The Democratic Party made much of its inroads in 2018 by picking off low-hanging fruit, flipping some legislatures and half of Congress by winning districts with big demographics shifts, mainly in urban and large suburban areas. It was a huge first step, but any hope of a sustained majority and transformative progress is going to require success in more rural areas, which have become the bright-red homes to some of the most unhinged right-wing Republican lawmakers.
North Carolina is a perfect example. Democrats, powered by new voters in cities like Charlotte and Raleigh, won more votes in the state in 2018, and were able to break the GOP supermajority, but Republicans still won more seats in the state legislature and a whopping 10 out of 13 Congressional seats. Why? In a vile cycle of systemic evil that took decades to install, Republicans took control of rural areas, seized the state government in the 2010 wave election, and then gerrymandered the hell out of the state map. The NC GOP is a melange of unhinged reactionaries, and has been advancing blatantly anti-democratic, anti-human laws ever since, from voter ID to the ignominious anti-trans bathroom bills.
The 2018 election was a good first step for Democrats in the state, but the modest gains could prove short-lived if the 2020 election isn’t even better. “If it’s not divided at least between a majority in the two state houses,” explains Todd Zimmer, the co-founder of the activist group Down Home North Carolina, “the Republicans will be able to draw all the maps again right after the 2020 census and put us right back where we were 10 years ago.”
Democrats need to pick up five seats in the State Senate and six in the State House to take back the majority in each chamber, and now the road to restoring sanity and building equality in North Carolina runs through the still-red rural parts of the state. Down Home NC is helping to lead the charge. They’re working to build grassroots power 365 days a year, with an eye on winning elections at the local level up through the US Senate (North Carolina has a top-tier race in 2020), by organizing working people on a county-by-county level.
“We set out to start building permanent long-term infrastructure, including candidate pipelines,” Zimmer says. As a county-based organization with a state-wide umbrella leadership, Down Home North Carolina right now has three main chapters, two in Appalachian Mountain West and one in the central Piedmont of North Carolina. This will be a year of rapid expansion, with two more planned for 2019, one in the Appalachians and another Piedmont chapter closer to Charlotte. Unlike many groups, the local infrastructure is less a tool for disseminating top-down messages and priorities than rallying grassroots energy tailored to regional needs.
“When we enter a community, we do a several thousand door listening survey to find out what the top issues are for low-income people of all political stripes, and what their top solutions are,” Zimmer says. “We turn that into a platform and our members evaluate potential candidates based on that platform. We are really only trying to support candidates who are speaking to the top issues of rural communities.”
Both true populism and sustainable electoral politics demand that sort of careful cultivation and community tailoring in every region, but it’s especially vital for progressives in the rural south, where right-wing conservatism has long dominated and decades ago became the only ideology with any real active presence. Progressives abandoned the region and its people, leading to disenfranchisement and vulture economic policies.
“These communities are struggling. The economy has changed. Manufacturing is gone. Alamance County, where we organize, was a major textile center. It’s all gone now. There are no more mills,” Zimmer explains. “It was also a major small farming area with lots of tobacco farms, lots of small dairy farms. There’s been a consolidation in agriculture, which means that there’s a lot less work for people. And what’s come instead? Really low-income jobs like service jobs.”
Counties’ demographics vary in rural North Carolina; some are almost entirely white, while others are home to sizable communities of people of color. Racist identity politics have long divided those more diverse counties and disenfranchised African-Americans, serving as a wedge issue to divide working class power. But the emergencies faced by residents in these forgotten regions are in many ways color-blind and unifying. Down Home is working to harness those shared concerns and local membership into a grassroots, peer-to-peer progressive movement.
The goal is to build out a relational voter program that uses the power of people’s personal connections instead of relying on blind door knocking. Everyone’s talking about national politics now, but local races can tend to be hard to follow and obscure — just think about how often you’ve shrugged your shoulders when looking at that part of your ballot. Turnout in working-class areas is often especially low, and while disenfranchisement, geography, and work schedules deserve some of the blame, the hope is that a more personalized, neighbor-to-neighbor approach can overcome those obstacles to democracy.
“We’re building an infrastructure where a leader for us is cultivating maybe 10 to 20 people on a regular basis and then making sure that they all vote,” Zimmer says. “We want to have a system, that’s at least a year old, of expansion and cultivation so that we can use that tactic, which are like uniquely suited to do due to our year-round approach.”
Down Home is also using this system to help tailor a message that talks about race in a constructive and unifying way, to help further counteract the GOP’s legacy of divisiveness and the guarantee that the party will continue to try to leverage race as a great wedge issue. Down Home is using 2019’s municipal races in their counties as a warmup, supporting candidates for city council in Alamance, Haywood, and Jackson Counties counties, and will then zero in on five State House seats in 2020 in addition to the governor, US Senate, and presidential campaigns.
Specifically, they will be targeting NC House seats in Districts 63, 64, 82, 83, and 118; depending on funding, they’ll also look to make an impact in NC State Senate races in the second and 28th districts. There are also several policies they’re actively pursuing, to help guide their candidate choices and hold them accountable when they win. Those include expanding Medicaid in the state and raising North Carolina’s minimum wage.
“Both of these issues are top-priority and highly motivating for poor and working rural residents,” Zimmer says, a nod to the success of campaigns to enact both policies in red states such as Missouri, Arkansas, and Utah last year. “We will work to ensure that ‘all politics is local’ for our voter bases in the noisy 2020 election, as we run local, POC, and working-class members with deep roots in their home counties to ensure that key demographics turn out in large numbers to help deliver seats both up- and down-ballot.”
A little bit of money goes a long way in the region, making Down Home NC one of the better investments you can make in long-term progressive infrastructure, no matter what presidential candidates are saying in their mass emails.