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NPRSunday, May 28, 2023
President Biden takes selfies after a March 28 visit to Wolfspeed Inc., a semiconductor manufacturer in Durham, N.C.
Melissa Sue Gerrits
On the way to a manufacturing event in Durham, N.C., earlier this year, newly elected Democratic Rep. Wiley Nickel gave President Biden a big pitch.
Nickel's message to Biden on the Air Force One trip: Please compete in North Carolina in 2024.
"If the campaign goes all in, we can win North Carolina, but we need that support and that investment," Nickel said he told the president. "The votes are there; we've just got to get them out to vote."
Nickel said Biden was receptive: "He knew very well that it was the state that he lost by the closest amount in the last election."
Now the Biden campaign is out with a strategy memo saying, among other things, that it aims to win the state in 2024.
It's a state that has eluded Democrats in the past.
In the 2020 presidential election, it took more than a week for the North Carolina race to finally be called, with former President Donald Trump ultimately winning the state by 1.3%. In a year when Georgia and Arizona tipped toward Democrats, North Carolina remained just out of reach.
"We really expect North Carolina to be competitive" in 2024, said Kevin Munoz, a Biden campaign spokesman.
At this stage in the election cycle, campaigns often talk about expanding the map, reaching to win states their party lost in the previous election cycle or have never won. A Democratic presidential candidate hasn't won North Carolina since 2008, when Barack Obama won the Electoral College in a landslide.
Munoz said the campaign will play up job creation and federal investment under Biden, something the president himself did when he visited the state in March. And the campaign is also betting on reproductive rights being a major issue. The Republican supermajority in the state legislature recently passed a 12-week abortion ban.
"It demonstrates the stark contrast in leadership and the choice that the people of North Carolina are going to have in 2024," Munoz said of the ban. "A president and a vice president that are going to work to codify Roe into federal law — or one of the extreme MAGA Republicans who supports a national ban."
Munoz said the Democratic National Committee, which is closely coordinating with the Biden reelection campaign, worked with the state party to mobilize volunteers against the ban — an early preview of the sort of coordination they have planned for 2024.
North Carolina's Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill, but his veto was quickly overridden by the legislature.
"A strong majority of North Carolinians do not like abortion bans, particularly like the one this legislature passed," Cooper said in an interview with NPR. "But on top of that, they've said they're coming back for more the next time around. So it's clear that North Carolinians will be motivated to try and protect women's reproductive freedom."
In 2024, there will also be a hotly contested governor's race, and the balance of power in the state legislature will be on the line. Cooper has reached the end of his term limits, but he is actively engaged in the upcoming election. He, too, made a personal pitch to Biden to compete in the state. He said he has also already called former President Obama, the last Democratic presidential candidate to win in the state, to help out.
Cooper said the muscle that comes with a presidential campaign could help up and down the ballot. That includes both funding and grassroots campaign organizing.
"There will be top-to-bottom a strong Democratic effort in North Carolina and with the resources of the coordinated campaign and the Biden campaign here, I think there's no stopping us," Cooper said.
But Republican consultant Jonathan Felts said he sees Biden, with his low approval ratings, as a potential drag on Democrats, joking that Republicans are eager to see Biden campaign with Democratic candidates all over the state.
Felts is confident for a reason. In 2022, he was the lead adviser for now-Sen. Ted Budd's winning campaign. Budd's Democratic opponent, Cheri Beasley, studiously avoided appearing with Biden or Vice President Harris. Ultimately, Democrats invested resources in other states where they had a better chance of winning Senate seats.
When Obama won the state in 2008, he had a lot going for him. A late competitive primary election meant Democrats had made a huge investment in campaign organizing in North Carolina, which they wouldn't normally do so far out from Election Day. Obama had a ton of campaign cash and ran a strong campaign, while the Republican candidate Sen. John McCain struggled, said Felts, who was political director in the George W. Bush White House at the time.
"With all those advantages, Barack Obama won North Carolina by a whopping 0.32%," said Felts. "Democrats are starting with a huge disadvantage, and the smart ones know it. And so if they want to waste their money here, God bless 'em."
A Trump campaign spokesman said Biden's effort to compete in North Carolina is less about expanding the map than a fear of losing in states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College, said he's seen this movie before. Some 18 months ahead of an election, campaigns often talk a big game.
"Election after election, Democrats keep bemoaning the fact that they can't win North Carolina," said Bitzer. "How many times does it take to hit your head against a brick wall and think you're going to get a different result?"
Bitzer said Democrats would need to boost turnout among Black voters and young voters to win, which they have failed to do in the past. But Democrats insist this time will be different.
And Rep. Nickel, who won his race in 2022 by 3 percentage points, is counting on it. "I'm just trying to get reelected," said Nickel. "If they go all-in on getting folks out to vote, running a really good coordinated campaign ... that's worth 3 points, you know, for someone like me."
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