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Democrats attempt a return in rural North Carolina


Democrats in North Carolina are putting a heavier focus this year on rural counties as they try to win back districts that have shifted toward Republicans in the last decade. As Colin Campbell of member station WUNC reports, the rural areas will help determine whether the GOP keeps its veto-proof majority in the state legislature as it rules on things from abortion rights to school vouchers.

HOWARD HUNTER: What was your name?

VANESSA: Vanessa.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You were talking to me about...

HUNTER: Vanessa?

VANESSA: Yeah...

COLIN CAMPBELL, BYLINE: The Tarheel Bar-B-Q restaurant might seem like an unlikely stop recently for Democrats on the campaign trail. It's more than two hours northeast of Raleigh, in a county that's home to 10,000 people and just one stoplight. One of the candidates greeting voters is Howard Hunter, who served nearly a decade in the state House before losing his seat in 2022. Now he's running to win it back with more help from state and national Democrats.

HUNTER: This is the first time I've had a real campaign manager, consultants. It's different this time. It's going to be expensive. We can't raise the money here. We don't have the resources here.

CAMPBELL: Hunter's a funeral home owner from the small town of Ahoskie, who needs outside help to get across his issues, like broadband internet.

HUNTER: Students have computers to do homework. No internet at home, they have to either go sit at Walmart or somewhere that's got internet where they can tap into it free.

CAMPBELL: And he says a new private school voucher program will drain money away from salaries for public school teachers, some of whom already go across the nearby border to Virginia.

HUNTER: I have a cousin who retired from North Carolina, went across the line for $70,000. That's a lot of money for a rural county.

CAMPBELL: Gates County is one of the counties Democrats think they can win in November. In fact, it was solidly blue once with the support of a large number of Black voters and low-income residents. But it saw an influx of retirees and long-distance commuters and flipped Republican in 2016. And Republicans say Democrats can't flip it back by just campaigning on the liberal values that work for them in urban areas. Stephen Wiley runs campaigns for the Republican caucus in the state House.

STEPHEN WILEY: They should do some kind of self-reflection and wonder why turnout has been low in places that have been traditionally democratic strongholds.

CAMPBELL: Republicans helped defeat Hunter in 2022 by accusing him of failing to pay taxes, which he said was false - related to a messy divorce. But they say there's fodder for attack ads and background research on democratic candidates.

WILEY: We've won a ton of seats in rural North Carolina the last couple cycles, in large part, because of the poor candidate quality of House Democrats.

CAMPBELL: But Democrats say they are speaking to the concerns of rural voters. Hunter was joined at the barbecue restaurant event, part of the state Democratic Party's rural tour, by State Representative Wesley Harris. He's running for state treasurer and made the five-hour drive from his home in Charlotte.

WESLEY HARRIS: The schools are falling down. If your hospitals are closing, and you don't have access to reliable internet, you're not growing. You're dying. And there's so much potential but they've been left behind.

CAMPBELL: Democrats say they're putting in the resources to motivate the area's Black voters back to the polls. And with a few other voters, that could be enough to end the Republican's veto-proof majority in the state Legislature and send a message to other states.

HARRIS: North Carolina is different from every other swing state. We're not Georgia. We're not Virginia. We're not Wisconsin. We're not Pennsylvania - that has an urban area that can overtake the entire state. Like, if you can flip that urban area, do it. But North Carolina, you can't do that. You have to get some rural areas, which again, that's how the country is. And so if we can do this in North Carolina, that is the playbook.

CAMPBELL: The National Democratic Party, through its legislative campaign committee, recently announced plans to spend $10 million this summer on competitive races across 10 states, including North Carolina. That could help a candidate like funeral home director Howard Hunter buy some TV ads, which he says he couldn't even afford the last time around. For NPR News, I'm Colin Campbell, in Gates County, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAM TOMPKINS SONG, "SEE ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Colin Campbell