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North Carolina, Georgia go red at midterm despite demographic changes

November 5, 2014 at 6:20 PM EDT
In Georgia and North Carolina, both sites of competitive and high-stakes races, voters picked Republican candidates. Hari Sreenivasan speaks to Merle Black of Emory University and Mac McCorkle of Duke University for their reactions.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And let’s zero in now on a couple of states where voters spoke up loud and clear.

Hari Sreenivasan has that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: North Carolina and Georgia are two Southern states that are changing demographically. But both went Republican last night.

Let’s turn to two people who were closely following the races in their home states.

Mac McCorkle teaches at the Duke-Sanford School of Public Policy in Durham. And Merle Black is a professor of politics and government at Emory University in Atlanta.

So, Mac McCorkle, let me start with you first.

The defeat — the Kay Hagan race there, was it a surprise, the defeat, how strong it was?

MAC MCCORKLE, Duke University, Sanford School of Public Policy: I don’t know if it was a surprise, but it was a heartbreaker for Democrats.

I think that a lot of Democrats felt like that Kay Hagan had run such a skillful campaign, turning the tables on Speaker Tillis and his leadership at the state level, that she might be able to break free from the national mood that was so sour against Democrats, especially in the South. She came close, but in the end, the national mood prevailed in North Carolina.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Merle Black, the Senate race in your state, people were preparing last night for the possibility of a runoff. What happened there to deliver such a strong victory for David Perdue?

MERLE BLACK, Emory University: Well, I think a couple of weeks ago, it really looked like the race was heading toward a runoff.

Michelle Nunn had done a very skillful job of portraying David Perdue as a selfish businessman who really didn’t care about common people. And I think that was working fairly well. Then, a couple of weeks out, President Obama intervened. He did an interview with a black radio station in Atlanta in which he explicitly tied Michelle Nunn to the success of his program in Congress.

Now, this contradicted one of themes of the Nunn campaign. At the general level, for all Georgians, Nunn was running really as a process candidate. She really wasn’t running so much as a Democrat. She called herself an independent who would go back and forth depending on the ideas. She mentioned George Herbert Walker Bush far more than she did President Barack Obama.

And so to appeal to white voters and get the white vote up to a level where Democrats could be elected, the target was 30 percent. The biggest Democratic problem in Georgia is that, in the past elections, they have only been able to get in the low 20s among white voters. Barack Obama got 23 percent in 2008. Michelle Nunn wound up last night with 23 percent.

What happened?  I think when the president interviewed, then the Republicans immediately created a commercial on radio and television that went all over the state of Georgia. They nationalized the race, took it away from the emphasis on Perdue.

And then in Perdue in his closing remarks did everything to tie to Michelle Nunn to Barack Obama. I think, in the end, that really shrunk her support among whites back to Obama-type levels in 2008. And that’s not enough to win in a state like Georgia.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Mac McCorkle, I want to ask you, are the demographics of North Carolina changing in a way that the Democrats thought that they had possibilities last night and even two years from now?

MAC MCCORKLE: Yes, the demographics are changing, but this was a midterm election.

It was a little bigger of a midterm election than in the past, but it still was a midterm election, so it was older, whiter. I think over 70 percent of the voters were 40 years old or older. And so this wasn’t the electorate that Obama thrived in, in 2008.

People knew that. And so that was why it wasn’t that surprising. But they did feel like that Kay Hagan had a chance to break that. And it’s just simply the national mood was too strong.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Merle Black, John Barrow’s race in your state, in Georgia, when he lost, he became the last white Democrat in the Deep South. So are we looking at not just a population that might be divided, but also their leadership?

MERLE BLACK: Well, yes.

The Democrats really have a problem among white voters in the Deep South. It’s been a situation for some time right now. And they really need to have candidates who can solve that problem for them. Now, there is an out for the Democrats. Edwin Edwards made the runoff in Louisiana.

If he were actually elected in a runoff, he would become, like John Barrow was, the last white Democrat in the Deep South.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Mac McCorkle, you have watched this for a generation now. How have you seen the demographics in the South change?

MAC MCCORKLE: Well, North Carolina, Virginia and Florida have certainly changed, to the extent that there’s hope in presidential years.

But I would agree with Merle Black that, in the rest of the South, whether it’s a midterm or whether it’s the presidential election year, the problem for the Democrats with white voters is getting so severe that the talk about demography changing the South and liberalizing the South I think is very questionable, especially in the Deep South states.

North Carolina, the pockets of strength in North Carolina for the Democrats are the metropolitan and urban areas. But the Republicans remain strong in the suburbs and strong in the rural areas, even in a place like North Carolina.

Now, that is going to be different in 2016. North Carolina will be in play in 2016.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK.

MAC MCCORKLE: Virginia will be in play. But the rest of the South, it’s very unclear.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Mac McCorkle and Merle Black, thanks so much for your time.

MERLE BLACK: Thank you.

 

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