We talk about North Carolina non-stop on “The Downballot,” so it’s only natural that our guest on this week’s episode is Anderson Clayton, the new chair of the state Democratic Party. Clayton made headlines when she became the youngest state party chair anywhere in the country at the age of 25, and the story of how she got there is an inspiring one. But what she’s doing—and plans to do—is even more compelling. Her focus is on rebuilding the party infrastructure from the county level up, with the aim of reconnecting with rural Black voters who’ve too often been sidelined and making young voters feel like they have a political home. Plus: her long-term plan to win back the state Supreme Court.
Co-hosts David Nir and David Beard, meanwhile, turn to the avalanche of political developments that have followed last week’s off-year elections, with big new candidate announcements in New Jersey’s Senate race and Virginia’s 2025 contest for governor. They also finally get to discuss the unusual Democratic primary unfolding in the nation’s newest Black-majority House seat in Alabama. And then there are all the retirements to recap! So, so many retirements.
Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
David Beard: Hello and welcome. I’m David Beard, contributing editor for Daily Kos Elections.
David Nir: And I’m David Nir, political Director of Daily Kos. “The Downballot” is a weekly podcast dedicated to the many elections that take place below the presidency from Senate to city council. Please subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcasts and leave us a five-star rating and review.
Beard: Well, the week after election day and politics has picked right back up.
Nir: We are getting right into it with some major developments in New Jersey and Virginia. We are also covering the brand spanking new Democratic primary for Alabama’s brand spanking new 2nd congressional district. And there has been a huge spate of retirements from the House and Senate over the last week, so we are going to discuss those as well.
Then our guest on “The Downballot” today is Anderson Clayton, who is the new chair of North Carolina’s Democratic Party and also the youngest chair of any Democratic Party in the nation. It is a terrific show we have ahead for you, so let’s get rolling.
So, now that the odd-year elections are in the rear-view, we’re seeing this thing that always happens afterward, which is that for campaigns in the states that just had those elections, the races for the coming year are all of a sudden taking shape really, really quickly because there’s only a year to go. Usually, in most states, you have really a full two-year cycle, but in New Jersey and Virginia, they don’t have that luxury. So, we’ve seen a couple of big developments in both of those states in the last few days.
Beard: Yes. And, of course, New Jersey as we’ve talked about before, Senator Bob Menendez has been indicted. There have been a lot of calls for him to resign. He hasn’t resigned. He as of now has not made any announcement about whether or not he is running again next year. The polls that have been released since that have been really, really bad. So, of course, Democrats are looking to who might run in his stead or defeat him in a primary either way.
We’ve already had one announcement a while back; that was Representative Andy Kim who announced that he was going to be running. But now we’ve got the more establishment choice, who’s announced this week that she’s running. That’s First Lady Tammy Murphy, the wife of Governor Phil Murphy. She announced for Senate. She has a lot of establishment support. She’s expected to have a lot of the county lines in New Jersey. And county lines are a somewhat unique to New Jersey situation where county parties; in this case the county Democratic parties put together slates of candidates and they appear on the ballot sort of in the same row.
And so, for each of these races you go through and one of the rows is the county party line. It often has a lot of incumbents and a lot of voters just go down the line and vote the party line, sort of down all in that one row. And so, that’s seen as a big benefit to have these lines in these different counties.
But it’s not something that is never overcome, but it is certainly something that Murphy is going to have in her favor. And Kim is going to have to overcome that. He’s of course going to have a lot of progressive support, a lot of anti-establishment support that doesn’t like establishment politics in New Jersey and things like the county line. Kim, I think also has a benefit from having announced first against Menendez. He released a poll, in response to Murphy’s announcing, showing him leading her 40 to 21 with Menendez at just 5% of the vote. Really, it’s got to be one of the all-time lowest polls ever for an incumbent senator in his own primary.
Nir: I know, I had to laugh when I saw that this morning.
Beard: Yeah, it is wild to see that, but I think makes sense. I mean, given what we know about Bob Menendez, what Democrat in their right mind is voting for him in New Jersey next year? But there’s one other aspect to this worth noting, which is of course Bob Menendez’s son became a congressman after winning election in 2022, and he could also be in a bit of electoral trouble.
Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla has said that he’s already raised $500,000 for a potential challenge to the younger Menendez. And, of course, having been elected, at least in part, if not in large part due to his family name and the establishment support. Now, he’s got to contend with the downside of his family name and the fact that I’m sure some voters are going to associate that the elder Menendez has been indicted, with now his son who has a very similar name, Rob Menendez.
Nir: To be clear, Rob Menendez has not been charged with any wrongdoing. He’s not implicated in the federal corruption charges against his father, but Beard, like you said, there’s really no question that he was on a glide path to this open seat that used to be his dad’s years ago in the House last year in large part because of those county lines that you were referring to that all of the Democratic leaders in that area just rallied around him in a matter of days after he said he would run last year and so “live by the county line, die by the county line.”
Beard: Yeah. And I’m sure particularly if the elder Menendez doesn’t run, I’m sure Rob Menendez will endorse Murphy. They’ll probably be on the line together. That will probably help the younger Menendez try to stave off defeat. If Bob Menendez runs for reelection on that off chance, then there’s the situation where folks on the county line are really expected to endorse each other and support each other. And so, there’s the question, is Rob Menendez going to endorse Tammy Murphy against his father? Would the county officials let him slide through and not have to endorse Tammy Murphy to still get the county line? That’s a very unusual situation. Ultimately, given these numbers, I still think Bob Menendez will not run for reelection, but we will still have to see. He hasn’t made any announcements.
Nir: Yeah. Menendez has been sounding like he really does want to run again, the Menendez senior of course, but that county line thing, it’s hard to overstate how big of a deal it is. Sam Wang, who is an election researcher, and several collaborators just put out, I guess, a preprint of an article that they are going to be publishing in a law journal.
And the advantage to this county line in some races is as much as 38 points, they compare candidates who get the line in one county, and don’t get the line in another county, and see how they do compare between the two, and I’m sure hold other things equal. And so, it really is dramatic. And if you look at a sample ballot, it’s even more extreme because politicos tend to talk about it as a row for some reason, but it’s really a column, and it’s the first column. It’s column A that is this county line that’s just chock full of candidates, whereas the rest of the candidates are also scattered from columns B through X. It has a profound impact on the way that voters treat their ballot.
