably 1980ish), my grandfather instructed her to register Democrat and vote Republican.  She did, of course. Because that was just what you did.

Throughout the South, the phenomena of “blue dog” Democrats is common. While I cannot say this with authority, I would hazard the guess that North Carolina may be the most extreme expression of this trend. Currently, 8 of the 13 congressional districts in North Carolina are represented by Democrats. Four of those actually vote along the lines of the rest of their party (Watt, Price, Butterfield, and Miller). Three—Shuler, Kissell, McIntyre—are staunch blue dogs. Etheridge usually votes with his party, but attempts to moderate his image for his more rural constituents.

Perhaps the best demonstration of this pattern was the recent roll call vote on the reconciliation and senate health care bills. I believe I am correct in saying that NC had more Democrats than any other state voting against their party.

Whether this trend will continue, however, is questionable. The relative isolation of what used to be a state supported by textile mills and tobacco farms has vanished, and the transient lifestyles of Americans cause more and more to leave their home states for the Sunbelt. North Carolina has been one of the top three states in population growth in the past couple of years. Its banking industry in Charlotte, coupled with pharmaceuticals, universities, and technology in the triangle, have greatly increased the number of residents who originally hail from out of state. These newcomers are likely to set straight those North Carolinians whose perception of what it means to be a Democrat is an artifact of American political history. At the same time, older institution-oriented generations are gradually passing away, leaving the political field to us young ‘uns who will flutter between political parties with no sense of commitment to anything that doesn’t represent our current interests.

The fluttering is really speculation on my part, but I do believe emigration from other states is creating a peculiar situation in North Carolina’s politics. I suspect that there are many North Carolinians who are voting along with the Democratic Party and expect it to produce the same relatively culturally conservative results it always has. But the candidates that they assumed they could trust have a different definition of Democrat. In fact, last year, our Democrats changed our state’s model abstinence until marriage sex ed laws to a more “comprehensive” program and passed a  bullying bill that some fear will emphasize acceptance of homosexuality to school children.

Moreover, the attempt of pro-life interests to create a state “Choose Life” license plate, the proceeds from which would go to various pregnancy care centers, have been repeatedly thwarted by state level representatives and senators like NC Rep. Deborah Ross (D-38), who is a brilliant lawyer but gets a failing grade at ethics (I mean the philosophical sort, not the professional/political sort).

Meanwhile, House Speaker Joe Hackney (D-54) and associates have managed to prevent a resolution that would submit a marriage amendment to the state constitution to North Carolinians for a vote. The Bill has been repeatedly submitted over the past 6 years, and this past year did not make it past its first committee referral (Rules).

Ross is from the relatively liberal Wake county (where the capital city, Raleigh, is located, and also Cary, which is known for its—umm—Yankees). Hackney represents three counties, two of which are dominated by the influence of my alma mater, UNC-Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill is a notably liberal campus (Fox News almost always gets a story on what heinous book freshmen are supposed to read in the summer prior to their matriculation). Ross and Hackney may be a different breed of Democrat than what North Carolina is used to.

For many current politicians, the increasingly diverse backgrounds of the state’s residents have already begun a redefinition of what it means to be a Democrat. This could mean one of two things for tomorrow. If “blue dog” voters decide they can’t rely on candidates who don’t play by the old political rules, North Carolina could become a very tough state in which to win an election as a Democrat. Or if Democrats keep moving in in large enough numbers, the demographic makeup of the electorate could shift further leftward and make the blue dogs a relic with little political clout. The choice seems to be up to the voters—but for now, the voters haven’t made up their minds.

Comments are closed.