Feb 15, 2023 - News

North Carolina Democrats' big bet on a new leader

Anderson Clayton.

Photo courtesy of Anderson Clayton

The new face of North Carolina's Democratic party believes Democrats are at a “crisis point.”

  • So she's turning her attention to a group of people she thinks the party has taken for granted in recent years: rural voters.

Driving the news: The state party ousted chair Bobbie Richardson Saturday and elected 25-year-old Anderson Clayton to guide them through the 2024 election, in a move widely seen as an upset.

Why it matters: As people have flocked to North Carolina's cities, Democrats have lost the support of those living in rural areas — including some districts that were long viewed as Democratic strongholds — who feel left behind by the party.

  • "The party has forgotten where people are and where they live," Clayton told Axios at the end of her first day on the job. "We have made people in our party feel powerless."

The big picture: Democrats underperformed compared to their swing state counterparts in the latest election, losing the U.S. Senate race and failing to block Republicans from gaining a supermajority in the state Senate.

  • Clayton's election is a sign that some of the state's Democrats agree with her: The party needs a change if it wants to prevent that from happening again.

Zoom in: In an election cycle that was largely a disappointment for Democrats statewide, Clayton helped the party make some surprising gains.

  • As the chair of Person County's Democratic Party, Clayton's efforts flipped three Roxboro City Council seats in 2021, handing Democrats the majority there.
  • And she led the effort to flip one of two House seats that went from red to blue last year — a victory that means House Republicans are one seat short of a supermajority in the chamber.

Anderson plans to run that same play across North Carolina.

  • The foundation of her vision is local organizing, which she's said is the key to delivering Democrats' wins up and down the ballot.
  • She did that in 2022 by knocking on every single door in Person County, she said.

Details: In the lead-up to her own election, Anderson beelined to counties in the far reaches of the state to find out why Democrats lost.

  • And moving forward, she plans on ramping up the party's presence in communities across the state to help Democrats recruit more and better candidates, find ways to support "working people who want to run for office" and determine how to tailor campaign messages to specific voters.

Reality check: State parties can have little influence over election outcomes. They function like a bank — funneling money through the party coffers and to candidates, many of whom already have a system in place to rake in funding and get out the vote.

  • Clayton's election could mean nothing changes for Democrats in two years or ten. But her biggest supporters believe she can breathe life back into the party.

What they're saying: "She's going to appeal to a lot of our rural Democrats who feel that they had been neglected over the last 20 years," said Sen. Mike Woodard, one of the few elected Democrats to endorse Clayton in the race for party chair.

  • "At the same time, her enthusiasm and youthful approach to organizing will appeal to a lot of our growing number of urban Democrats."
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