So, if Andy Kim can overcome that, because Tammy Murphy has already gotten some, at least one ballot line, I believe on Wednesday, said it was going to go for her and she’ll probably get more. If Andy Kim can overcome that, that would really, really be epic. And I should also add, Daily Kos endorsed Andy Kim. And a big, big reason why we did it was because he did this incredibly unusual thing, announcing a bid right after Menendez was indicted saying, “This just isn’t acceptable.” Saying, “We need an alternative.”
And in the past with Menendez and all his legal trouble, Jersey Democrats have played it safe. “Oh, we’ll wait and see. Oh, he’s entitled to a fair trial.” Of course, he’s entitled to a fair trial, but he’s not also entitled to his Senate seat. And so, Kim had real balls in stepping up there and saying, “Screw the system, screw the party line, screw the establishment. We just need someone better, as someone who’s not Menendez.” And that earned him a massive amount of credit in my book, and I think a lot of rank-and-file progressives are going to feel the same way, whereas Murphy couldn’t be more machine.
Beard: Yeah. And, of course, the machine didn’t like that Andy Kim did that; they found it disrespectful, et cetera. And, of course, that was why they’ve largely rallied around Murphy. Murphy, I think, is expected to pretty much get the county line in almost every county. There are a couple of small counties in New Jersey that don’t do this, and then Kim is probably going to get the Burlington County line, which is his home county.
And it’s even been said, I read in one article there where it was framed as like the Burlington County Democrats were going to be given a pass on letting them give Andy Kim a ballot line since this is his home county, which is just a wild way to frame and think about it, but I would really expect Tammy Murphy to get almost every other one.
But I do think if there’s a race that maybe doesn’t get hurt as much, it might be a Senate race because it’s so high profile, because everyone will know about Andy Kim and Tammy Murphy running for Senate, and everybody is going to make up their minds before you get to the ballot box by and large. As opposed to when you’re voting for your county offices and you’re like, “I don’t know, all these Democrats seem the same, I’ll just vote the county line.” Everyone is going to know which of these two they sort of prefer. And I think most Democrats going and voting in this primary are going to go find their name and pick it rather than just follow the county line.
Nir: I think that’s a really good point. And also, let’s not forget why we need a replacement for Menendez here. Because if anyone is capable of turning what should be a safely blue seat into a potentially flippable seat for the GOP, it’s Bob freaking Menendez. He just cannot be on the November ballot. We have way, way, way too difficult a map to deal with an indicted senator, and really the charges against him are just so dramatic. We can’t have an indicted senator on the ballot in November, and New Jersey should have a Democratic senator, period, and that’s why Andy Kim wanted to run.
Beard: And as we said, New Jersey is not the only state that’s had some big announcements this week. Virginia, of course, just finished with their odd-year elections, and so of course we’re going to have some big announcements in that state as well. The first was Abigail Spanberger, the congresswoman who announced that she was going to be running for governor in 2025, and as a result, she’s not going to be running for reelection to the House in 2024. This had been rumored earlier in the year. It was pretty widely expected, but this makes it official.
The big news for 2024, of course, is this makes a very competitive open seat in Virginia. Biden won the 7th district 53 to 46 in 2020, which is actually an improvement in the old district pre-redistricting. He had only won the district 50 to 49, so thankfully that district improved a little bit and is now Biden +7 as opposed to Biden +1.
There are going to be plenty of Democrats who are going to be looking at running, particularly from the part of the northern Virginia suburbs that this district takes in. It takes in about half of Prince William County, for those familiar with the DC area. And so, there are plenty of ambitious Democrats there who are definitely going to be looking for a promotion to Congress.
Looking more to the future to 2025, Spanberger’s announcement likely sets up a primary showdown with Richmond mayor Levar Stoney, who’s reportedly going to launch his own campaign for governor sometime before the end of the year. So, that’s definitely going to be a barn burner. Both of them can raise money and I’d expect that to be a very interesting primary to cover after 2024.
Nir: Spanberger just also got Ralph Northam’s endorsement. He of course was the last Democrat to hold this post. And as I’m sure “Downballot” listeners know, Virginia is the only state in the nation that limits its governors to one consecutive term. So, that means bye-bye Glenn Youngkin. It was already bye-bye after last week’s GOP debacle. I think his future is definitely looking very, very short, but two years from now we will have an open-seat race. And Democrats, you know they are just dying to take that seat back.
One other thing about Spanberger’s decision not to run for reelection, I think that’s actually almost certainly good news for Democrats paradoxically. Let’s say she ran for reelection, won reelection, and then immediately turned around to run for governor and then won the governor’s race. Hey, that would be great news. Abigail Spanberger I’m sure would be an excellent governor, but then you’d be talking about having a special election for a difficult district in the winter of 2026.
I would much rather face an election now in a presidential year when turnout is going to be really high when Biden is very likely to win this district again. And I think that Spanberger has pretty decent odds of winning the primary, and pretty decent odds if she does that of winning the general election. So, I think she’s being a team player here actually.
Beard: Yeah, I think obviously it’s a little unusual because of the odd-numbered cycle that Virginia is in, but I do think if you know you’re going to run for governor, it makes the most sense both for the party and for you to be able to focus your attention, your fundraising, on what you really want to be running for and what you’re focused on rather than try to split your efforts or delay the governor’s race until December of 2024. So, I think it’s best for all involved. I think we’re going to have some really good Democratic candidates, so I think we’re going to have a good shot to hold this seat.
Nir: I want to switch gears. All year long, in fact, for more than just the past year, we have been talking about redistricting litigation in Alabama. And now, what’s awesome is we get to actually talk just pure downballot politics. We don’t have to worry about what John Roberts is going to do or what the legislature is up to. We’ve got a new map, we’ve got a new district, and Alabama just had the first down-ballot filing deadline of the 2023, 2024 election cycle at the end of last week, and so we know who’s running.
