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Democrats are trying to win over the traditionally red state of North Carolina


North Carolina's presidential primary is still nine months away, but that's early enough to feel like the campaign is already in full swing.


MIKE PENCE: Well, hello, North Carolina.

RON DESANTIS: Hello, North Carolina.

DONALD TRUMP: It's great to be back in North Carolina - very special place...

GONYEA: Those voices are former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump, all speaking at North Carolina's GOP convention in Greensboro last week. Trump called for a manufacturing revival in the state, and both Pence and DeSantis promised to reverse the recent Defense Department decision to rename certain military bases. Here's DeSantis.


DESANTIS: And I also look forward to, as president, restoring the name of Fort Bragg to our great military base in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

GONYEA: In the halls after the speeches, Republicans seemed energized and ready. Millard Bond was wearing a red, white and blue T-shirt that read, if you don't like Trump, then you probably won't like me, and I'm OK with that.

MILLARD BOND: The crap that the Democratic Party is doing to Trump to keep him from getting reelected - it's all that possibility that they could fix it so he couldn't get reelected. And that's all it is, is a battle to keep him out of office.

GONYEA: Is that a real concern to you...

BOND: Absolutely.

GONYEA: ...That it'll be fixed?

BOND: Absolutely. They did it before, and they'll damn sure try it again.

GONYEA: Charlene Hogue is a GOP delegate who supports Trump. She's convinced a Democratic nominee cannot win the state in 2024.

CHARLENE HOGUE: This is a red state. We have a supermajority in the state Senate. It's veto-proof now since the latest Democrat joined our ranks.

GONYEA: But - so you disagree with the notion that if Democrats work harder and turn people out in rural areas, they can flip this state?

HOGUE: I do not believe that it's going to happen. We have people coming over to our side in droves.

GONYEA: But the picture is a lot more complex. North Carolina is a state moving in two directions. Republicans have won all but one presidential race here since Jimmy Carter - that was the first Obama win in 2008. Still, Biden lost the state by less than 100,000 votes in 2020.

ANDERSON CLAYTON: Seventy-four thousand is what he lost by in 2020, a number that haunts me.

GONYEA: Anderson Clayton is the brand-new Democratic Party chair in North Carolina. It's that juxtaposition she has to find a way to overcome because Republicans have a supermajority in the state legislature after a Democratic state representative from outside Charlotte switched parties. But the state also has a Democratic governor, and North Carolina sends seven Democrats and seven Republicans to the U.S. House.

CLAYTON: We don't have a messaging problem. We got a showing-up problem. And Democrats have just not done it for a while.

GONYEA: We met Clayton at a coffee shop in Rocky Mount, about an hour east of the state capitol in Raleigh. The 25-year-old comes from Person County, a mostly rural area north of the research triangle, and sees rural outreach as the core of Democrats' strategy this cycle.

What about issues like abortion? We've seen what a statewide ballot initiative did in a place like Michigan, where Democrats used it to drive turnout.

CLAYTON: They're scared of it. Republicans are scared of Democrats on the issue of choice because they know that it is important and that a majority of our state, even Republican women - right? - are in favor of keeping the right to their own bodies. Most people would be, in my opinion.

GONYEA: In a large portion of legislative districts, Democrats didn't even have a candidate on the ballot.

CLAYTON: Yes, sir. We left 44 seats uncontested last cycle across the House and the Senate, the most that we've ever left in state history uncontested.

GONYEA: Are you going to field candidates everywhere this time?

CLAYTON: I absolutely am going to try to. Yes. I want to make sure that we've got somebody to run in every county, to step up and run for state House or state Senate this cycle that can be called at the drop of a hat, because that's probably what we're going to have to go through again. Republicans are redrawing our state House, Senate and congressional maps, unfortunately, right now too.

GONYEA: In some of those places, in a lot of those places, you're asking somebody to be a sacrificial lamb.

CLAYTON: I'm asking them to be a champion of the Democratic message in a rural community that right now needs to hear it. And you know what? I think I would do that any day of my life. I know that there are rural people out there right now that are angry at not having a choice because democracy is not democracy without choices.

GONYEA: If you do get them on the ballot and they still lose 60 to 40 or 65 to 35, your hope is that that also means others on the ballot pick up a vote here and there.

CLAYTON: Yeah. We're looking at the bigger picture this year.

GONYEA: And it helps Joe Biden, maybe, county by county by county, adding to his total in the state.

CLAYTON: Yeah, absolutely.

CASSANDRA CONOVER: And we take up that challenge.

GONYEA: That's Cassandra Conover, chair of the Nash County Democratic Party, who was sitting in on our conversation.

CONOVER: We realize that, first of all, we got to know our neighborhoods because we have people in those neighborhoods who feel like they don't matter. Democrat, unaffiliate - they feel like they don't matter.

GONYEA: What's been the hardest part?

CONOVER: The hardest part is getting people to realize that we care. There's a large group of unaffiliated that says, I want to care about the candidate. I'm scared to pick a party. So we're going out as Democrats, and we're saying, look, we care about you. We are inclusive. We are fighting for you. We know your name. We're showing up.

GONYEA: What's happening right now?

CONOVER: So right now everybody's doing a strategic plan so we miss nobody, that we have that messaging, and we're going out and we're knocking on doors.

GONYEA: You're canvassing already.

CONOVER: We're canvassing already.

GONYEA: What's the pitch at this point?

CONOVER: Hello, how are you? You got a few minutes to talk? Just want to let you know we care. What would you like for us to address? OK. There are people out there that want to know that they matter.

GONYEA: What misconceptions do they have about what Democrats - who Democrats are today?

CONOVER: They don't know what Democrats are today because they don't know what it means to be a Democrat. They're trying to live today. What will impact my paycheck right now? Whoever will make the biggest impact on my paycheck, that's who I like.

CLAYTON: We've got a bad brand, and, like, we're not going to be able to to combat that within just a cycle. Like, that's a rebuild, especially in rural North Carolina, you know?

GONYEA: We tested their message in the community of Butner, about a half-hour drive north of Raleigh. We found people in a park, setting up for a town party - Alive After 5. Tracy Meadows is a restaurant manager in her 50s. She lives in Stem, N.C., and she hasn't been paying much attention to presidential politics, but says she supports Biden. She says for Democrats to perform better in communities like hers, they would need...

TRACY MEADOWS: A lot of outreach definitely would do it. You definitely can't sit still and not do it. You have to get out there and get the word out there.

GONYEA: What would it take? What kind of outreach might work?

MEADOWS: A lot of advertisement, a lot of communication - that's a couple of them.

GONYEA: Maybe setting up a county office or something like that.

MEADOWS: That definitely would help.

GONYEA: But as the band began to warm up nearby, we met Randy Perry. He's a Trump supporter in his 70s and thinks Democrats have lost too much trust in rural parts of the state.

RANDY PERRY: They've hurt themselves so bad it'll take an awful long time to get any improvement out of people that don't like them.

GONYEA: How have they hurt themselves?

PERRY: Giveaway programs - it's just everything's like, people don't want to work. They just give it to them, you know? Hell, I worked all my life, you know?

GONYEA: Is there anything a Democrat can say that can sway people, sway Republican voters, or maybe even just undecided voters who are out there?

PERRY: There may be some that they could sway. They can't sway me. I'm through with them. And I'm a registered Democrat. You're talking to a registered Democrat.

GONYEA: Perry's vote is not up for grabs, even if the Democrats come knocking on his door, campaign flyers in hand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.