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North Carolina hasn’t picked a Democrat for the presidency or the U.S. Senate since 2008, when 25-year-old rural organizer and newly elected North Carolina Democratic Party chair Anderson Clayton was in middle school.
Democrats have debated and dissected the reasons for that drought in a state that they hoped, and Republicans feared, was on the cusp of going blue after voting for former President Barack Obama in 2008. Democratic Senate candidate Cheri Beasley’s narrow loss in 2022 spurred another round of soul-searching and finger-pointing. Clayton’s pitch to her party was that sustained, year-round organizing can turn out young people — and bring back the rural voters who have left the party in droves. Ahead of yet another critical election year with abortion access on the line, Democrats ousted their incumbent chair and picked Clayton to lead.
“I can’t wait anymore for people to see rural North Carolina as a place worth investing in,” Clayton, who came to the role as chair of the local Democratic Party in her native Person County, said in an interview.
“I can’t wait for somebody to decide that my life is worth it, that my rights are worth protecting. It needs to be something that I take on right now,” she added. “And I know that there are other young people out there that feel the urgency.”
Clayton’s election makes her the youngest state Democratic Party chair in the country and marks another milestone for members of Generation Z in politics. It also comes at a crucial time for the state party, before a presidential election and an open race for the state’s governorship, currently held by term-limited Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, the party’s main line of defense against the state’s GOP-dominated state legislature.
Clayton said her rise into leadership “represents the generational shift that’s needed in our party right now” and shows “a desire for change.”
“Sometimes change is scary. But if they lean into it, change has always been what’s brought wins for the Democratic Party,” Clayton said, her words evoking those of the last Democratic president to carry North Carolina. “It’s always what’s brought wins for our country at the end of the day, is when we have trusted young people and we have invested in change, and made it possible and believed in it.”
Clayton’s upset over the establishment-backed incumbent chair, 73-year-old former state lawmaker Bobbie Richardson, wasn’t surprising to some North Carolina political observers. They said the upheaval was motivated not by ideological disagreements, but by frustration with party leadership after another disappointing election year.
“We haven’t had this bad of an election cycle since 2010,” said Doug Wilson, a political and public affairs strategist and former deputy executive director of the state Democratic Party. “I think the base of the party and the folks on the ground were upset and felt like there needed to be a change in leadership.”
A state party chair has the most power over hiring full-time professional staff, including an executive director; raising money from donors; and efficiently allocating those dollars to campaigns and long-term field organizing programs and party infrastructure.
The stakes for Clayton — and the party — are high. In 2022, Republicans flipped control of the state Supreme Court, which will now reconsider a previous ruling striking down GOP-drawn political maps as unconstitutionally gerrymandered. If Republicans win back control of the governorship in 2024, they could seek to restrict abortion in North Carolina, which has become a key access point since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.
And Clayton wants North Carolina, which has “always been first in everything,” to be a beacon of progress in the South.
“Especially when it comes to protecting abortion rights, when it comes to the civil rights movement, a lot of this stuff was born and bred in the South,” Clayton said. “North Carolina has always led the way, and we need to make sure that we have a grassroots organizing plan in place right now.”
Democrats’ control of the governor’s and attorney general’s offices and North Carolina’s importance in the Electoral College have allowed the state to remain a high-priority battleground for both parties.
But Democrats have consistently struggled to get more than 47 or 48 percent of the vote in recent presidential and Senate races. In the state’s open 2022 Senate race, conservative outside groups outspent Democratic-aligned outside groups by nearly $50 million, helping Sen. Ted Budd defeat Beasley by three points.
“This is our last shot, I believe, to prove to the national Democratic Party that we are truly a swing state,” Wilson said. “If we lose the governor’s mansion next year, I’m not sure if you would be calling me again or if the national party would look at us.”
Abortion and LGBTQ+ rights will be at stake in the 2024 governor’s race, which is likely to be between two men. Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein, running to succeed Cooper, has sought to protect abortion access in office. Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, one of the Republican contenders, is staunchly anti-abortion. In recent years, he’s also made and then stood by comments referring to LGBTQ+ identities as “filth” and cited the Bible to suggest men are better leaders than women, remarks he later tried to walk back.
But for Clayton, politics isn’t solely defined by wins and losses at the ballot box. She argues that a short-sighted focus on individual elections and viewing rural voters as monolithic has left Democrats at a disadvantage.
“I think it’s always been about winning to some degree, like if we can’t win these areas, we don’t need to be in them,” Clayton said. “That’s not what this is about to me. It’s about showing people who Democrats are, it’s about rebuilding trust.”
Clayton’s political journey mirrors the change she wants to make in bringing rural voters like her into the Democratic coalition. She grew up believing her dreams were too big and her ideas too bold for Person County, which borders Virginia, and she would need to leave rural North Carolina to “make something” of herself.
But Clayton experienced a political awakening as a student at Appalachian State University, she said, when students and the local Democratic Party won a battle to get an early voting site on campus in 2016.
“When North Carolina flipped red, Watauga County went blue, and that happened because students really felt the power of their voice and used it,” she said.
After graduating with a degree in political science, Clayton worked as an organizer in Iowa for Vice President Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign and in eastern Kentucky for Democrat Amy McGrath’s campaign against Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell.
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But Clayton said her time in rural Kentucky left her somewhat disillusioned with elections and campaigns. McGrath and outside groups supporting her spent nearly $100 million in the race but left behind little in the way of lasting infrastructure or support for local Democratic parties on the ground.
“Campaigns pop up at the last minute, and they come in, they run for a year, then they go away and that infrastructure goes away with them,” she said. “We have to get to a place where we are year-round organizing.”
North Carolina is sometimes compared to the neighboring swing state of Georgia, but its population is Whiter and more rural. Democrats’ gains in the suburbs around Charlotte and Raleigh have been offset by consistently declining support and dwindling votes in many rural counties. Democrats haven’t just been losing votes in majority White counties, but also in the state’s many majority and plurality Black rural counties.
The state’s beach-lined eastern coast is also attracting an influx of older retirees seeking warm weather and lower taxes, a group that overwhelmingly leans Republican and has turned some coastal counties into GOP bastions, according to an analysis by WFAE-FM.
Democrats who used to point to the state’s rapid growth as a reason it would turn blue can’t count on that anymore, said Chaz Beasley, a North Carolina attorney and Democrat who served in the state House from 2017 to 2021.
“This idea that the demographics is destiny, that has not played out in North Carolina,” said Beasley, who is not related to Cheri Beasley.
Clayton’s plan to turn North Carolina blue relies on persuasion: showing up at people’s doors, organizing in rural communities year-round and contesting every race up and down the ballot. And she acknowledges it won’t be a two-year effort but a “long fight” to get back on track.
Clayton has her eye not just on 2024 but on winning back control of the state’s general assembly, which Republicans have controlled for over a decade, by 2030.
“I’m coming for election after election,” she said. “I don’t want anybody to see me coming, to be honest with you.”
Clayton also argues that her party failed to harness the youth vote in 2022, contributing to a larger problem of poor turnout among key Democratic constituencies, and needs to establish a more solid footprint on North Carolina’s many university and community college campuses.
“North Carolina has a huge opportunity to tell young people, ‘You have a place in this party and your rights are under threat,’ especially when it comes to reproductive rights,” she said. “I really want to help young people understand that you have agency and you have power.”