And so, for the first time, Alabama’s 2nd district is now a Black-majority district. It voted for Joe Biden by double digits, and it’s almost certainly going to elect a new Democrat who is almost certainly going to be a Black Democrat to the next Congress. And there are six notable contenders who filed; a whole ton of candidates piled in, but there are six names who are worth mentioning. Five of them are state lawmakers. What’s really unusual though, and I think it speaks in part to the pent-up demand for this seat, is that three of these state legislators don’t actually represent any part of the 2nd district, which is a bit wild.
Nir: Definitely unusual, state Rep. Juandalynn Given and state Senator Merika Coleman both represent Birmingham, which is actually the anchor of the state’s other Black majority district, the 7th District. And state House minority leader Anthony Daniels, who entered the race at the last minute, he actually represents Huntsville, which is 200 miles to the north. Daniels, though, he was actually born and raised in the 2nd; he graduated from high school there. The other candidates have made various arguments as to why they actually have connections or ties to the district and voters ultimately will be the ones to decide. There are two other state legislators in the race: state Representative Napoleon Bracy, who’s from the Mobile area, and Mobile was just drawn into this district for the first time.
And then state Representative Jeremy Gray, he actually made national news a couple years back for spearheading the repeal of Alabama’s ban on yoga in public schools. A totally amazing thing. There was one reporter who referred to it as the dumbest moral panic in Alabama history, and that’s saying something. That was the full quote.
Nir: Yeah, that really is saying something for Alabama. There’s one other big name here, Shomari Figures. He’s a former DOJ official who just stepped down to be able to run for this office. He is the son of state Senator Vivian Figures, who’s a very prominent politician in the city of Mobile. What’s really strange though is that this new district links up the cities of Mobile and Montgomery connecting them through the rural Black Belt, which we’ve discussed a lot on this show. And you have a couple of politicians from the Mobile area who are running, but not a single person from Montgomery filed to run. And that really, really shocked me because whenever you have these sort of far-flung districts that connect to really distinct population centers — these are both in totally separate media markets — you almost always see someone try to ride their geographic advantage to a win in the primary.
And we don’t have that here. So this race is going to be really, really unpredictable I think. And also it’s very evenly divided between the Mobile media market and the Montgomery media market. I think that it’s really hard to say what the outcome of the primary is going to be though whoever does win the Democratic nod is going to be the heavy favorite in November of 2024.
Beard: Yeah, I think most folks expected there to be a strong Montgomery candidate and for that candidate to probably be the nominal favorite. I think obviously with any open seat like this, you can have any number of things happen as the race develops, but I think starting out a strong Montgomery candidate would’ve been the favorite. In the absence of that, I think a singular Mobile candidate probably would’ve been the favorite. But of course, as you mentioned, there are really two candidates who would consider Mobile their base, and so if one of them sort of becomes the dominant Mobile figure, I think they would probably have a leg up. But if both of them are sort of splitting the Mobile vote, it really opens it up to anyone including these other elected officials that you mentioned that aren’t currently representing the area, so you’d think they would struggle.
But if they only have to get 25 or 30% of the vote in a field that’s really divided, you then start to imagine pathways for them to actually win the primary. So it’ll definitely be interesting to develop, but it’s just really great to see this area have an opportunity to elect a candidate of their choosing to go to Congress.
Nir: Though 25% maybe gets you to the runoff because Alabama does require runoffs if no one takes a majority in the first round of voting. And I would think that in a field this divided without one obvious superstar candidate, we probably are going to have a runoff in this case. But yeah, it’s super fun to be able to talk about this actually happening. This is really the first time in the nearly 20 years that I’ve been analyzing downballot politics that we have a brand new Black congressional district in a southern state, and it’s just exciting to see this is the promise of the Voting Rights Act actually being brought to fruition. And I love it and let’s just hope because that’s all we can do at the moment that the Supreme Court doesn’t do any further damage to the VRA, at least in the near term.
But for the moment, this is an amazing thing and this is exactly what the creators of the Voting Rights Act had in mind when they drafted that landmark piece of legislation.
Beard: Absolutely. Now, one other thing that starts to happen right after election day of an odd year is that folks who are expected to run in the next even-numbered year, start to consider if they really want to. And you’ll often see a batch of retirements post-election day. In this case, we have seen a batch of retirements post-election Day from the House of Representatives.
Nir: It has been a flood. I just haven’t been able to keep up. We’ve had days where a retirement, a retirement, a retirement, and then at seven o’clock at night there’s another freaking retirement. So of course, Joe Manchin announced his retirement from the Senate. Honestly, Beard, I know that we’re in agreement on this one. I don’t really think it’s a game-changer. He was almost certainly going to lose anyway, even if he had run for reelection. I think a lot of DC types made a huge big deal about it. The Beltway headlines are a huge blow to Democrats’ chance of keeping the Senate. Honestly, if anything, maybe it’s actually better because the DSCC would’ve been obligated to spend a lot of money to prop him up, even if he was basically hopeless. Those funds can now instead go to Ohio and Montana. So yeah, I think that one is really a wash.
Beard: Yeah, I think there’s going to be a tendency among people to be like, “Oh, what’s going to happen with West Virginia now?” Of course, it’s an open Democratic seat in theory. It is in practice, it’s one of the most Republican states in the country, and in a presidential year there is unfortunately no chance that any Democrat is going to win it without Joe Manchin. There was probably no chance anybody was going to win it with Joe Manchin running the best race of his life. That’s just the reality of where the state is at a partisan level in 2024. So we just chalk it up. There’s a lot of competitive states. There’s still a path for a Democratic majority in the Senate, though it’s narrow, it’s still doable. So we need to focus on winning and holding those seats that we need to win and hold to make that a reality.
Nir: As for the House, there was so much churn. I am going to have to rattle off the name of every single member who either retired or tried to retire in the past week. So put a pin in that, if you’re wondering, what the fuck is he talking about? So you had Ohio Republican Brad Wenstrup. He was the guy who beat the notorious Jean Schmidt, if you remember that name, from the Paul Hackett race. He ousted her in the primary in 2012 in Ohio’s 2nd congressional district. He’s gone.
Derek Kilmer, a very normie moderate Democrat from Washington 6th district. He also decided to retire. Then you had longtime Democratic Congressman Brian Higgins from New York’s 26th, that’s in upstate New York. He said he was going to resign. There’s been reporting that he’s going to take a job as president of a prestigious performing arts center in the Buffalo area.
