Sitting inside The Andrew Goodwin House, which serves as the North Carolina Democratic Party's headquarters in downtown Raleigh, Anderson Clayton shared her reaction to winning the State chair race earlier this month.
"I think I was definitely surprised," said the 25-year-old Clayton, who became the party's youngest State Chair.
The former Person County Precinct Chair unseated incumbent Bobbie Richardson, a former State Representative who had the backing of Governor Cooper, Attorney General Josh Stein, and the entire Democratic Congressional delegation. Clayton, who referred to Richardson as "revered" in an interview Friday with ABC 11, said her victory was a sign that the party wanted a new voice, with the elections being held just three months after a largely disappointing midterm for Democrats.
"We wanted to see change in our party when we focus on organizing everywhere and trying to make sure that people feel welcomed into our party and their voices are heard again," said Clayton.
While Democrats performed relatively well in Congressional races, they lost an open Senate race, control of the State Supreme Court, and were just one House race away from being on the short end of a supermajority in both chambers.
"There's not an excuse for the fact that we lost 44 seats uncontested this last cycle. And that just means we've got to be prepared to recruit a candidate everywhere," said Clayton.
She wants candidates to focus on topics like housing, education, broadband access and public safety, addressing voter concerns. Efforts to increase turnout also mean reaching out to rural areas which Clayton, a Roxboro native, believes have been neglected.
"Rural organizing to me is never about winning back these places. It was always about rebuilding trust in a party that people feel like had left them behind a long time ago," said Clayton.
The Appalachian State University graduate also pointed to growing their presence on college campuses, a voting bloc that often supports Democratic candidates, but also has lower turnout rates.
"I want to make sure that we've got somebody on all 16 university system college campuses right now, and that includes our HBCU's. HBCU turnout was the lowest it's been since 2010 and in this last cycle and I think that we've got to make sure we have college students organizing college students," said Clayton.
With Governor Cooper unable to run again in 2024, the gubernatorial election takes on greater significance for both parties; Cooper's veto power has blocked a series of bills during recent sessions.
"I think we're in the fight of our lives and I tell people that with the most sincerity in my heart that I know that's where we're at right now."
North Carolina will once again be a battleground state in 2024; while Democrats have only carried the state in the presidential election just once in the past 40 years, President Biden came within about 1.3% of Donald Trump in 2020, closing the gap from Trump's 2016 victory in the state. The last time a Republican won the White House without North Carolina was 1956, a streak which highlights its significance to both parties.
"I think we've got to show them that we have the boots on the ground infrastructure and the ability to actually show the plan going forward for how we take back this state. And North Carolina is at a crossroads right now," Clayton explained.
Over her first couple weeks, she's been reviewing the party's infrastructure and soliciting feedback.
"I think that is the one thing the state party has got to do a better job of, is making sure that our volunteers, the people that are in our communities, understand what the Democratic message is, how to talk about what Democrats are doing right now effectively, and understand that it's about building up a community. And so what do you need to do that in your own backyard right now?"
Clayton is part of a new wave of leadership across the party, with First Vice-Chair Jonah Garson and Second Vice-Chair Dr. Kimberly Hardy unseating incumbents, while Elijah King won an open race for Third Vice-Chair.