Democrats increase their focus on NC’s once neglected rural areas

BURGAW, NC - NOVEMBER 4: Rain didn't keep voters or campaigners from the polls in November 4, 2008 in Burgaw, North Carolina. (Photo by Logan Mock-Bunting/Getty Images)

By Michael McElroy

February 8, 2024

A national organization is providing grants to 17 rural counties to help Democrats pay for voter outreach that could help tip local and national races in this closest of swing states.

Much of the national spotlight will be on North Carolina in the 2024 elections, because it is about as swingy a swing state as is possible.

It could decide the race between President Joe Biden and Donald Trump, help decide which party controls Congress, and set the state legislature’s course for the next several years on major issues like abortion rights, climate change, and school funding.

But the glare of that spotlight, a growing number of Democrats and voting rights groups say, should not fall on cities or suburbs alone: The path to victory, they say, instead goes through small towns and rural areas.

Contest Every Race, a national Democratic organizing group aimed at recruiting qualified candidates in previously neglected areas, has expanded a voter outreach program to 17 counties in North Carolina, its first foray into the state.

The program will provide grants to county Democratic organizations to help pay for free texting outreach to voters, monthly training programs, voter outreach events, and volunteer recruitment, the news release said.

This focus on voters who feel forgotten or abandoned by the process is the key to winning elections, increasing representation, and solving civic problems, advocates say. It may also be the way Democrats can break a Republican logjam in state and local governments.

The counties are:

  • Avery Co.
  • Carteret Co.
  • Caswell Co.
  • Columbus Co.
  • Franklin Co.
  • Halifax Co.
  • Henderson Co.
  • Hoke Co.
  • Mitchell Co.
  • Montgomery Co.
  • Nash Co.
  • Randolph Co.
  • Robeson Co.
  • Rockingham Co.
  • Surrey Co.
  • Transylvania Co.
  • Watauga Co.

The organization chose the counties, it said in a news release, “because of their high potential to increase votes for Democrats and help flip NC blue in November.”

‘It won’t happen again.’

Republicans have achieved success in rural areas, the group says, not because their ideas are better, but because they have paid more attention to these communities than national Democrats have and spent more money to recruit candidates for local office.

Not any more.

Contest Every Race set its sights on North Carolina because of its swing-state status, but also because state Democrats were already shifting focus to rural areas.

Anderson Clayton, the new chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party, won her post last year in large part because she promised to stop conceding rural elections to Republicans.

Democrats didn’t run a candidate at all in more than 40 of the General Assembly seats they lost to Republicans in 2022, Anderson told Politico last year.

“She vows it won’t happen again,” Politico wrote.

Anderson praised Contest Every Race in a statement.

“We’ve very grateful for Contest Every Race’s support in North Carolina. They’ve provided us with fantastic candidates to run for local office in places where we had trouble filling seats. Contest Every Race is a valuable partner to us in supporting rural organizing and making sure we’re running a Democrat in every single election across this state.”

The focus is growing.

In the 2023 municipal elections, New Rural Project, a rural-focused voting rights group, helped four candidates of color win town or city council seats in communities with majority Black populations and majority white leadership.

Cynthia Wallace, a co-founder of New Rural Project, told Cardinal and Pine last year that those are the kinds of successes that come from on-the ground outreach.

Wallace and New Rural Project staff members spent the run-up to the elections in these areas trying to persuade infrequent voters to re-engage in the process, knocking on doors, sitting on front porches, visiting barber shops and just listening to voter concerns.

“People think that to win you’ve got to only focus on Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Asheville,” Wallace said. But, she added, “there’s a whole world of majority-minority places today where the turnout rate is what’s changing and impacting how elections are ending and who’s winning or losing.”


  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.



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