Is North Carolina becoming the next Florida? What experts say | Opinion

“North Carolina is the next Florida.”

For Democrats, it’s a warning. For at least some Republicans, it’s a promise. Under a Republican supermajority, North Carolina has taken a sharp right turn. Policies like the Parents’ Bill of Rights and a potential DEI ban at public universities mimic similar actions taken by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his state’s ultraconservative legislature.

That turn could become even sharper if Mark Robinson becomes North Carolina’s next governor. Robinson himself has said that, if he is governor, he would push to make North Carolina more like Texas or Florida.

“I think that’s one of the reasons why this state is going to be focused on this race, because we’re at a crossroads,” Robinson recently said on a podcast. “Are we going to go left? Are we going to go the way of California? Are we going to go the way of Florida, Texas, Arkansas or other conservative states?”

Of course, Joe Biden and Josh Stein winning North Carolina still won’t make us anything like California. But could we become a much redder state if they lose? Much like Florida, North Carolina is a supposed presidential and U.S. Senate battleground state that has remained out of reach for Democrats in recent election cycles. Despite being a state that decided the 2000 election and elected Barack Obama twice, Florida now looks a lot more purple than red. The question is whether North Carolina is walking that same path.

While optimistic Democrats may fantasize about North Carolina being like Georgia, which has swung blue in pivotal federal contests, Florida may be a more apt comparison, said J. Miles Coleman of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. It’s a comparison he’s been making since after the 2020 election.

Part of what has kept North Carolina on the redder side of purple is its changing demographics, Coleman said. While it’s easy to think that demographic changes will eventually favor Democrats due to growth in urban areas, the metro areas aren’t the only parts of North Carolina experiencing rapid growth. Growth in some of the state’s fastest-growing counties — such as Brunswick County along the coast — is driven by an influx in retirees who lean more conservative. The same is true of Florida, which is a major retirement destination for northerners seeking warmer weather.

Democrats in North Carolina and Florida haven’t done the best job of turning out their own voters, which causes them to underperform in statewide elections. 2022 was a disappointment for Democrats in both states: DeSantis won reelection in a landslide and Democrats lost yet another expensive U.S. Senate race in North Carolina. Coleman said election results show similar trends of Democratic performance falling in rural parts of both states — eastern North Carolina and the Florida panhandle, for example.

Mac McCorkle, a Duke University professor and former Democratic consultant, said Florida is a “cautionary tale” for North Carolina, but one thing that separates the two is Republicans who “know how to govern.”

“Guys like Phil Berger, they’re getting it,” McCorkle said. “They don’t fight Medicaid expansion and just give the Democrats a huge issue to bludgeon them with. They don’t repeat their HB2 mistake. They don’t go all the way on banning abortion.”

But with people like Robinson and Michele Morrow on the ballot in November, McCorkle questions whether Republicans will be able to stay on that path — which could give Democrats the opportunity to win over voters in exurban counties who might be less accepting of extreme candidates.

Unlike Florida, which may very well continue to trend Republican, Coleman expects North Carolina to remain a competitive, if slightly right of center, state. But he agrees that the outcome of the upcoming election could change that.

“If North Carolina elects someone as extreme as Mark Robinson, I would definitely think that it is trending a little more Republican,” Coleman said. “I think just the tone that would set would definitely have an impact on its reputation.”