Trump, Helms and Democratic unity

Are there silver linings for North Carolina Democrats after Donald Trump’s sweep in our state on his road to victory in the presidential election?

The apparent victory of Roy Cooper for governor, of course, if it holds, could provide Cooper the opportunity to serve the state and to keep Democrats involved in state government.

Josh Stein as attorney general and Mike Morgan on the state supreme court are important victories with more than a little silver in the linings.

But these are exceptions in a barrel full of disappointments. Hillary Clinton and Deborah Ross, after well-funded and vigorous campaigns fell well short. Two long serving members of the Council of State, Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin and Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson, lost in close races. No incumbent Republicans lost. Republicans also maintained their solid, veto-proof majorities in the General Assembly.

But Democrats should take heart. The election returns show that North Carolina remains a purple state, one that is competitive for both parties in statewide elections if they can nominate and finance appealing candidates. And, if they can find something to unify them.

The Republicans found that unifying something this year.

It was not Donald Trump.

Divided on policy and support for their presidential candidate, they united in their dislike of their opponent, Hillary Clinton.

“I am not voting for Trump,” my Republican friends told me over and over, “I am voting against Hillary.”

Not too long ago, North Carolina Democrats had that kind of opponent, one who unified them when nothing else could.

Senator Jesse Helms.

Until his retirement from the U.S. Senate in 2003, some people said that Helms was North Carolina Democrats’ best asset. They mostly hated him, of course, but that is why he was so valuable. The hatred of Helms pulled the Democrats together. And when the various factions of the party could not agree on anything else, there was one way to promote unity: start talking about Jesse Helms.

Opposition to Helms defined what it meant to be a Democrat more than any single difference on issues or political philosophy.

Democrats chafed because they could never defeat Helms. They were frustrated as they saw him gain support from large groups of people who would have benefited from programs and policies that Democrats advocated.

Still, Helms was the gift that kept on giving to Democratic unity.

Who can fill that kind role for today’s Democrats?

Donald Trump.

Even though he will be our president, he is a political figure who has shown views and attitudes that stir up opposition. It is not unpatriotic to focus on the negative features of a political opponent and his views simply because he holds our highest office,

In a recent pre-election column, I argued that “if Trump were to win and become president, he would provoke anti-Trump and anti-Republican voters in the 2018 and 2020 elections, which would be monumental, surpassing even the anti-Obama reaction in 2010.”

Something similar happened in 2010. Two years after Barack Obama won the presidency, Republicans made Obama and his programs their enemy. They ousted Democrats from control of the North Carolina General Assembly, riding a Tea Party and anti-Obama wave. In the same year, Democrats lost 64 seats and control of the U.S. House and lost five seats in the U.S. Senate.

Democrats will have the opportunity to make similar gains in 2018. But success will not be automatic. It will not come without organization, responsive programs, and unity.

To get that unity, Donald Trump is there to help.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.