He had some really negative words for how life in Congress has evolved over his two decades there and really sounded unhappy and I think probably speaks for a lot of other people who are maybe less vocal about their reasons for leaving office. And one of those other people includes Texas Republican, Michael Burgess, who has also been in Congress for two decades representing the 26th district. And he didn’t really say a whole lot about his reasons for leaving, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s just sick of it too.
And then, of course, there’s Abigail Spanberger in Virginia who we mentioned earlier in the show. She is obviously not bailing to bail on politics; she’s looking for a promotion, but that’s one more open seat.
And so how about that retirement that didn’t work out? Well, Pat Fallon, who represents Texas’ 4th congressional district; it’s actually right next to Burgess’s district, north of Dallas.
He said on Monday that he was going to retire for the most bizarre reason possible, which is that he said he was going to run for his old seat in the state Senate. Now, sometimes you see former members of Congress decide to make a comeback by running for their old seat in the legislature, but usually it happens after they’ve lost. Usually it happens a number of years later. Fallon only got to the House a few years ago. He first won in 2020, and so he was like, “Screw this, DC sucks. I want to go back to representing Texas in the state Senate.” I mean, I’m not quoting him, but that’s what I imagined was going through his mind. Okay, but then here’s the really screwed up thing, the very next day, the very next day, he said, “Oh no, sorry, I take that back. I am going to run for reelection after all.”
Beard, I was so incensed when I saw that because I had stayed up late on Monday night writing about this fucker’s retirement. And then the next day he undoes it. Completely, completely bonkers. And political reporter Nicholas Wu had this tweet that I think was unintentionally really funny. He said that Fallon told reporters he’d originally wanted to return to the Texas Senate to spend more time with his family back home, but then after hearing from his family (one son was “distraught”), he changed course. So he’s running for Congress to spend less time with his family. That’s a first. That’s a first.
Beard: I know. I know. I saw that and I was just totally cracking up at the implications. I can only assume, I hope that the reality is not that Pat Fallon’s family hates him so much that they refuse to let him come back to Texas. But that’s certainly how it reads. I think it’s his eldest son is what I’ve seen reporting, and he’s been like, “Oh, he really, really didn’t want me to do this.” I’m just like, “Wow, he does not want to see you. I don’t know what’s going on there.”
Nir: It’s a teenage son who doesn’t want Dad around.
Beard: Yeah, so very strange. I guess now he is running for reelection, so he should, I guess return to Congress for at least another two years unless he just totally gets sick of it and bails completely, which we do see people do from time to time. I do think the negativity in Congress affects the members themselves. Obviously for years now, the constant need to fundraise has been an issue, particularly if you’re in anywhere near a competitive seat. The animosity between the parties on a personal level has increased. Obviously, we’ve seen the Republican caucus really go into eating-its-own sort of awfulness with this House Freedom Caucus taking down McCarthy back and forth, which is obviously entertaining to us as opponents and spectators of the House Republican caucus, but man, imagine living it? It does not sound fun.
Nir: How about Kevin McCarthy, elbowing Tim Burchett in the kidneys and then denying it? I mean, what the fuck is going on there? Yeah, I definitely wouldn’t want to be there if I were a Republican, and it’s completely unsurprising. I mean, if you run as the party that hates government, well, you’re probably going to hate being in government too.
Beard: And what we really need is for this to start affecting these moderates too in these competitive places.
Beard: And like Don Bacon, just retire. I’m sure you’re a fine person. You can go, I don’t know, garden or golf, whatever Don Bacon wants to do after being in Congress and live a nice life. And we’ll elect a Democrat to represent Omaha, and everybody wins. Brian Fitzpatrick, go teach at a university or something. It’ll be fine without you, don’t worry about us.
Nir: Don’t say the quiet part out loud, Beard, about the whole electing a Democrat in Omaha.
Nir: We don’t want it to catch on.
Beard: Yeah. We’ll talk about that later, Don, after we retire.
Nir: We didn’t mean that. So we will know whether Pat Fallon is sincere about running for reelection in a few weeks. Texas also has an early filing deadline. In fact, several states have filing deadlines coming up in December. We have a new calendar so that you can keep track of all of this stuff. Daily Kos Elections published a calendar of every single date for major party filing deadlines, for primaries, and for runoffs. You can find it pinned to the top of our Twitter account, and we will also include a link in the show notes.
Coming up, we are going to be talking with the youngest chair of a state Democratic Party in the nation. Earlier this year, Anderson Clayton won the election to the post of North Carolina Democratic Party chair. She has a ton to tell us about how she won that race and what she is doing in this most critical of swing states.
It is a fantastic interview and it is coming right up. Well, “Downballot” listeners note that we so often have reason to talk about the state of North Carolina on this show, which is why we are incredibly excited to welcome the new chair of North Carolina’s Democratic Party and the youngest chair of any state party in the country, Anderson Clayton. Anderson, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Anderson Clayton: Yeah, thanks for having me. Excited to be here.
Nir: So are we. So I’m sure you get asked this all the time, but since a lot of “Downballot” listeners may not be familiar with you yet, I have to ask: tell us about your background and in particular how you came to lead North Carolina’s Democratic Party at the age of 25.
Clayton: Yeah, I tell people North Carolina has to be one of two things. This year they were desperate, or they were just throwing spaghetti at a wall and then we’re going to see what stuck, because nothing had in the last election cycles with leadership of the state party, I think. But I’d like to think they were also just seeing the future. Young people are coming up in positions of power, as you can see from Representative Maxwell Frost in Congress right now to someone like Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson in Tennessee, who are just leading these really strong fights as part of a movement for young voters in a youth coalition. And so I really got started in politics when I went to college.
I’m from Person County, North Carolina. If you are not geographically familiar with the state, if you take Raleigh at the center of the state, and you go about an hour and a half north, you’re going to land in Person County eventually before you get up to Virginia. And Roxboro was always a place where people would say, “The two things that you don’t talk about at the dinner table are religion and politics.” And the two things that I really like to talk about as a young person in that county were religion and politics.
