Republican Sen. Richard Burr is also seeking reelection. Democrats weren’t able to recruit any of their top picks to challenge Burr, and he is relatively low on the list of the most vulnerable incumbents, but a potential Trump-fueled Democratic wave would nonetheless have a significant effect on that race.
It’s not a foregone conclusion that Democrats will invest significant resources to win the state, particularly as it remains to be seen whether the party can mobilize the same coalition of young, minority, and female voters that were driven to the polls in the past two presidential cycles without Obama on the ticket.
North Carolina was Obama’s narrowest winning margin in 2008— about 14,000 votes—and his narrowest defeat four years later, to Mitt Romney by two points. Democrats in the state estimated that Obama employed some 500 staffers there by the end of 2008, and about 400 in 2012, the vast majority of them field organizers.
That type of investment has obvious payoffs for down-ticket campaigns that, absent a coordinated effort, would need to invest more in building their own field operation. Democrat Kay Hagan’s well-funded but unsuccessful Senate reelection campaign in 2014, for example, employed roughly 120 people at its peak, according to one Democratic operative involved in the race.
The impact of a strong ground game is felt most acutely in close races, and the North Carolina governor’s race is expected to be won or lost by a narrow margin.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Bill Clinton confidant, is optimistic that Hillary Clinton will seriously compete for the state if she wins the Democratic nomination.
“I think Hillary’s going into this campaign realizing she’s got to compete everywhere,” McAuliffe told National Journal last week at a National Governors Association event in D.C. “Obviously North Carolina has always been a key swing state. We have obviously a very important governor’s race down there, something that the governors are actually very interested in. But listen, she’s going to put together a strategy and the message, I think, that she can compete anywhere, including, most importantly, North Carolina.”
In 2008, Obama’s voter-registration and turnout efforts undoubtedly benefited both Hagan and Democrat Bev Perdue, who defeated McCrory when he was mayor of Charlotte by just more than three points in the governor’s race. Hagan defeated Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole by nine points. In 2012, McCrory won his first term in a blowout after Perdue’s delayed decision not to seek reelection resulted in a weak Democratic candidate.
The results of this year’s gubernatorial race are expected to be much more closely tied to the outcome of the presidential race. And those involved in the Cooper campaign are anticipating a sizable effort from Democrats on the presidential level, though the expectation is that it will be closer to the scale of 2012 than 2008.