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She’s 25, idealistic, and believes she has the formula to win North Carolina for Joe Biden

The state’s Democratic Party chair is organizing youth and rural voters, and people have noticed: “They know she’s fighting for them.”

At 25 years old, Anderson Clayton could pass for a college student. The North Carolina Democratic Party chair’s persona is reinforced by the bag slung over the shoulder, her colorful overalls and bright yellow Croc sandals, the half-consumed Venti iced coffee in her hand, and the youthful southern drawl with which she speaks.

But she’s not a student. She’s the linchpin for Democrats winning over her state. And a lot of pressure is now falling on her after she ousted a 73-year-old-incumbent with the backing of a number of top state Democrats earlier this year.

There are a lot of unknowns, too: Whether the vigor she brings to the job is enough to overcome her lack of experience for it; whether the national fascination in her as the youngest chair in the country will be justified. It’s not just reporters who have taken notice. Biden campaign officials speak of her as a rising Democratic star.

Clayton has a theory for how to get North Carolina — which Joe Biden lost to Donald Trump in 2020 by just 1.4 percentage points — to turn blue. She wants to tap into colleges and universities in North Carolina, and she wants a presence felt in even the reddest, most rural parts of the Tar Heel state, with a personal goal of visiting all 100 counties by the end of the year. She obsessively points to the same stat over and over again: In 2022, Democrats lost 44 state legislative seats to Republicans without putting a candidate on the ballot. She vows it won’t happen again.

“I was just in Brunswick County — which is one of the reddest counties in the state that we got — and a guy named Charles Jones, who’s a Black union member, looked at me and said, ‘I’m running for office because I heard you on the radio,’” Clayton says in an interview. “It is working. Just telling people what happened last cycle and saying, ‘We’re not taking it anymore,’ is a battle cry.”

At the state Democratic Party's headquarters, the Goodwin House, letters from voters and Democrats, including President Joe Biden, fill Clayton's office.

As for the formula to achieve her theory, well that, in part, goes back to Clayton herself. She believes she can outwork the competition. At the historic Goodwin House Democratic headquarters, she walks briskly through the building, transferring piles of “Vote like Democracy depends on it” koozies into her tote bag to bring to North Carolina State University.

She spends much of her week similarly in motion: Driving her dented Honda CRV from county to county across North Carolina and making fundraising calls in between stops. Her small house where she lives with her cat, Elle, about an hour north of Raleigh, serves as homebase. On the road, she checks in with her county chairs to see what they’re hearing on the ground and what they may need from her. When she does finally return home, she logs on to her computer to finish up work for her part-time nonprofit job as a broadband analyst so she can pay the bills.

She knows it’s a big bet she’s making: That a reservoir of energy, a lot of direct engagement and, yes, a touch of political idealism can win over a state that hasn’t voted for a Democratic president since Barack Obama in 2008. She doesn’t downplay the enormity of the task.

During a scorching late-August Friday on N.C. State’s campus, as she mans a tent to recruit volunteers and dances to the music blasting on the loudspeaker, a student asks if she could sign up.

“Baby, yes you can,” Clayton replies. “And we’d love for you to because Republicans here are trying to beat the shit out of us.”

Clayton spent her brief time on this planet in places Democrats abandoned. She grew up in Roxboro, a city of 8,000 people north of Raleigh. She left there for Appalachian State University in 2015, telling herself she’d never return.

“I had a gay best friend growing up in Roxboro when I was younger, and I had a lot of friends that were in interracial relationships. You understood growing up in a place like that in a rural area, racism is still very prevalent there,” Clayton says. “I felt like I was running from rural North Carolina in a way. I always felt like I had to get out of there.”

But she kept getting sent back.

In Watauga County, where she attended Appalachian state, Clayton got involved with the party. And though Donald Trump won the state in 2016, Watauga County flipped blue for Hillary Clinton for the first time since 2008, giving Clayton her first taste of grassroots organizing.

After graduation, she joined Kamala Harris’ campaign, being placed in Belle Plaine, Iowa. She was told to find Democrats in the city of 2,300. When Harris dropped out, she signed on for Elizabeth Warren’s campaign, again in Iowa before shifting to Tennessee. Having not had her fill of losing campaigns, she then moved to Pikeville, Ky., to work as a rural field organizer on Amy McGrath’s Senate race against Mitch McConnell. It ended just as Harris and Warren’s efforts had.

Despite the series of losses, Clayton drew what she says are valuable lessons: The importance of grassroots organizing; the need for national investment to build necessary party infrastructure on the ground. That culture matters. That showing up matters.

Clayton didn’t feel that she had the buy-in from the McGrath campaign to organize the way she wanted — by knocking on every door, talking to every voter, especially in the rural parts of the state Democrats treated like a lost cause. And though that campaign and outside groups spent nearly $100 million on the race, Clayton said they weren’t able to put the lasting infrastructure on the ground that local Democrats needed in years to come.

At North Carolina State University, Anderson Clayton prepares a table of stickers, koozies and sign-up sheets for students on campus.

She left knowing she hadn’t reached everyone she wanted to in rural Kentucky. Some voters told her they feared getting involved with the Democratic Party because it could cost them their jobs.