And so I figured out quite early on in my life that was not a place that I had many friends in or that I wanted to stay in or that I felt like I could grow up there, but I couldn’t grow old there in some ways. And that led me to go to Appalachian State University in the mountains of North Carolina, which is really where I think I got my political bug that bit me. I guess, in some cases, I want to say because I used to joke with folks that I wanted to become the next Anderson Cooper rather than the next Anderson Clayton.
I had always really loved AC 360. I wrote him when I was in sixth grade, I was like, “This could be my show.” You know what I mean? Anderson Clayton, AC 360 would be my name. “You could just hand it over to me one of these days, baby.” And it would be so cool. And that was my dream going into college. And in 2016 in North Carolina — fun fact about the state itself, for those that are not politically familiar with it, I’m going to have to give a civics lesson for the state. There are 100 counties in North Carolina and in each county there is this thing called a county board of elections. And the county boards of elections are what drive where polling locations are, how long voting hours are, and where sites end up being across the county. And whoever controls the Governor’s Office controls those boards and the majority on those boards.
And so in 2016 when North Carolina had Pat McCrory as our governor, the Republicans sat there and they said, “God, how do we disenfranchise college students the most? Because we know that when they come out and vote, they win elections for Democrats.” And so they started to strip away college voting sites across every campus throughout the UNC system in North Carolina. And Appalachian State was one of those polling sites. And there was this little tiny county party in the mountains of North Carolina, it wasn’t Mecklenburg County where Charlotte is, it wasn’t Wake County where Raleigh is, but it was Watauga County where Appalachian State was. And Watauga County Democrats said, “No, we’re going to sue y’all’s asses and we’re going to take y’all to court and we’re going to see if we can’t win this voting site back because we don’t believe in just throwing up our hands and laying down and playing dead.”
And so they did and they won that lawsuit that year and they won a voting site on Appalachian State’s campus for early voting and to make sure that students had the right to vote. And they got out there on that campus and they organized like none other and they registered students and they made sure that students understood their rights.
And so in 2016 when, unfortunately, North Carolina went red nationally for Donald Trump, Watauga County coming out of the mountains went blue for the first time in history. And it was because we had that voting site on that college campus. And it’s what got me involved with politics for the first time because I was like, “Dang, that was powerful.” And a group of people that were 17 to 70 years old just made that happen when they came together and prioritized voting and put their money where their mouth was in a lot of ways.
And so I went on to be an organizer on national campaigns. I worked for Kamala Harris’s campaign in Iowa and then I worked for Elizabeth Warren after her because I really credit Iowa with thinking about being able to go back home again. I was running from rural North Carolina my whole life and I got dropped in a little tiny town called Belle Plaine in the middle of nowhere in Benton County, Iowa, and they said, “You’re going to organize this place for Democrats.” And I realized that a lot of rural Democrats just felt really left behind by our party, no one had reached out to them in a long time. And in a state like Iowa where Democrats come in every four years and build up literal machine operations, it should be the most organized state in the country for our party and it’s not for a lot of reasons.
And I think that when we look at sustainability and infrastructure for our party, that’s where I really started to realize we’re doing it wrong because we’re not making it sustainable and we’re not building it to last. And so I spent 2020 in eastern Kentucky working for Amy McGrath’s campaign against Mitch McConnell as the eastern regional rural field director. And I had 42 counties across eastern Kentucky and for those folks that aren’t in eastern Kentucky, they’d be like, “I don’t think there’s 42 counties in Eastern Kentucky really, Anderson.” I had some central parts of Kentucky too, honestly, and it was just a really big rural region and we did the best that we could.
But I was disillusioned with national campaigns after that because when you come off of a campaign that spends $96 million in a state and people like Glenn Hammond lost his seat in eastern Kentucky that year and those state legislative districts where we still had very pro-abortion Democrats in places where the tides were shifting nationally after 2016 a lot.
And I just got really upset because I said, “Man, the national Democratic Party does not get places like this or where I’m from or rural communities or even just investing in places that we’ve written off for a long time and especially after 2016.” So I came home and in 2021 I became accidentally the chair of the Person County Democratic Party. I started at the local level and I worked my way up and I looked at our city council races in 2021 and Roxboro had three seats or all five seats were up, but we were able to take three seats on the Roxboro City Council and we flipped it from red to blue for the Democrats for the first time in my hometown. And people thought that I had done a miracle after that because they were like, “You’ve won in an R +20 county, Anderson, for rural people and rural Democrats.”
And what people had overlooked about Person County for a long time is that Roxboro, the city itself is 51% black. And what people don’t tell you about rural North Carolina is that rural North Carolina has the second-highest rural population besides Texas when it comes to population density because of our economic history in manufacturing and agribusiness. Agribusiness is still the number one economic driver in our state. And when we look at why we’ve lost elections, why Joe Biden lost our state in 2020 by 74,000 votes or why Cheri Beasley, unfortunately, last cycle, lost it by 134,000 votes for our United States Senate race. We’re looking at those margins and where the Democrats have slowly but surely lost ground. And so I ran for state Party Chair as a 25-year-old because I was like, “Man, I’m really tired of places where I’m from being written off and left behind when there are still Democrats that exist here and they want a reason to fight for their communities.”
And even if they’re not Democrats, people want good folks in positions of power and we just have to show them that the Democratic Party is a party of public servants again. And so I won my race through a very hard fight and it was something where I don’t think that I necessarily expected to win, but I knew I wanted to put up a fight for young people and for operating a grassroots year-round organizing program in all 100 counties in North Carolina and turning out a vote like we never have before in the state since Barack Obama won in ’08. But that’s how I got here. Yeah.
Nir: That was an incredibly good story.
Clayton: Thank you. I’ve had some time to figure out how I can tell it in a hopefully short period of time, but I always like to joke with folks, I’m like, “Man, if it’s a long story, don’t make it short. There’s no fun in that.”
Beard: I’m, of course, very excited to have you on, not only in general, but specifically being the North Carolina Democratic Party Chair, as everyone listening knows that that’s my home state. Now, we’ve had some tough election cycles. You took over earlier this year. You went through an off year, obviously North Carolina has some county local type elections, but no statewide type elections in North Carolina in an off year. But tell us what you’ve learned so far being just something like eight months on the job. What are some of the accomplishments you’ve seen the State Party do in your time so far?
