For most Republicans, November was grim.
They lost the White House and all but one battleground state. They lost seats in Congress. They saw America’s fastest-growing minority groups reject their party.
But in North Carolina it was a happier story.
It was the only battleground that Mitt Romney won, taking back a state that Barack Obama won in 2008. Pat McCrory easily became the first GOP governor in 20 years. Republicans also picked up three congressional seats, expanded their legislative majorities and kept their hold on the state Supreme Court.
“North Carolina could be a model for ‘red state’ resurgence,” says Marc Rotterman, a GOP strategist from Raleigh.
North Carolina Republicans will showcase their performance this week to the Republican National Committee, which starts its three-day winter meeting Wednesday at the Westin in uptown.
Most of the 168 committee members are expected to attend. On Friday they’ll decide whether to keep Reince Priebus of Wisconsin as national chairman. During the week they’ll hear from McCrory, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
A presentation scheduled for Thursday is called “Success in N.C.: A Blueprint for the Future.”
But how much of that blueprint can be replicated is debatable.
Turnout, other factors
A key part was turnout.
Republicans went to the polls at a higher rate than Democrats in 65 of the state’s 100 counties, according to an analysis released Tuesday by Democracy North Carolina. It said white Republicans, like African-American women, were the most enthusiastic voters. Each group turned out 74 percent of its voters, compared with the statewide rate of 68 percent.
Republicans also narrowed the gap in early voting, which Democrats dominated in 2008.
Democrats, who still led in absentee and early voting, saw their performance improve by 3 percent. Republicans saw theirs jump 20 percent.
“We had the largest turnout operation we ever had,” says Wayne King of Cleveland County, vice chairman of the state GOP. “We were focused on turning out the votes not only for Gov. Romney but for Pat McCrory and for our entire team.”
North Carolina Republicans enjoyed a unity among tea party and traditional conservatives that eluded the party in some places. They also benefited from other factors:
• McCrory was a strong candidate. While North Carolina represented Romney’s narrowest victory, McCrory won by more than 11 percentage points.
And while Democrat Obama carried populous urban counties such as Mecklenburg and Wake by large margins – 100,000 votes in Mecklenburg – McCrory won both.
• His Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, was behind from the start in launching a statewide campaign after Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue waited until January to announce she wouldn’t seek a second term.
• A constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage galvanized conservative voters in May. Many stayed engaged.
• The 2010 elections, which put Republicans in charge of redrawing congressional and legislative districts for the first time in more than a century, helped the GOP pick up seats across the state.
“You can’t talk about 2012 without talking about 2010,” says Rotterman.
• After holding the governor’s office for 20 years, Democrats were weighed down by unemployment. Only a handful of states had higher jobless rates.
Exit polls showed that Romney carried 56 percent of N.C. voters who said the economy was their top issue, compared with 51 percent of voters nationwide.
• The Democratic Party had other problems, including accusations of sexual harassment at its state headquarters.
A challenge to replicate?
“I’m not sure there’s anything in the North Carolina example that can be replicated or macro conclusions that can be drawn from it,” says Tom Fetzer, a former state GOP chairman from Raleigh. “There was a pretty unique set of circumstances here that led to the outcomes. …
“Time will tell whether this was a seismic shift or not or some kind of an aberration. And how Republicans govern will largely determine that.”
Until 2008, North Carolina had been a reliably Republican state in ever presidential election for 32 years. Democrat Barack Obama turned that around, winning the state by 14,000 votes.
Many analysts say demographic changes such as growing urban populations and an explosive rise in the number of Latino voters, will continue to make North Carolina, like Virginia, a battleground for Republicans.
“North Carolina could be a test case for them,” says Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College.
“If they make a pragmatic, moderate approach to government, that could sell nationally. If they focus solely on trying to be even more conservative … they will continue to relegate themselves into a national minority party.”