Why Democrats Are Hopeful in North Carolina and Nervous in Georgia


Democrats are starting to dream that President Biden can wrench North Carolina away from Donald J. Trump in November.

They’re less confident that Mr. Biden can hold on to Georgia.

The two Southern battlegrounds are creating a tricky strategic calculus for Mr. Biden’s campaign as it grinds into higher gear and decides where to direct its money, advertising and foot soldiers on the political map. The subtle, early tension is leading to no small amount of jealousy among Democratic allies of Mr. Biden in each state as they jockey for cash and attention.

“I would certainly advocate for North Carolina over Georgia right now with the Biden campaign,” Roy Cooper, the Tar Heel State’s governor, said in a recent interview, pointing out that Mr. Biden’s defeat there by just a percentage point in 2020 was his closest in the nation. “Obviously, I’m a little biased. They’re going to have to make those decisions. I think Georgia is still an extremely important state to the president and can help put him over the top.”

North Carolina looks like a more appealing target this year, even though a Democratic presidential candidate has not won the state since 2008. But Republicans recently nominated a candidate for governor with a well-documented history of antisemitic comments, staunch opposition to abortion and anti-L.G.B.T.Q. views, and Democrats hope he will drag down the Republican ticket to Mr. Biden’s advantage.

Georgia now appears a little less enticing, despite a narrow Biden victory there in 2020 that gave Democrats new ambitions of winning in the South. That year, Mr. Biden ran alongside two Democratic candidates for Senate with control of the chamber at stake, prompting both die-hard Democrats and infrequent voters to surge to the polls. This year, there is no marquee down-ballot race to help Mr. Biden, and liberal organizers in the state have warned of money problems and lagging grass-roots energy.

Both Sun Belt states are growing more racially diverse, a demographic shift that favors Democrats. But the rising Democratic belief in North Carolina, and pessimism in Georgia, show how the party is especially reliant this year on down-ballot races to increase turnout as Mr. Biden fights anemic approval ratings. It is possible he loses both states, with polls showing Mr. Trump ahead in each.

Mr. Biden’s campaign and its allies have poured more money in Georgia, spending nearly $24 million on television advertising there compared with over $5.6 million in North Carolina. But the campaign’s staffing is more robust in North Carolina, where it announced the hiring of three full-time employees in January, including a campaign manager and senior adviser positions. In Georgia, the campaign has so far hired just one staff member, a senior adviser, with the election less than eight months away.

“It’s frustrating as a Georgian because we put so much into Georgia,” said Erick Allen, the former chair of the Cobb County Democratic Party, who is now running for a county commission seat. “But I understand, because if you think about the 2020 election, the momentum that Biden was able to tap into here was also because of the energy in the statewide races,” he said, referring to Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff’s campaigns for Senate.

Mr. Allen added: “You need that extra energy statewide in order to really make a play. And Georgia doesn’t have that this cycle.”

Mr. Biden’s campaign has not written off Georgia and maintains that it remains a top priority. The president visited the state for a rally in Atlanta on Saturday, one week after Jill Biden, the first lady, hosted an event there. Vice President Kamala Harris has visited the state twice this year and 11 times since being elected. A slew of surrogates, including Doug Emhoff, Ms. Harris’s husband, and Gov. Wes Moore of Maryland have traversed Georgia in recent weeks.

“The president is in the right place,” Mr. Warnock told Democrats in Atlanta before Mr. Biden’s speech on Saturday. “Because we know that the road to the White House goes through Georgia.”

Several top campaign aides, including Quentin Fulks, Mr. Biden’s principal deputy campaign manager, and Michael Tyler, his communications director, are also Georgia natives. Mr. Fulks said in an interview that both North Carolina and Georgia, each of which offers 16 electoral votes, were “at the top of the list” of priority.

“President Biden was the top of the ticket in 2020, and he’s going to be at the top of the ticket again in 2024 regardless of what state you’re looking at,” he said, adding that the campaign would have a “more robust presence” in Georgia this month. “I see a pretty bright pathway to Georgia, but our campaign is under no illusions. We have to get in there, we have to do the work, we have to have a presence there.”

But wary Georgia Democrats, pointing to the delay in hiring full-time staff on the ground and lagging voter enthusiasm, say that if Mr. Biden’s campaign does not redouble its efforts, he might not hold a state he carried by fewer than 12,000 votes four years ago.

“The fact is, Georgia is still in play, and of course we want to maintain Georgia,” said Van Johnson, the mayor of Savannah. “But that doesn’t happen by osmosis. It happens by intentional investment.”

He added: “North Carolina is important. There is a governor’s race there — that’s important. But you can’t cut off your right hand and help your left hand. You need both.”

Democrats in both states are often diplomatic about discussing the sensitive intraparty topic. Governor Cooper said that he had urged Mr. Biden to treat North Carolina as a top goal and that it ranked “very high” on the list of battleground states the campaign believes it can win.

And while he was careful to mention that Georgia was also important, he noted that Mr. Biden would not have the benefit of running alongside a strong Senate candidate in the state.

“You don’t have Raphael Warnock on the ballot in 2024,” he said.

Before Barack Obama won North Carolina in 2008, Democrats had fallen short in the state in every presidential cycle since 1976. They have found much more success at the state level, winning the governor’s race in seven of the last eight campaign cycles. The last two Senate elections in the state, in 2022 and 2020, have been close, with the Republican candidate winning by under four points each time.

Prominent Democratic groups are planning to target North Carolina, particularly because of the involvement of Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, the Republican nominee for governor. His inflammatory comments and politically toxic positions stand out even in a party that has put forward many flawed nominees for top offices in recent years.

Among other things, Mr. Robinson has quoted Hitler on Facebook, engaged in Holocaust denial and referred to “transgenderism” and “homosexuality” as “filth.” He has also expressed support for a six-week abortion ban, a stance Democrats have already seized on.

Pat Dennis, the president of American Bridge 21st Century, a liberal group that digs into the histories of Republican candidates, said Mr. Robinson was a “dream” for opposition researchers, adding that candidates like him who hold right-wing views on abortion “really help define the race in the suburbs, which I think is where North Carolina will be won or lost.”

Mr. Robinson’s campaign brushed off Democrats’ plans to highlight his offensive past statements, and tried to link Josh Stein, the Democratic nominee for governor and the state’s attorney general, to Mr. Biden.

“Joe Biden, Josh Stein and the Democrats are so desperate to distract the voters from their massive failures like unchecked illegal immigration, crippling inflation, and more that they’re relentlessly churning out lies to smear Mark Robinson instead of talking about the real issues of this campaign,” Mike Lonergan, Mr. Robinson’s communications director, said in a statement.

Demographic trends also explain why Mr. Biden would expand his political map to North Carolina, the nation’s ninth most populous state.

North Carolina’s population growth continues to outpace that of the rest of the country, and much of it has been led by people of color. That boom has been even more pronounced in cities: The Charlotte and Raleigh areas were among the top 10 metro areas nationally for population growth, according to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Many of the new residents are from blue states like New York and California.

Marc Farinella, the North Carolina state director for Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign, said that Mr. Biden had a “plausible” case for victory in both Southern states at this point in the race.

During Mr. Obama’s first campaign, when Georgia was more reliably red, senior advisers who did not see a path forward there redeployed resources to North Carolina and other states that seemed more winnable just weeks before the election.

“You take an expansive view and as you get closer to Election Day, your view narrows,” Mr. Farinella said.

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