Clayton: Yeah. I need people to know that while we had some great wins out of Ohio, Virginia, and Kentucky last Tuesday night, we also had some phenomenal wins out of North Carolina at the local level in municipal races across the state. And it was because the first time that we have really prioritized and invested in building the bench of our party at the local level, we had 1,100 out of the 1,600 races last Tuesday contested with Democrats across North Carolina. And we won races like, oh my goodness, Huntersville and High Point are two of our major metropolitan areas. High Point is the last Republican one of our top 10 largest cities in North Carolina. We took out the last Republican mayor of that city and now we have the first black mayor in High Point, North Carolina. Which is really exciting for everybody in that county too because a lot of folks came together from not just High Point, but the entire county itself and decided we’re going to help organize here in Guilford and make sure that we have outreach from the entire community.
And then also looking at Huntersville, the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party put in some work up there to flip the Huntersville City Council and Mayor’s Office from red to blue for the first time in history. And so I just told y’all North Carolina’s won and lost on the margins; Mecklenburg County had the lowest voter turnout. It’s one of my largest counties in North Carolina last cycle. And so being able to look at these municipal wins and where we can take back seats and actually get Democrats in positions of power to continue talking about what good Democrats are doing year-round, that’s what our party needs to do. But we didn’t just win in urban North Carolina; we won in rural North Carolina too and in places that we really should not have been winning seats in. So places like Cooleemee, which is a little tiny town in Davie County, right now has a Democratic mayor for the first time.
Shout out to the young Democrats of Haywood County because they ended up taking out the city council in Waynesville. So we’ve got a Democratic city council there now that took out an anti-LGBTQ group that was running to try to take over that city council. And we had Democrats that won in places that are really inspiring to folks and really gave us an uplifting momentum going into 2024. Because North Carolina, to me y’all, we know we’re on the precipice right now. Next year looks like for us whether or not we become Florida or Georgia and I need to make sure that we’ve got the momentum and the drive. And coming out of Tuesday night when we had a lot of people dig in and run for local offices, we found that in our state.
Nir: So let’s talk a little bit more specifically about the mechanics of running a State Party. Here on “The Downballot,” we always like to say, “We love to get deep in the weeds; we love the nitty-gritty.” And we actually had one state party chair on the show before, Ben Wikler from Wisconsin. So I’d love to hear from you about what your philosophy is for running the state party. What are your most important goals and what should the state party actually be doing to achieve those goals?
Clayton: Yeah. I tell people all the time, “The State Party is the ground war.” We are the people who should be out there talking to folks in our communities, day in and day out about what Democrats are doing. We should be building the base year-round for candidates to be able to have a pipeline to come up through and to understand how the party interacts with folks on the ground. I said earlier, we’ve got 100 counties and I would love to have 100 strong county parties that are out there actively recruiting people to run for every race, not just our state House and Senate races, but also county commissioner races, our school board races, our clerk of court races because all of those races matter. And if we don’t have good county parties in areas and local democratic organizations in communities talking and advocating for what our party is doing, but also encouraging people to become part of it. So doing voter registration, hosting community events, getting people to local city council meetings and county commissioner meetings.
I look at people all the time. The Democratic Party is still an organization and young people right now are inherently, in my opinion, disaffiliating from both parties because they don’t enjoy being part of systems; they don’t enjoy being a part of structures. And I think the entire thing is fucked up. And I can’t say that I disagree with it in some ways because I think that there are a lot of reasons why I ran for this, that also me we’re seeing problems in the system. But I just tell people all the time, “You can’t change something unless you’re in it.”
And I think that the state party is a really good conduit for being able to create dialogue and change within our party and places to bring people into it more so than we ever have before. But it’s also, if you ask me really what it is, I need to protect my incumbents and I need to get out of my base to win elections because I need to elect Democrats at the end of the day to be able to do all of those things I just talked about. So it’s a long-term goal for how I think we build out state parties in the future, but in the meantime, I’ve got to make sure I’m talking to everybody on the ground who is a Democrat right now.
Beard: Now, you talked about the difference between the big urban counties and the smaller rural counties. Obviously, you’re always going to have some kind of Democratic Party in Mecklenburg and in Wake County, depending on maybe they’re great, maybe they’re not so great, but they’re always going to be there. In some of these rural counties, the Democratic Party can really collapse and practically not exist. What do you do in those really small rural counties where the Democratic Party is moribund? How are you going in, to revitalize them?
Clayton: Yeah, I’m going in myself. I’ve been all over the state this year and in a lot of those counties where we’re trying to revitalize county parties. And I’ve got a few upcoming events this year alone too, of places like Lenoir where we should have a strong Democratic county party right now, but we don’t. I talked with a few folks in northeastern North Carolina, especially in Washington County. Wesley Stokes is still getting the Washington County Dems back up and running like it needs to be. Because in particular, the counties that we have had, I think, that lackluster support in have actually been some of the places where we could have our strongest support in rural communities. But our black and brown bases in eastern North Carolina right now, in our Black Belt of our state, those are some of our most unorganized counties. And part of that has to do with the fact that gerrymandering in North Carolina has happened for over the last decade in our state and has really taken away Black leadership from eastern and rural North Carolina.
And they’ve done that on purpose. Our Republicans in our state legislature have stripped Black voters of representation, honestly, in our state. And people can argue me down on that. In some cases, people would say, “Well, actually, Anderson, there’s more Black leadership in the General Assembly right now.” And I’m like, “Because they’ve cracked and they packed black voters, especially in our urban communities.” But rural North Carolina still is a very diverse place, it is not white predominantly. And those black voters have had their representation stripped from them because Republicans have consistently racially gerrymandered, which is partisan gerrymandering, our districts over the last decade too.
So we’ve seen a lot of, I think, the decline in that in our rural areas and so I’m going out there right now and I’m doing meet and greets and I’m just trying to revitalize people. I’m telling them the story that I just told y’all about, “Here’s what happened in my hometown when people just gave a damn.” And if we can do that everywhere, if we can put up a fight everywhere, we’re a party that doesn’t have to cede ground to a party that has fully endorsed white supremacy, that wants to see the demise of our democracy, that wants to take away and fundamentally strip human rights from people. And that’s a story that a lot of folks right now want to hear because they’re angry and they want someone else to feel that with them too and know they’re not alone in these communities anymore.