“I just had seen an area that was so deprived of investment in a way that I thought that mattered,” Clayton said. She feels Gov. Andy Beshear, the incumbent Democrat now running for reelection in Kentucky, has done “an amazing job” in building up the political infrastructure in the eastern part of that state. “But it was really hard to see in 2020. And I was really disillusioned with the national party after that.”

It was after 2020 that Clayton decided to go home to Roxboro. She went looking for the Person County Democrats but couldn’t find much aside from a scheduled Zoom meeting, which happened to be the county convention.

Clayton joined the meeting and saw eight other people on her computer screen. The county party’s chair told the group he was stepping down, and that someone had to take on the role. No one raised their hand.

“And then I said, ‘I will, like if y’all will trust me with it. I’m from here,’” she recalled, laughing at what she describes as the “funniest Zoom” she’s ever joined.

All eight members voted her in, and the secretary told her, “good luck kid.”

Clayton found an office space, registered the county on Democratic-online-donation portal ActBlue and updated the local website. She scrapped the county’s Democratic donkey branding for a “rural matters” slogan, and started hosting “food truck Fridays.” She found three Black Democrats to run for city council, handed out yard signs and knocked on 600 doors with the candidates several times, flipping the Roxboro City Council in 2021. She went on to help flip her district’s state legislative seat in 2022.

It was then that she decided to run for statewide party chair. She was 24. It seemed insane, as she faced opposition from every wing of the state party.

“People told her she was too young and that she could never do this. And I was probably one of those people because you work your way up. You start at the local level, maybe become a city council or town council member, then you may be a state legislator, and then in 10 years when you’re 35 or 40, you run for chair of the Democratic Party or for some statewide office,” said Phillip Ardoin, a Appalachian State political science professor who served as Clayton’s faculty adviser.

“But she believed she could … And I think it’s what the North Carolina party needed was a jolt of youth and energy.”

Clayton’s opponent, Bobbie Richardson, the state’s first Black Democratic chair, had the backing of Gov. Roy Cooper, state Attorney General Josh Stein and all seven Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation. But Clayton worked the phones, reaching out to all 600 or so members of the state executive committee, which governs the party and elects its leader. She met with state legislators, who grilled her for hours on her plans for the party.

State Sen. Natalie Murdock, a member of the state executive committee, is a close friend of Richardson — the two were sorority sisters.

“I knew [Richardson] worked her butt off,” Murdock said. “But there was an atmosphere for change … it was a change year.”

Winning the election was one thing. Delivering on her vision is another. It could take years for the party to reclaim lost ground with rural voters. And in 2024, it’s not clear whether Democratic gains in suburban and urban areas, alongside demographic changes in the state, can overcome gerrymandering — Republican lawmakers are expected to release new maps that heavily favor their party in the coming weeks.

Clayton knows this. She tells Democrats that she sees the rebuilding of their party as a “slow game,” one that looks beyond next year and all the way to 2030, when she hopes Democrats can take back a chamber of the legislature and have power over the process of redistricting. Right now, she’s tackling the basics first: just showing up.

“When I’m going to various corners of the state, people know who she is,” Murdock said. “They know she’s fighting for them, and to me, a state chair, you really are the face of the party. You’re there to say we can do it. You’re there to be the cheerleader in chief.”

Back in Raleigh, Clayton darts from N.C. State’s campus back to the Goodwin House to curl her hair and swap her colorful overalls for a brown polka dot dress and heels. As she heads for the door, she stops to talk with the Granville County Democratic Party chair and pencil in some time on her calendar for another event. Then she grabs her bag and hops in her car, weaving through highway traffic to an Iredell County Dems event 2.5 hours away in Statesville.

She is six months into the new job but aware of the chatter about her age and the whispers about her political future.

“You come to a door and you gotta figure out whether or not you’re going to walk through it. I’m still running down the hallway, you know what I mean? I don’t know if I’m ever going to find a door. I might break through a window if I’ve got to, but I don’t know,” she says.

Anderson Clayton makes her way to the Young Democrats' tent at North Carolina State University.

In Statesville, Clayton walks into the dinner a few minutes late. A broad grin spreads across her face as she calls out the names of familiar faces.

Hours later, Clayton’s plate of fried chicken and baked beans is barely touched. She’s the keynote speaker that night. And as she walks to the front of the room, she almost loses her shoe, drawing laughs from the crowd as she makes fun of herself. Once on stage, she grasps the lectern and her fiery voice fills the room as she asks: If their party doesn’t offer voters choices on the ballot, who will?

“I’m going to work as hard as I can in this election cycle in making sure that everyone knows that we value your vote, we value your voice, and we want to make sure that you are getting from us what you need this year.” Clayton tells the crowd. “Because I know that folks in Iredell County, and folks in Dare county and everywhere else that I have been recently didn’t get that last cycle. I know that. And I’m here to fix it.”

It’s almost 11 p.m. when Clayton tells the room she’ll stick around to answer any questions. She’s usually the last one to arrive and the last one to leave. On Saturday, in less than 12 hours, she’s scheduled to be an hour and a half away in Mitchell County for an event before she has an afternoon lunch with the party chair of Madison County. Then she’ll jump in her car once again to attend an annual fundraiser for the Burke County Democrats. Her Sunday looks no different.

She’s 25. She’s trying to revive her party. Rest will come later.

Source: Politico