Can this 25-year-old help solve North Carolina Democrats' problems?
At 25, Anderson Clayton has been given a difficult task: improve Democrats' record in North Carolina.
In February, Clayton was elected to a two-year term as the new chair of the state party, ousting first-term chair Bobbie Richardson, 48 years her senior and the first Black woman in the role.
The upset made Clayton the youngest state chair of the Democratic Party in the country. Her win came even as Richardson had the backing of the entire state Democratic congressional delegation, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the Democratic attorney general, Josh Stein, who is running to succeed Cooper.
In an interview with ABC News, the born-and-raised North Carolinian said she never saw herself as political growing up -- but her love for her community in rural Person County, on the northern border with Virginia, pushed her to pursue a path in elections and organizing.
"A lot of young people in rural communities feel like they're forced out of their hometown, that they have to leave it in order to do something with their life or make something of themselves," Clayton said, "and I always wanted to make sure that rural people didn't have to feel like that."
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A graduate of Appalachian State University, in the mountains of North Carolina, Clayton initially got involved with registering voters on campus, she said.
She then worked on one of North Carolina Rep. Kathy Manning's campaigns. She made her way to national politics as a staffer on the 2020 presidential campaigns for Vice President Kamala Harris and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
After that, she worked for Kentucky Democrat Amy McGrath's failed 2020 campaign against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Clayton said that was an eye-opening experience that motivated her to return to her hometown and other rural areas, which she felt were worthy of more attention.
"One of the things that I really want to change is the way that we look at and perceive rural communities as a problem versus worth investing in," she said.
She became chair of the Person County Democratic Party in 2021 and helped flip control of the local Rockford City Council.
As the state chair, however, she will face bigger challenges: While Cooper twice won election as the state's governor, a Democratic presidential nominee has only won the state once in the last 40 years -- in 2008, when Barack Obama beat Republican John McCain by less than 15,000 votes. That was the same year the state elected its last Democratic senator, who then lost reelection. In 2010, Republicans won both chambers of the state legislature, which they still hold.
The most recent cycle saw more GOP victories, with Senate nominee Ted Budd beating Democrat Cheri Beasley by more than 100,000 votes and Democrats losing races for the state Supreme Court. Republicans nearly won a supermajority in the state legislature, which would have allowed them to override Cooper's veto.
Clayton said she has reflected on what contributed to the Democrats' results in 2022. In her view, the party failed to turn out its base and protect its incumbents.
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"The main thing that I want to ensure is that we have our boots on the ground early in all of our counties," she said. "We have a lot of work to do, I think, with rebuilding party infrastructure and ensuring that there is a Democratic messenger in every county across North Carolina."
Clayton also said she wants to dedicate more resources to turning out critical blocs of Democratic support, which some operatives believe were not as heavily recruited to go out and vote this past election cycle.
"Our NAACP was not really fully [organized] on the last election and that's a huge turnout driver for African American voters," one state Democratic operative told ABC News. "There are so many organizations out there that I think started late, and they put their plans together late. They didn't do what they needed to do."
The North Carolina NAACP did not respond to ABC News' request for comment. Richardson, the former state chair, said she had no comment.
Matt Hughes, a member of the Democratic National Committee and former second vice chair of the state Democratic Party, said Clayton "ran her campaign [against Richardson] the way I think she would want to run the state party, which is a 100-county strategy." Clayton was selected by a majority of the state party's executive committee, through ranked-choice voting.
Hughes believed Clayton's willingness to talk to party members before prescribing solutions to the problems contributed to her winning the chairmanship. He highlighted the importance of shoring up losses in rural counties.
"She spoke to the fact, quite frankly, and this is something I've said for years, [which] is you can't lose some of these rural counties by such large margins and then still expect to win statewide," he said.
Clayton also argues that North Carolina's races are, despite the last decade-plus, being overlooked by national Democrats who have instead focused more on battlegrounds in Arizona, Georgia and elsewhere.
"I absolutely think we got deprioritized at the national level and I think that's because we need to show [the national party] that North Carolina is worth investing in, and we have a plan to get that done," Clayton said.
Others agree that North Carolina Democrats must prove they are worth the investment.
The state operative told ABC News that national Democrats did put an ample amount of resources into the state, but it did not match what was given to other battlegrounds because people in the party realized that the path for Democrats to maintain their Senate majority did not run through North Carolina.
"We had to keep our [incumbent] senators and flip Pennsylvania … in an environment where you had to manage your resources. I think the DNC and the national party did what they needed to do," the operative said.
This person also said that it did not go unnoticed that Beasley, a former chief justice in the state, didn't campaign with President Joe Biden: "It was uncomfortable to have national Democratic partners ask you when your Senate candidate was going to invite the president to come campaign." (Ahead of the midterms, those around Biden sought to play down such optics.)
While other swing state candidates such as Sens. Raphael Warnock and Mark Kelly, in Georgia and Arizona, did not campaign with the president, the operative said they had a legislative record to run on. Beasley didn't.
Looking toward 2024, North Carolina Democrats hope to hold the governor's mansion while striving for a rare presidential election win. Clayton said she realizes the "responsibility" she carries, representing her generation in her new position.
"I do feel a lot of responsibility to making sure that young people feel like this is their win too," she said. "And if you're frustrated with the Democratic Party right now, that's OK. But the only way to tame it is to get involved with it and to make your voice heard."
Can this 25-year-old help solve North Carolina Democrats' problems? originally appeared on abcnews.go.com