Beard: Now I want to pick up on a comment you made earlier and also bring in that anger that you’re talking about pick up on a comment you made earlier and also bring in that anger that you’re talking about, particularly around young people. And you mentioned how young people are disaffiliating from both parties. They feel really disgusted with the system. I think we’re seeing that a lot now.
We’ve seen it in polling in some cases around the presidential. We haven’t seen it so much ultimately in a lot of the election results. Young people who are turning out are still voting overwhelmingly Democratic. But there is that concern that this disaffiliation, this distrust will eventually filter into how they start voting and losses of young voters.
You, of course, are a young voter as we mentioned. What are the best ways to address that? How do we make sure that young people, as they come into adulthood and start really engaging with politics and their governance, continue to support progressives and Democrats?
Clayton: Yeah, I’m a young voter, but I know I don’t speak for all young people. And I think that is the trade-off there that sometimes I try to tell folks is that young voters are not monolithic and we need to not treat them as such. Their issues are just like every other voter too, but we just have to talk to them.
And I think that for a long time, politics as usual was just ignoring young people. Children should be seen and not heard. And I think that we have used that in politics for a long time. And young people being the largest voting bloc going into 2024, I think has made the case that you can’t do that for either party right now. We’ve seen it even from the Republican Party. The Republican young Dems are sitting there saying, “Hey, y’all should talk to young people because they just want to be spoken to.”
It’s not like they’re going one way or the other. But I think that we do have a lot of work to do when it comes to issues for young folks. People ask me all the time, “You’re 25, Joe Biden is 80, how do you feel about that?” And I look at the media and I say the question is not age. It’s around policy. And it’s about the fact that this generation is the most educated generation that exists in history right now and that they have specific policy questions they want answered.
And politicians have a way of doing things where it paints a broad brush over every issue and it doesn’t get down to the nitty-gritty bolts and nuts of things. And I think that young people are actually the ones that care about that the most, which is why I’m excited for politics for the next 20 years, to be honest with you. Because I think it’s going to become a place where we debate policy more and we have a much more… Candidates are really pushed on the issues honestly. And it’s going to be kind of exciting for that, for the generation that’s coming up in this world right now.
But I challenge anyone that says that young people don’t care or young people don’t want to vote. Young people, what I have heard from so many people on college campuses and even my high school Dems, they’re like, “Anderson, we have people whose family members don’t traditionally vote.” And so if you’re a young person right now and you want to vote for the first time, but your family are not voters and you don’t have a car or a way to get to a voting site without them taking you, transportation is a problem.
There are ways that voting is still very inaccessible for young people too that we have to talk about and help bridge the gap. And one of the ways that my college students were talking about doing that is they were like, “We want to feel like we’re not voting alone. We want to make sure that we’re doing it with Party to the Polls and stuff.”
And I was like, “Like they did in the ’60s, y’all want to just go back?” And they went, “Yeah.” They said, “Sure, if that’s what they used to do.” And I was like, “Yeah, that’s what we used to do is literally bussing folks to the polls and making it a big event.” And maybe that’s what we have to do to make people feel like voting is a community event right now and it’s something that everyone has to do to help our communities going forward.
Nir: Well, in Australia on election day after you vote, everyone has what they call democracy sausage. They give you a hot dog. And I feel like in North Carolina, barbecue, man, I mean.
Clayton: Do they barbecue? My east and west would fight about it, but I think it’d be great. Which kind would you get? I don’t know.
Beard: In the Piedmont they’ll offer you both or where you can pick one.
Clayton: Yeah. Piedmont would also say, “We’re going to open up our own little secret sauce one of these days.” Everybody’s like, “That’s the best.” Johnston County would probably say they already had.
Nir: The other topic that we talk about week in, week out on this show is abortion. And of course, we just saw how abortion powered Democrats to victories in all kinds of states, all kinds of races all across the country just last week. And in North Carolina, of course, earlier this year the Republicans passed an abortion ban because they managed to get a turncoat Democrat to change parties. We’ve talked about her way too much on this show, but I want to talk about specifically the issue of abortion and how it’s playing in North Carolina. What the reaction you’ve been hearing to that new Republican legislation and how you think it might affect 2024.
Clayton: I think Democrats are fully planning to run an abortion in 2024 and not just what happened with the 12-week abortion ban that Republicans instituted earlier this year; that’s really a 10-week abortion ban for medicinal abortion. But when you look at the proposed Republican candidate for governor right now, Mark Robinson, who said he would institute a statewide abortion ban if he was in charge of it, who’s someone who’s actually had an abortion himself with his wife and in his family.
I mean someone that is that hypocritical about the situation itself is someone that I would not want in charge of this, but also someone that I think everyone in North Carolina needs to know sits on the other side of Democrats in 2024 as someone to be threatened from. Because he’s also not only promised an abortion ban, but even in the case of rape and incest. Which if you all just recently saw what came out of Kentucky, Andy Beshear on election night actually thanked the young woman that was in his ad that came out about that from Daniel Cameron.
Because he said one of the ads that performed the best among white Republican men was that. And thinking about their own child being forced to have a baby of someone that had just done that to them. And I just think that we have to be able to run on these issues and run on the whole aspect of that this is reproductive freedom we’re talking about here.
Beard: Now of course, the Republican legislature, not only did they pass this abortion ban, but they redistricted the congressional lines. They went after very aggressively three incumbent Democrats basically eviscerating their seats, turning them into pretty Republican seats. They made a fourth Democrat seat very competitive, pretty much a 50/50 tossup district.
And what we’re left with in North Carolina is a bunch of Republican districts that went about 57, 58% for Trump, almost across the state. It was computer generated, I’m sure, to exactly have this sort of result. And so, I think the question that leads me to 2024 is how the Democratic Party is going to deal with these districts.
Obviously, it’s always great to have Democratic candidates running in these areas, but they’re all really, really tough districts. What is the goal here? Is it just to make sure we have names on there, do we want to run races? Are there districts you think have the potential to be competitive out of this list?
