RALEIGH — The weekly protesters at the North Carolina legislature call their charge against Republican policies a moral imperative. But it is a moral imperative replete with a Democratic agenda in an election year.
The "Moral Monday" movement has become a de-facto campaign tool for Democrats to publicize their platform and recruit volunteers to help them win elections. In a year where North Carolina's heated U.S. Senate race can decide the direction of the upper chamber, results will hinge on the movement's ability to translate the voices to votes come November.
Thousands have turned out for the protests in Raleigh over the last year; 1,500 rallied at the kickoff of its second year last week. They're pushing for a repeal of GOP laws on voting and teacher pay along with a Medicaid expansion and more funding for social programs and unemployment benefits.
The state Democratic Party appreciates the help as it rides the "Moral Monday" wave.
"I am very, very grateful that he has picked up the mantle," Casey Mann, executive director of the N.C. Democratic Party, said of the Rev. William Barber, chief organizer of the "Moral Monday" protests. The party has largely been in turmoil since losing control of the legislature in 2010, struggling to raise money, going through two executive directors within a 2-year period, and dealing with an internal divide between activists and establishment leaders.
That mantle was one that needed to be picked up, said Thomas Mills, a Democratic political consultant based in Raleigh.
"I'm not seeing any evidence that they have their act together to do much of anything," he said.
"Moral Monday" is not a tool of the Democratic Party, but it can translate into a re-election of Sen. Hagan and votes for a more Democratic legislature, said Mills. "In order for them to do that they've got to shift 'Moral Monday' from a protest movement into a campaign organization and that's going to take identifying people who's willing to work."
Bringing voters to the polls is a priority, Barber says. The group is launching a campaign across the state this summer, putting organizers in communities to mobilize voters and build local outposts of the "Moral Monday" movement outside of Raleigh.
The state party and North Carolina NAACP do not technically collaborate, but the party's executive board has endorsed "Moral Monday," and sees it as a gathering of the faithful.
Barber has kept a spotlight on the General Assembly and stoked the fires of opposition each week, Mann said.
"Our job is to turn that anger into action," she said.
Barber said any party is welcome to adopt the ideas of his group's movement, but stresses it is not aligned with Democrats or Republicans.
"Our movement is bigger than any party," Barber said. "We are concerned about the soul of this state."
Energizing the Democratic base in Raleigh has had spillover effects, like better engagement of county parties in the midterms, said Mann. It also allows critical candidates like Sen. Kay Hagan, one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the Senate, to focus her campaign efforts on more contested parts of the state.
Hagan has not attended any "Moral Monday" protests because of her commitments in D.C., but the rallies help her campaign highlight where she stands in opposition to House Speaker Thom Tillis, who is trying to unseat her, said her campaign spokeswoman, Sadie Weinert.
"This election between Kay and Thom Tillis is going to be a contrast," she said. "The folks making their voices heard through the 'Moral Monday' movement already understand that contrast and will be helpful messengers in making sure that friends and neighbors understand as well."
Mann, Mills and Weinert all agree that the publicity "Moral Mondays" generate with weekly press accounts of the rallies and issues, only help Democratic campaigns.
But transforming "Moral Mondays" to a ballot box initiative will be a battle Republicans say they'll crush. The party has started a hyper-localized neighbor-to-neighbor canvassing campaign and created a mobile app to generate real time data on voter profiles, said. N.C. GOP spokesman Daniel Keylin.
"They know they're out of the mainstream, they know that William Barber is trying to rev up the base and try to promote pretty fringe left wing policies," Keylin said.