Keith Lamont Scott’s tragic shooting by police and the subsequent rage in Charlotte, N.C., could not have happened at a worse time—or in a worse place politically. Intersecting unrest is the larger backdrop of what is, arguably, the nation’s most extreme top-to-bottom-ballot battleground state this election cycle.
Many on the ground protesting (and those watching in spirit) might not realize that. It’s the ignored big story of the Charlotte uprising, and it potentially disrupts everything, from who goes to the White House to who controls the U.S. Senate to who does (or does not) stay in the governor’s mansion. In each of these races, all taking place in North Carolina on the same Election Day, the polling margins are so tight, it’s wasted breath to call them early.
And it’s here where African Americans, 22 percent of the state’s registered voters, will be the deciding factor in whether North Carolina stays red or swings blue.
“Remember the Jesse Helms hand commercial?” North Carolina Black Caucus Chairman and state Rep. Garland Pierce (D-District 48) poses to The Root. That was 1990, when the neo-segregationist Republican senator thwarted a challenge from black, Democratic Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt by using an infamous television ad stoking white fears over quotas. “That was a deciding factor. All you need is that one thing.”
As Pierce and others point out, those outcomes tip scales on a number of key policy issues left either unresolved or on shaky foundation. The last several years have found the Tar Heel State an epicenter for bruising and downright nasty, racially charged fights over the GOP’s nationwide fetish for voter-suppression laws. While the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals shut down Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s draconian 2013 anti-voting law, the flap over the infamous H.B. 2 law (pdf)—widely (and incompletely) viewed as the “transgender bathroom” issue—is unresolved and just as bad.
“The H.B. 2 bill is not about the bathroom,” Rosa Garvin, director of National Action Network North Carolina, tells The Root. “The real meat of that particular bill is that you cannot sue the state for racial discrimination. They're making it seem like it’s just because of someone being transgender. That's a smokescreen because no one wants to talk race.”
With that, North Carolina makes its way into the electoral spotlight. Over the past few election cycles, it has evolved from a once-reliable Republican stronghold to a now-competitive political toss-up for Democrats eager for renewed life in Southern states. With racial demographics and urbanism altering the state’s complexion, President Barack Obama gave GOP presidential nominees a tough run in 2008 and 2012, winning it by just over a quarter percentage point against John McCain in ’08 and narrowly losing it to Mitt Romney in ’12 by 2 points.
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton finds herself faced with similar odds in 2016. North Carolina is that critical in her razor-thin matchup against Republican standard-bearer Donald Trump. The latest RealClearPolitics average of the last six North Carolina polls has Trump up by 1.2 points. Averages at 270ToWin show Clinton ahead by just 1 point.
She desperately needs North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes as a decent firewall against any Trump gains elsewhere, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania or Florida. Say Trump picks up Florida, with its 29 electoral votes, along with Georgia (16) and Ohio (18). North Carolina keeps Clinton ahead if she’s got Pennsylvania (20) and Virginia (13).
Elsewhere, Democrats have pitted formidable challenges against less black-friendly Republican incumbents for North Carolina’s U.S. Senate seat—which will help decide if the Senate flips back to Democratic control—and the governor’s mansion. For the Senate, Democrat Deborah Ross is within just a point of Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), according to RealClearPolitics, in a race that finds 70 percent black support for her in a just-released North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling survey (pdf), but 20 percent “undecided.” In the race against voter-suppression-law godfather Gov. McCrory, Attorney General Roy Cooper, the Democrat, gets 72 percent black support, but 18 percent undecided.
As with most closely watched battleground states, turnout by North Carolina’s black residents—at 22 percent of the state’s overall population—will be the difference. Clinton’s favorability among North Carolina black voters in the PPP poll is a lackluster 71 percent; but in a two-way against Trump, she’s at a much more desirable 84 percent.
North Carolina Democratic Party Deputy Executive Director Douglas Wilson expresses some caution. “From a political standpoint, it brings more light to an issue that not only Clinton will address, but also Trump,” Wilson admits to The Root. “But on the Dem side, this should galvanize more of the Obama coalition to come out … and more of Trump's base to come out.”
Still, Wilson adds: “What I’m hearing is, 'Why should I vote? What is this going to change?’”
With fire rising in Charlotte over the killing of Scott, many black advocates, elected officials, strategists and observers fear dampened black voter turnout in the face of nonstop tragedy and socioeconomic challenge. Not only does that resonate in Charlotte and North Carolina overall, but it could also have an impact on voters nationally, particularly any leftover undecideds and independents.
“It could inflame emotions on both sides,” Emory University’s Andra Gillespie explains to The Root. “Blacks feeling hopeless, and not voting, can turn into the Democrats’ worst nightmare. On the GOP side, depending on how Trump handles this situation, he could invoke stereotypes of lawless black people, and rally voters around a law-and-order platform.”
While many would prefer that protesters, those violent and nonviolent, channeled Charlotte energy into an electoral juggernaut on Nov. 8, most understand where the frustrations are coming from.
“It is very easy to say ‘Focus your energy,’” says Marcus Ferrell, a political strategist who led Sen. Bernie Sanders’ black outreach operation during the 2016 Democratic primary. “But those people are in pain.” Ferrell looks back to 2013, when his cousin, Florida A&M football player Jonathan Ferrell, was killed by Charlotte Police Officer Randall Kerrick. “Those brothers don’t care about elections. This is a stage of grief, the side effects of PTSD.”
Between that level of emotion and postrecession economic blows, the political situation is grim even as the stakes have never been so high in recent years.
“This was a long time coming,” state Sen. Joel Ford (D-Charlotte) points out in a conversation with The Root that highlighted a direct link between the city’s massive poverty and flaring tensions. “Charlotte ranks dead last among major cities in terms of social mobility. The odds of moving up in Charlotte are only 4.4 percent.”
Ford sees the situation as an opportunity for action through the ballot box, which should bring about policy change. But he, along with others, admits that there’s quite a bit of apathy: “I’m disappointed in the lack of agenda on upward mobility, policing, the issues that are relevant to us. At the end of the day, many of these folks, especially the young folks, are asking, ‘What's in it for me?’”
“They're voicing their disdain,” says Garvin. “But they have to vote. The key is education. The only way change will happen is through policy, through governance. We have to take time to explain that.”
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Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.