Clayton: Yeah, and I think just for folks who maybe aren’t so much aware, North Carolina’s redrawn our congressional district maps almost every other cycle for the last six years in our state. And so, in 2022 North Carolina Democrats lost control of our Supreme Court. And so that meant that we had the courts come back on a decision that the former court had made already when it came to partisan gerrymandering saying that it was legal in our state again, giving our state house and state Senate the right to completely redraw our state House, Senate, and congressional district maps.
For those of you that have also been politically following up with what’s happening in our United States Supreme Court, Tim Moore, Moore v. Harper, that was also North Carolina, where the United States Supreme Court actually rejected my Republicans. They said, “Y’all are too extreme,” because my Republicans wanted it to be so that the courts did not have oversight over map redrawing and that it was only the legislative responsibility to do that.
And so my Republicans in North Carolina do not joke around. They are the most extreme form of the Republican Party at this moment in time. And we’ve seen that over and over again. Especially with this new congressional map redrawing because we’ve also seen a threat to the VRA in congressional district one, which is Don Davis’s district right now. Which is in the Black Belt region, the northeastern part of North Carolina that I was referring to earlier with some of the unorganized counties that we have.
And so, what I’m looking at is that it was a terrible thing. I hated to lose my Supreme Court, to be honest with y’all, because this would’ve been a big fix for that. We’re coming to take her back in 2028, but I got to get through 2024 to make that happen. And that looks like the fact that we have a long fight to take back North Carolina over the next eight years of this cycle.
And that really looks like a playing a long game here because we’re going to have seats up in 2026 on our Supreme Court that we have to take back actually. And then in 2028 is when we can actually flip the court itself. And there are three seats up in 2028 that we’re looking at.
Justice Allison Riggs just got appointed to the North Carolina Supreme Court this year to fill one of two seats that Democrats still hold, with Justice Anita Earls as well. Justice Riggs is the youngest woman to ever be appointed to our North Carolina Supreme Court, so we’re very excited to have her. She’s going to be on the ballot again in 2024 though. And we need to make sure that we hold that Supreme Court seat to make all of this possible looking downballot.
Because of our congressional maps, we are going to potentially lose some of our great members of Congress, but I do expect some of them to put up a fight. We’ve already seen Congressman Jeff Jackson say he’s coming back to run for Attorney General statewide this year. And we’re going to scare Republicans at the statewide level instead of at the national level nowadays with his outreach to people across social media platforms honestly. And being able to tell the truth about what people think and what people need to know about what’s going on in politics. I think he does such a great job at doing that, of helping people access something that’s times closed off to your everyday person.
And what we’re looking at though is that even in the most competitive districts, so how these congressional maps got drawn is that they gave us a solid Republican ten districts that they know they’re going to keep. Democrats have three that we know we’re going to keep, which includes Deborah Ross and Valerie Foushee. And then we also have Don Davis’s district in CD 1 that’s going to be really competitive this year. And that we are going to be hopefully in some cases, looking at helping him get over the line there in that district as well.
And then our state House and Senate maps, what we’re looking at there is it’s going to be even more gerrymandered. But we do have the opportunity, and I tell people this often. Republicans cannot draw themselves a supermajority in North Carolina anymore. And they know that from the maps every single cycle. Cheri Beasley won five House districts last cycle, that the state party lost by 500 votes or less. Which means we need to have competitive boots on the ground in these competitive state House and Senate districts because we know we have the chance to win them.
If Tricia Cotham hadn’t switched parties, even if she had, it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d had those five house seats still. And so, I think it’s really important for people to know that there’s a pathway forward for us to break this supermajority, for us to keep a Democratic governor, and for us to at least win back a seat on our Supreme Court too.
Nir: Well, I love hearing you talk about the multi-year path for the state Supreme Court because we’ve discussed that on this show as well. And of course, Supreme Court races have taken on much greater importance. And I think now progressives and Democrats in general are paying a lot more attention to them. We saw that in Pennsylvania just last week. We saw it of course in Wisconsin earlier this year. And I think the Wisconsin example is really instructive because it took 15 years — 15 years — for progressives to win back the majority on that court. And in North Carolina, well, five years sounds like a long time. I’d much prefer 2028. That doesn’t sound so bad when you compare it to Wisconsin.
Clayton: We have the opportunity to. But like I said, I got to have one hell of a record after this because we can’t lose any elections. And that’s what 2022 unfortunately cost us, is that we don’t have the opportunity I think to ever make a mistake in this party right now going forward. And that’s going to be really hard for us to do, but it’s not impossible. And I need everybody to believe that.
Nir: Well, I am definitely a believer. Anderson, your enthusiasm is absolutely infectious. Before we let you go, please tell our listeners where they can learn more about what the North Carolina Democratic Party is up to and how they can help out.
Clayton: Yeah. I would love anybody, even for my out-of-state folks, to be looking at North Carolina as the place of opportunity for 2024. And to put your time, energy, and talent and treasure is what I like to call your donation. You can go to the ncdp.org to either donate or sign up to volunteer with us.
And if you’re in North Carolina and you’d like to run for office because we have county commissioner seats, state House and Senate seats that we still need to fill everywhere this year. If you believe in putting up a fight for your home community, please go to ncdp.org/runforoffice. For as in F-O-R. But please make sure that you sign up and run with us. We would love to help you out and make sure that you get connected with your local county party and involved with your community.
And if you’re interested in running and being involved with the state party office at any point in time, my website is claytonforcarolina.com. I keep it up so that folks can see how we ran this race and what it took to get here because I think more and more young people and more new people need to get involved with state party politics. That’s also a way you can just check out how we ran.
Nir: Well, that all sounds absolutely fantastic. We have been talking with Anderson Clayton, who is the chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party. North Carolina is going to host some unbelievable barnburners next year, and we will be covering all of them. Anderson, thank you so much for coming on “The Downballot.”
Clayton: Thank y’all.
Beard: That’s all from us this week. Thanks to Anderson Clayton for joining us. “The Downballot” comes out every Thursday everywhere you listen to podcasts. You can reach out to us by emailing [email protected]. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcasts and leave us a five-star rating and review. Thanks to our editor, Trever Jones. Next week we’ll be off for Thanksgiving, but we’ll have a new episode for you in two weeks.