In 2020, for the first time in a generation, Democrats scored huge victories in the state of Georgia by winning the presidential election and subsequently both Senate seats. While not completely unprecedented after the strong Democratic showing in Georgia in 2018, this flip illustrated the party’s increasing electoral strength in the Sun Belt — and it should scare Republicans. As we shift our focus to the midterm elections and beyond, it is imperative that we do not slip and lose ground in places like Georgia and similar states swinging blue in recent years, such as Arizona and Nevada. As Democrats continue to build a diverse and powerful coalition, it is crucial that our focus turns to the next states we can flip. The two that stand out, and that Democrats should most fervently pursue, are North Carolina and the behemoth of Texas.
A realignment of the American electorate has been underway for the past several cycles and played a major role in Donald Trump’s 2016 win. For the first time since 1988, Republicans won three key states in the Rust Belt — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan — on the backs of white working-class voters, many of whom are ancestral Democrats. According to one study, Republicans won only 32 percent of white working class voters in 1992, while in 2016, they won 62 percent. Conversely, Democrats have increasingly become the party of urban and suburban voters. The latter class of voters, once a reliable moderate Republican voting bloc, has become increasingly diverse and educated over the years and subsequently has started tilting left. While President Biden won back those three midwestern states in 2020 — in part because he cut into Trump’s rural margins and benefited from increased turnout in cities — the largest reason for his victories were his gains among these suburban voters. It is for this reason that some southern states are now in play for the Democrats.
Georgia is one of a number of southern states that has experienced rapid population growth in the last 10 years, a large part of which has been concentrated in urban areas and their surrounding suburbs. In cities across the South and West, there has been accelerated population growth, both due to a lower cost of living as well as large businesses migrating to those areas. The Atlanta metropolitan area, which has become one of the South’s premiere technology and financial hubs, is no exception. For example, the largest county in the state, Fulton County, has grown by 15 percent in population since 2010, compared to the national average of 7 percent. Hillary Clinton won Fulton by a 180,000-vote margin against Trump in 2016, compared to Biden, who won it by a margin exceeding 240,000 votes. This trend is consistent in other parts of the Atlanta metropolitan area. The grassroots organizing of Fair Fight, Mijente and other groups throughout the state bolstered existing Democratic strength in large metropolitan counties like Fulton to carry Biden, Sen. Raphael Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff to victory this past election season. The area’s growth combined with its overwhelming population, which constitutes about 60 percent of the state, allowed Democrats to bleed votes in rural Georgia yet still win the state.
A similar situation could occur in both North Carolina and Texas, likewise driven by increasing population growth in cities and simultaneous Democratic gains in the suburbs. North Carolina is perhaps a more immediate possibility after Biden’s narrow loss to Trump in 2020. With an open Senate seat up for grabs in 2022 and with well-liked, impressive retail politician Jeff Jackson in the race, there is a very real chance Democrats can win in the state in 2022. That victory could be used as a springboard to flip the state in the presidential election as well. Just like in Georgia, some of the fastest-growing areas of North Carolina are places like Wake and Mecklenburg County, the two largest counties in the state and Democratic strongholds to boot. This is in part because Wake County is part of the Research Triangle, a fast-growing and highly educated region anchored by North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University. Even as Democrats have lost ground in the rural areas of North Carolina, they have, following a countrywide pattern, run up the score in urban areas while becoming more competitive in or flipping suburban areas.
Texas’ suburbs and metropolitan areas mirror these trends, which have fueled Texas’ shift from ruby red to magenta. The Austin metropolitan area, which has become a technology hub, has experienced even faster population growth. Just a few days ago, Senator John Cornyn tweeted about another tech company moving from San Francisco to Austin. While he perhaps meant to attack California for “anti-business policies,” he ironically merely illustrated that large groups of liberals are leaving blue states for jobs in Texas, thus turning the state bluer. In the Dallas-Fort Worth Area, the national suburban tilt toward blue has already manifested in successes such Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 win in Tarrant County, a Dallas-Fort Worth suburb. In the last election, Biden rode on Democrats’ recent success in the state and trimmed the margin there to fewer than six points, garnering the greatest percentage of the vote since 1976 — coincidentally the last time a Democrat won Texas.
Despite these positive trends, which bode well for the future, Democrats still have a lot of work left to do. North Carolina is notably less diverse than Georgia, and more rural. And unlike in Georgia, Democrats have not already “bottomed out” in rural areas while being able to count on a single, massive metropolitan area to carry them over the line. However, Jeff Jackson should excite North Carolina Democratic voters. He has the potential to hold the line in rural areas while expanding Democrats’ lead in other areas, in part because of his “100 county campaign,” in which he plans to visit and hold a town hall in every single county. This was a strategy that Beto O’Rourke utilized in 2018, which almost won him Texas, and North Carolina is a much bluer state now than Texas was then.
The Democratic strategy failed to deliver in Texas during this past election, in part because the party lost a large swath of traditionally Democrat-supporting Latino voters in the Rio Grande Valley. For example, Hillary Clinton won Starr County by 60 percent but Biden only won it by 5 percent. This failure was partially rooted in Democrats’ primarily immigration-focused outreach to Latinos, which treated these voters as a monolith as opposed to distinct ethnic and ideological groups. Democrats would do well to tailor their messaging to more specific groups of voters in Texas in the future.
The Democratic Party used to win in the South, but on the back of a very different coalition. Dixiecrats ruled the roost for decades, often advocating for more conservative or flat out racist policies. Now, however, the Democratic Party is made up of an incredibly diverse coalition of voters, and it has become competitive in the South because of its embrace of progressive ideas, not in spite of it. If Democrats are able to flip North Carolina and Texas, they would be nearly impossible to beat in the Electoral College, a system which is already rigged against them. Now is not the time to stop or rest on our laurels, but to keep pushing and continue flipping the Sun Belt blue.
Caleb Apple ’21 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.