By Justin King
I reside in the GOP hotbed of Johnston County, which borders the metro county of Wake. Johnston, like all wrap-around counties surrounding the metro counties in North Carolina, has been dubbed a “Countrypolitan” county by Duke professor Mac McCorkle. The word “Countrypolitan” is most associated with the changing sound of country music in the late 1960s that appealed to a broader market of listeners. McCorkle, along with Rachel Salzberg, recently authored a detailed report on the problems plaguing Democrats in Countrypolitan counties. Having run as a Democratic candidate in Johnston County during the 2020 election, I wanted to share my experiences in hopes that future candidates will take note as they build their campaigns.
Like many of the Countrypolitan counties, Johnston has been dominated by Republicans for two decades. The last Democrat elected to a countywide or state legislative office in Johnston was 2002. Nonpartisan races such as school board and city council have been the only areas of success for local Democrats. Hillary Clinton received just 33% of the countywide vote share in 2016. When I made the decision to run countywide for county commissioner in 2020, I knew the chances of winning were extremely unlikely. My campaign would not be measured by a winning or losing, but rather by pointing out the failures of Republican leadership in an effort to change the status quo.
According to the 2020 Census data, Johnston County is the fastest-growing county in North Carolina. The proximity to Raleigh has turned the western half of JoCo into a bedroom community for commuters. The counties dubbed Countrypolitan by McCorkle mostly suffer from the same structural issues as Johnston: underfunded schools, school overcrowding, congested roads, broadband access, and aging wastewater infrastructure are just a few of the problems. My campaign went directly at these challenges with detailed plans that not only excited Democrats but had crossover appeal to Republicans.
You can have the greatest plans in the world, but if you do not have the party infrastructure to help support you, your success will be limited. This is in no way the fault of anyone within our local party, but part of a broader problem across the Countrypolitan landscape for Democrats. When you lose election after election, people lose hope and stop showing up. The biggest challenge I encountered was getting people to give money for a campaign that they knew would lose in the end. I understand the mindset of not wanting to support a losing campaign, but please do not send $50 to someone running against Madison Cawthorn and tell me that was a good investment because it made you feel good. I ended up raising more money from Republicans than Democrats, which was fine by me. One dollar from a Republican spent the same as one dollar from a Democrat.
The N.C. Democratic Party will have to address the disparity in resources offered to counties outside the metro areas. I do not want to hear the excuse that the financial support is not available to help county parties and local candidates. The amount of money that was spent by the state party and respective caucuses in 2020 on state legislative races is staggering. We have enough data on elections to know that almost all legislative races are going to be determined by the presidential outcome. My recommendation to Democratic party officials is to create a slate of vetted candidates running in local contests that they feel have potential for higher office in the future. Provide them access to a paid consultant that works with them on communications and cash collection for their campaigns. A donation from the state party would also be nice!
In the end, my campaign lost just as I had anticipated. I held out a glimmer of hope of winning until the Trump turnout surge started showing up in the early voting numbers. The surprising outcome was that I received a greater percentage of the vote (41.6) than both President Biden (37.05) and Governor Cooper (40.66). Not only did I outperform the top of the Democratic ticket, but two of my biggest campaign issues have seen significant progress since the election. For the first time ever, Johnston County Public Schools received their full classroom funding request from county commissioners. In addition, we are on the verge of passing the largest bond referendum in the history of the county to support school construction. Neither of these two issues would have been addressed in this manner had I not pounded the table for them as a candidate.
The recent redistricting outcomes have provided a path for Democrats to take back control of the General Assembly this decade. That path runs through Countrypolitan counties. Democrats in North Carolina must produce their own Countrypolitan brand of music that attracts new listeners to gain enough seats to win back control of the General Assembly. If not, we will be listening to another decade of the same songs from Phil Berger and the gang. My low budget, pandemic year campaign is proof that Democrats can have crossover appeal in today’s political market.
The author was a candidate for the Johnston County Board of Commissioners in 2020.