President Joe Biden is eyeing redemption in North Carolina next year.
Biden lost the Tar Heel state to Donald Trump by just 1.4 percentage points in 2020, and a Democrat at the top of the ticket hasn’t managed to turn North Carolina blue since Barack Obama did in 2008. Now Biden’s team sees opportunity in 2024 amid a fresh abortion ban, a contentious, expensive gubernatorial race and steady population growth that has ballooned urban and suburban areas.
State and local party leaders are pointing to North Carolina as the next Arizona or Georgia for Democrats. They’re calling on the Biden campaign and DNC to invest heavily in the state because without it, they say, Republicans don’t have a path to the White House.
“I think the road to reelection will run through North Carolina this time. And we’re encouraged by the [Biden] campaign’s early commitment to our state,” said Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, a member of the president’s national advisory board. “It’s pretty clear that they have decided that North Carolina is going to be one of their targeted states … I told the president that this investment is going to be critical to his reelection, and that I believe we can win this state for him.”
This early in a presidential contest, it’s typical to hear campaigns talk about new prospects and plans to expand the electoral map, and it’s no surprise that the president’s team is looking to North Carolina, a battleground state Democrats have long set their sights on. But beyond campaign chatter and a string of early appearances by Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in recent months, it won’t be clear just how seriously national Democrats are taking North Carolina until next year, when the campaign, DNC and top super PACs decide how much money and resources to pour into the state.
The Biden campaign came out early in May with a strategy memo outlining its 2024 path to victory, including its plans to target the Tar Heel state. The DNC and campaign have already run ads in North Carolina this cycle, including on television and on two billboards in Charlotte and Rocky Mount highlighting Biden’s economic agenda. The campaign also tapped Cooper, who is legally barred from running for another term for governor, and Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles, as members of the president’s national advisory board.
“President Biden and Vice President Harris have a strong record that resonates with North Carolinians and will mobilize the voters we need to win in 2024, including creating thousands of jobs, lowering costs for families, and fighting against MAGA extremist abortion bans,” said Biden campaign spokesperson Kevin Munoz. “We fully expect North Carolina to be competitive, and plan to run an aggressive and winning campaign that builds on our significant investments throughout the state.”
The DNC is also supplementing state Dems’ efforts to mobilize voters in the wake of North Carolina’s 12-week abortion ban, alongside increasing its investment to the NC Democratic Party to $12,500 a month, a 25 percent increase from 2020 and a 66 percent increase from 2016.
Top Democratic super PACs are also eyeing North Carolina, though it’s too early to say where the groups will target the funds. Pat Dennis, president of American Bridge, said his PAC is running a major advertising program in 2020 and examining options — North Carolina among them.
“We are excited the Biden campaign is investing in North Carolina as Republicans always encourage Democrats to light money on fire in places where voters have solidly rejected them cycle after cycle,” RNC spokesperson Emma Vaughn said in a statement, pointing to Cheri Beasley’s loss to Sen. Ted Budd in 2022 and a decline in voter registration among Democrats, while Republicans have seen slight gains.
Biden and Harris have frequented the state in recent months, with the vice president traveling to Charlotte on the anniversary of the Dobbs Supreme Court ruling on abortion rights in June. In May, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature overrode Cooper’s veto, becoming the latest state to ban the medical procedure, a move Democrats expect will drive voters to the polls next year.
GOP strategist Jonathan Felts said he’d welcome more Biden-Harris appearances, particularly those focused on the president’s message on the economy — the issue he thinks will take precedence in the state. He added that in 2022, Beasley often avoided appearing with the president, a nod to Biden’s sagging poll numbers.
“In terms of real world impact right now, working families are still suffering,” said Felts, the founder of the Indie Group NC who headed the 2004 Bush-Cheney North Carolina reelect in 2004 and later served as the White House political director under Bush. “Having Joe Biden coming out here to talk about his economic record — it would probably be illegal campaign coordination activity — but I’m sure we can find a Republican super PAC to pay the cost of that, because that’ll be great footage for Republican TV ads.”
Democrats argue the political environment in the state has only shifted in Biden’s advantage. Trump had a more favorable North Carolina electorate in 2020 compared with 2016, with a higher percentage of registered Republicans voting and higher rural and white turnout, but he still performed worse than he did against Hillary Clinton in 2016, said Democratic political consultant Morgan Jackson. That’s because Democrats have been able to overcome the strength of Republicans in rural areas in North Carolina — which is home to the second largest rural population in the U.S. behind Texas — due to the gains they’re making in urban and suburban counties. Democrats are now getting a higher percentage of the total vote, Jackson said.
Jackson, a co-founder of Nexus Strategies and a consultant to both Cooper and Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein, also argues that 2024 can’t be compared to the midterms, when national Democrats were accused of neglecting Beasley. Biden and the DNC’s map is different from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s in 2022, and based on near-daily conversations with the campaign, he expects to see a lot more of Biden and Harris over the next year, and that the money is coming with them.
“We may not get Wisconsin money or Pennsylvania, but I don’t think anybody else is going to get that kind of money. I think we are that next level,” Jackson said.
The Biden campaign is also betting that the gubernatorial election could offset some of its costs in the state, which could see its most expensive governor’s race in history. Democrats are hoping for a Trump-Mark Robinson ticket. The Republican lieutenant governor, who supports an outright abortion ban and opposes same-sex marriage, is leading the pack on the GOP side to face-off with Stein, who’s served as the state’s top law enforcement officer since he was elected in 2016.
“A Donald Trump-Mark Robinson ticket is something Democrats look forward to here. Both of those guys have an ability to repel swing voters like nothing else,” Jackson said.
Key to the Biden campaign’s strategy in North Carolina, Democrats also point to party leaders in the state like Cooper and Anderson Clayton, the state’s 25-year-old Democratic Party chair, surrogates they say can gin up enthusiasm among young voters in the state.
Clayton, who took over the state party earlier this year, is already traveling across the state to energize young people, and plans to tap into the hundreds of thousands of voters enrolled in North Carolina colleges and universities this fall. She’s also leaning into year-round organizing, working to reengage with rural voters and to make sure no Republicans run uncontested in the state.
“It’s absolutely absurd to think that a little more pixie dust on North Carolina wouldn’t have made our state go stronger for Joe Biden in 2020,” Clayton said. “All I can do is tell [national Democrats] that North Carolina is excited. Honestly we’re angry and energized … the energy on the ground is different.”
Just how much money national Democrats are willing to throw into the state will likely depend on who Biden’s opponent is. While it’s looking to be the Biden-Trump repeat Democrats are hoping for, it’s still early, said Jordan Shaw, executive vice president at OnMessage Inc., and a former campaign manager and state director for Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). It would make sense for Democrats to invest heavily in the state if it’s Trump, but if another GOP contender like Tim Scott or Nikki Haley manages to break through, Shaw doesn’t see a path for a Biden win in the state.
“The numbers we’ve seen, Biden is woefully unpopular with unaffiliated voters. But Trump is too, so it may be a scenario where we have one of the most unpopular presidential contests in American history,” Shaw said. “But I think if Trump is not the nominee, then I think North Carolina falls off the map pretty quickly for the Democrats.”