A 25-year-old from a small town leads North Carolina's Democratic Party toward 2024
ROXBORO, N.C. — Anderson Clayton understands why young people have problems with the Democratic Party. She does too.
"I used to joke with people that if I didn't run for something else, I was going to be leaving the Democratic Party," she told the audience at a recent event in Washington, D.C.
So she ran for something. Now, it's been more than six months since Clayton was elected chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party, a promotion after leading her county's party. And at 25 years old, she's the youngest state party leader in the country.
It's a title she wears proudly, right alongside another: being from a small town. Both identities make many of her political battles personal, as she wrestles with the past faults of her party and what she wants the future to look like.
"I was angry," she said of the Democratic Party. "I was angry that it was ignoring places like where I'd grown up."
Clayton's call to action
"Rural areas right now are dying, and people for years have just sat there and said, 'y'all deserve that,'" she told NPR, sitting on the couch in her parent's living room during a summer afternoon in Roxboro, N.C. "If you're going to choose to live in an area like that, you deserve just to die out."
Clayton was born and raised in Roxboro, a town of 8,000 about an hour north of Raleigh. As she talks, her dog, Sadie May, keeps a close watch nearby. In the room over, the dining table is formally set as if for a large dinner party. The windows look out onto her father's ever-expanding garden, where music plays on a radio to scare the deer.
In the lead-up to the 2024 election, Clayton is spending her time commuting around the state from Roxboro and hammering home a two-part message: Democrats have neglected rural communities like hers, and taken young voters her age for granted.
But as she leads North Carolina's Democratic Party, she's determined to show voters that Democrats are working to earn back their trust.
"My own people are the ones that I've got to figure out a way to motivate and mobilize and get energized around building this thing up from the bottom," she explained.
But in North Carolina, the stakes are high ahead of 2024.
State Democrats are working to regain lost ground as Republicans now hold supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature, along with the state Supreme Court.
On the national level, the state hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate for 15 years, when the state went blue for former President Barack Obama in 2008.
Biden has been the closest since, losing to then-President Donald Trump by just 75,000 votes in 2020.
Linking Biden's policy wins to rural issues
As of May, North Carolina is set to receive nearly $5 billion in federal funding as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, according to the White House. The investments will go toward projects focused on transportation, clean water and high-speed broadband.
Clayton is energized by the move and thinks communities need to know that these changes are happening because of the Biden administration.
"Joe Biden is the first president in 50 frickin' years that said, if you live in a rural area, [you] deserve to have a future," she said. "It's a mindset shift of, no matter where you live, you deserve to have the best of everything because that is what humanity calls for."
Plus, there's a disconnect among the key groups that Clayton is looking to make gains with: young, rural and independent voters. According to the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist polling, 41% of young voters and 34% of independents approve of his job in office. Among rural voters, that number stands at just 29%.
Clayton may have inroads among some of these groups. Though rural voters do skew Republican nationwide, in 2020, young rural voters stood more divided. Among voters under 30 from rural places, just 50% voted for Trump, compared to 47% for Biden.
"I get asked all the time, 'how are you a young person that's voting for this guy?'" she told NPR. "He's the only president that's ever looked at a place like where I'm from and said, 'I believe in that.'"
"Why would I not want someone to believe in people like me?" she asked.
Expanding the ground game
With the presidential election 14 months away, some political organizers say Democratic wins will come down to strengthened and expanded local outreach outside traditionally blue strongholds.
"There's more base voters in the cities. There's a lot of persuadable voters in the suburbs. But in most states, that's not going to add up to a win in North Carolina and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania," said Sarah Jaynes, the executive director of Rural Democracy Initiative, which supports voters in rural communities.
Jaynes warns that if Democrats are only mobilizing voters in urban and suburban areas, they may still lose statewide.
"So you have to pay attention to the rural areas when you think about the national map of where politics are the closest," Jaynes said.
Ahead of 2024, Jaynes said outreach to rural voters must be part of the 2024 game plan, making local organizing a key priority in that fight.
Clayton's plan to do just that is to put a candidate on the ballot in every state House and Senate race. It could be a daunting task following the 2022 election, where Democrats left more than 40 state races uncontested.
To accomplish this, Clayton wants to make sure county Democratic parties, especially in majority-minority counties, are getting support and resources from the state party to recruit candidates. She also wants to stay active in outreach to colleges, including at the state's historically Black colleges and universities.
But to local organizers, like North Carolina-based Vashti Hinton-Smith from the left-leaning group Common Cause, this is an ongoing, long and hard fight.
"I do wonder sometimes if it's too late," said Hinton-Smith, who runs Common Cause's civic engagement program at HBCUs within the state.
Though she agrees with Clayton's youth outreach plan and remains cautiously optimistic, she said politicians need to play the long game in order to make change, which may require less focus on wins right now.
"Let's also look four more years past," Hinton-Smith said, referring to the 2028 election. "What does that look like? How do we prepare for that?"
A local message meets a statewide audience
As Clayton attempts to rally support, Republicans plan to cede no ground.
"You can't ignore any demographic because you may lose them," Republican state House Majority Whip Jon Hardister told NPR after a Wake County Republican meeting in June.
"Let's make sure we have our base, but you have to go after the swing voters," he said. "At the end of the day, you've got to win those voters in the middle, and you do that by talking about the issues they care about."
According to Hardister, that means economic concerns remain a primary focus, particularly when talking with young voters across the state.
Walking around downtown Roxboro, Clayton feels that economic message acutely. She remembers being told by teachers and her mom to leave to be successful and find the job she wanted.
"It just has become this unfortunate circumstance that a lot of young people find themselves in places that look like this," Clayton said. "Young people all the time [are] told that you have to leave your small town in order to be able to make a living because there's not enough opportunity."
It's something that still sticks with her and continues to inform her work, especially as she tries to convince voters like her that the Democratic Party is worth another look.
"I want people to see opportunity everywhere, and it shouldn't matter your ZIP code or where you're from. You should be able to experience and live in your community, but also have so many opportunities," Clayton said. "I think it's the message of the Democratic Party nationwide. I just don't think we've figured out a way to really tell that message yet."
This story is part of a two-part series on the country's youngest state party chairs.
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