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Tips for the state Democratic Party on how to become relevant 

Patsy Keever is the new chairwoman of th N.C. Democratic Party.

Photo by Bob Geary

Patsy Keever is the new chairwoman of th N.C. Democratic Party.

When 600 Democrats gather, clouds of contention form, especially on topics that are beside the point. The point Saturday, at Northwood High School in Pittsboro, was to elect a new chair of the state Democratic Party. Given that Patsy Keever, a former state legislator and Buncombe County commissioner, won on the first ballot with twice as many votes as her four opponents combined, this task might've been completed in an hour, freeing everyone for the lovely afternoon.

But remember, Democrats.

So it was five hours of stale air and cookies before Keever was declared the victor, if victory it was. Why would anyone want to be the chair of the state Democratic Party? During the interminable arguments over minutiae, I had time to ponder the task ahead for the new chair and her fellow officers.

I'll jump to my conclusion: They have a chance to help with a national restoration of confidence. And model it in North Carolina.

Yes, I know, the state party is broke. "Dire straits," as party treasurer David Bland put it. I know about the infighting that marked the two years of outgoing chair Randy Voller's tenure, and before him, David Parker.

But that was then, and 2016 is now. Right now.

Keever's election signals wealthy donors that it's once again safe to contribute to the state party. National donors, too. They steered clear of Voller, but poured tens of millions of dollars into Kay Hagan's losing U.S. Senate campaign last year, some via the Wake County Democratic Party.

For the 2016 elections, expect the spigots to flow even faster as Democratic donors try to win back the governor's office, Republican Sen. Richard Burr's seat and, critically, win this battleground state for the Democratic presidential nominee, probably Hillary Clinton.

I'm not suggesting that Keever, a retired public school teacher, is a high roller. But she has raised substantial sums for her own campaigns, including two respectable runs for Congress (2004, 2012) against well-heeled Republican incumbents. At the same time, she has strong ties with grassroots Democrats, including her role as a leader of the Mountain Moral Monday protests in Asheville.

In short, she's competent and, unlike Voller, low-key. Following her win, she gave no speech, simply took the gavel and conducted elections for three vice-chairs.

But if it's safe for donors to give, the question remains why they would. With the state party sidelined in 2014, Democrats instead campaigned through a host of interest groups and attack organizations in addition to candidate committees like Hagan's.

Legal rulings such as the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United, permit unlimited contributions to "independent" campaign groups that are partisan in every way. And, no surprise, one of the first things the N.C. Republicans did after seizing control of state government was abolish the tax check-off system of funding for state parties, a hoary setup on which the Democrats relied.

Thus, the N.C. Democratic Party was left without a financial base or clear role. Which means—to look on the bright side—it's like a brand-new organization able to ask what Democrats need that other committees aren't providing? My thoughts on what's missing:

A winning message: I mean for the country and the state, not just the party. Attack ads aren't enough—in fact, they play into the Republicans' hands.

An open door: In this Citizens United era, Democrats are in danger of looking as elitist and as beholden to big-money donors, as Republicans. Perhaps more elitist in light of the money rich Republicans funnel to faux grassroots groups. Making the Democratic Party democratic, meaning everyone can participate for real, is vital.

Public forums: Including debates and primaries. Use them to bring out new talent and new ideas to shape that winning message. The only thing Democrats have to fear from primaries is fear itself.

Equal opportunity: Is Attorney General Roy Cooper the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor? All the more reason for the party to hold forums around the state where Cooper can show his stuff against the other Democratic candidate, Kenneth Spaulding. Don't wait for next year. Cooper, polls show, needs to raise his public profile now, before Pat McCrory does it for him.

Inclusion: If Cooper and Clinton win, it sure would help boost black voter turnout for the U.S. Senate candidate to be, say, Anthony Foxx, the former Charlotte mayor and current U.S. Secretary of Transportation. He's African-American and charismatic. Bring Foxx to the forums.

One winning message: Not one for state elections and another for the national ones. The problems are no longer divisible by geography.

Democrats used to win state-level offices by talking up public schools and avoiding national issues. Walter Mondale? Didn't ring a bell. White candidates tried not to be seen with black candidates such as, Harvey Gantt when he ran for U.S. Senate.

Those days are gone. Good schools are still the No. 1 state concern, but they're not enough to overcome the national and international economic forces squeezing the middle-class and poor. The white and black working classes are in the same sinking boat.

With our economic future potentially in decline, the Republican Party offers its help to people still making it. A winning Democratic message will persuade voters that, with the right state and national policies in place, the country can still make it. And North Carolina can lead the way.

People rally around a winning team. Use the donors' money to build it. I won't belabor the demographics, but if the Democrats look like winners, there are enough white and minority voters in this state to make it happen.

It's not a task for Patsy Keever alone, obviously, nor will it be accomplished in one election cycle. But it's the challenge Democrats face, and Keever's election as party chair gives her the chance to play a part.

This article appeared in print with the headline "How to win an election."

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