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Gary Younge

Kay Hagan addresses a crowd on the campaign trail in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, on Wednesday.
Photograph: Adam Jennings/AP
North Carolina: the state where Republicans went too far

Kay Hagan should be toast by now. Since she became one of North Carolina’s two US senators in 2008 – the same year that Barack Obama won it by a narrow margin – the state has not been kind to Democrats. In 2010 Republicans took control of both houses of the state assembly for the first time since 1898 and Richard Burr won re-election to the US Senate with the highest vote share a Republican has received since the state began directly electing its senators. In 2012 Republicans won the governor’s chair, Mitt Romney took the state, and the state’s delegation in the US House of Representatives flipped from majority Democrat (7-6) to majority Republican (8-5).

This year it was supposed to be Hagan’s turn to be shown the door. According to Public Policy Polling her approval rating is 41%. She voted for Obamacare. And Republicans are pouring millions into the state, making hers the most expensive race in the country.

With less than a week to go before the election, we should be referring to her in the past tense. But she has led in all 25 public polls taken of the race since June, bar two (trailing both times by just one point); polling site FiveThirtyEight puts her chances of victory at 71%; and registered Democrats have turned out in large numbers in early voting.

So what is Hagan doing right that Democratic incumbents in other states are doing wrong? The answer is nothing. It’s not about her. There is more to politics than elections and less to Republican victories than first appears. True, she is a competent candidate running a decent campaign. But the same can be said for most of her Democratic colleagues now facing defeat. Hagan is the beneficiary of grassroots activism and vocal opposition to Republican policies that happened in the streets after Democrats failed to effectively challenge them.

The story starts with Republican overreach. When they won the North Carolina assembly in 2010 they went wild. Between 2010 and 2012, the then-governor, Democrat Bev Perdue, vetoed 19 bills. With some Democratic support Republicans overrode her veto 11 times. Then in 2012, after they won the gubernatorial race, they simply could not contain themselves.

They passed one of the country’s most restrictive voter ID laws, eliminating same-day registration, cutting early voting from 17 days to 10 days, demanding government issued photo ID at the polls and ending pre-registration for 16 and 17-year-olds who come of age on election day. They slashed education funding, passed restrictive and intrusive limitations on abortion access, cut unemployment benefits and refused to expand access to Medicaid that was tied to Obamacare. They also redrew electoral boundaries to secure future Republican majorities.

This would be extreme anywhere. But in North Carolina it undermined what had been a less confrontational political culture at the state level.

“There was a moderate consensus here,” explains Chris Kromm, director of the Institute for Southern Studies, which is based in Durham, North Carolina. “It’s low regulation and anti-labour but it comes with a commitment to investing in fundamental infrastructure and education. It was the balance that was supposed to make us a beacon of progress in the south.”

The new Republican state assembly, made giddy by Tea Party rhetoric, broke the mould. Central to that project was house speaker Thom Tillis, who is now Hagan’s opponent.

These attacks – on civil rights, reproductive rights and general living standards – provoked a coalition of lesbian and gay activists, women’s groups, clergy and race equality activists who had long been active, to hone their resistance against the agenda of the North Carolina statehouse. Unaffiliated to any single party – they had lobbied the Democratic-run assembly for many years on many issues – it was also unashamedly progressive.

 A Moral Monday protest at the statehouse in Raleigh, North Carolina. Photograph: Public domain
A Moral Monday protest at the statehouse in Raleigh, North Carolina. Photograph: Public domain

“We’re not asking people to go left or right,” the coalition’s most visible leader, the state head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Reverend William Barber, was fond of saying. “We’re asking them to go deeper.”

They devised a 14-point agenda that included everything from raising the minimum wage to abolition of the death penalty. And so it was that, starting in April 2013, an off-election year, first hundreds and then thousands of people began congregating at the state capitol on Mondays, protesting the agenda of the Republican assembly and engaging in acts of civil disobedience that resulted in several arrests.

“It was like a rallying cry that tapped into a deep vein of indignation with what the assembly was doing,” says Kromm. “Even among people who didn’t necessarily agree with the goals of the protesters. Ultimately, since the assembly had the votes, the protesters lost on most of the issues. But they paid a heavy price because the Moral Monday movement drove up the negatives of the politicians who were most closely associated with it.”

But it also gave confidence to the activists, who felt that they were not accepting the rollback of things they had fought for and won without a fight. “It has been a really exciting and exhilarating development” says progressive activist Faulkner Fox. “That many people coming together for something that had nothing to do with a candidate in a coalition calling for gay rights and reproductive rights and so many other things. It was the best of the civil rights movement but made new.”

When they started they had no idea that Tillis would be Hagan’s opponent in the senate race. But when he won the primary, it meant the groundwork had already been laid for Hagan’s campaign to frame Tillis as a polarising partisan who is hostile to the poor, African Americans and women.

Hagan is not winning because she is popular, but because Tillis is equally unpopular. The general assembly of which he was one of the most prominent figures is even more unpopular, with more than half of respondents in one poll disapproving of its work, and even Republicans having a net negative view. Hagan meanwhile, not only leads among her most reliable voter bases but leads big – by 81 percentage points among African Americans, 34 among the young and 12 among women.

Hagan never attended a Moral Monday demonstration, and when the protests started the activists didn’t know Tillis would be the Republican candidate. It wasn’t about them. And yet the demonstrations came to bear on the state’s electoral landscape anyway because they forced a reckoning with the opposition to the Republican agenda that had found neither adequate nor substantive voice within the electoral framework.

As such Moral Mondays has had a similar effect on the Senate race in North Carolina that Occupy Wall Street had on the presidential race in 2012, which gave the Obama campaign space to frame Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch oligarch.

“I think it had a significant change in the overall climate in that it reframed the discussion nationally and it did two things,” Anita Dunn, who served as White House communications director early in Obama’s presidency, told Dan Balz in his book Collision 2012. “One, it gave people permission to openly discuss something that had not really been openly discussed which was the growing inequalities and the unfairness. Two, it gave many members of the Democratic party much more confidence in going to those places in the criticism of the Republican policies.”

Obama’s senior adviser, David Plouffe, said of Occupy: “The arguments they were making were in the bloodstream of our politics all through 2012.”

The arguments made by Moral Monday has coursed through the veins of North Carolina’s body politic for well over a year now. And it is giving the Republicans the shivers.

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