RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina Republicans can never remember soaring so high in state government with Pat McCrory entering the Executive Mansion and expanding GOP majorities at the Legislative Building come January.
Democrats can't remember sitting so low.
As the dominant force in North Carolina politics for over a century, Democrats almost always held all the strings of power in Raleigh. They'll all be cut after last week's election. The Democrats' 20-year winning streak for governor is over. They'll hold barely one-third of the Legislature's seats, and Republicans remain the majority on the state Supreme Court.
Democrats also took hits in federal races. North Carolina was the only battleground state President Barack Obama lost in his successful re-election campaign. And Democrats lost at least three U.S. House seats.
"The Democratic Party in North Carolina is as weak as it has ever been as a political power force," veteran North Carolina political researcher John Davis said.
It's left Democrats wondering how they'll maximize what little influence they'll have and how to rebuild their brand in the state. But they're also nervous about whether 2012 was an aberration in a competitive two-party state or the start of a long-term hiatus.
"We're at a crossroads. I don't think anybody knows the answer to this question," said former Democratic Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker, but "there's no question the Democratic Party is going to be going through a retooling process."
The first crack in Democratic dominance in state government opened 40 years ago when Jim Holshouser was elected the first GOP governor since 1901. GOP Gov. Jim Martin served for eight years a decade later, and the state House went Republican in the mid-1990s. The big moment came two years ago, when Republicans won a majority in both legislative chambers for the first time since 1870.
Democrats lost another nine seats in the House and one seat in the Senate on Election Day, meaning Republicans now hold veto-proof majorities in each chamber. Democrats, with just 61 seats in the 170-member Legislature, will have no way to stop GOP policies as long as most Republicans and McCrory are in agreement.
Democrats offer several explanations for their recent setbacks — some out of their control and others self-inflicted.
The slowly recovering economy and low approval numbers for outgoing Gov. Beverly Perdue put Democratic gubernatorial nominee Walter Dalton deep in a hole against McCrory, who narrowly lost to Perdue in 2008. Republicans also got to redraw district maps for the House and Senate and the U.S. House delegation.
"It shows the power of the pen — meaning the redistricting pen — and the power of the purse — meaning having tremendous access to a large amount of campaign money," said Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake, a minority whip. Democrats and their allies have challenged the legality of the maps.
After political scandals over the past decade involving mostly Democratic elected officials, the party also suffered through another this year when the party's executive director resigned after sexual harassment allegations were made against him by an employee.
Party Chairman David Parker, who held onto his post when Perdue, Dalton and others tried to force him out, said Friday the controversy didn't "change the mind of a single voter" but acknowledged there "was definitely an energy drain."
Parker said there were some positives from Election Day. Democrats retained a majority on the Council of State and were extremely well organized for the Obama campaign. Parker said his party's commitment to public education and job creation still align well with the minds of voters.
"I am genuinely optimistic about the Democratic Party because our message is so solid," he said.
Wicker and others say the message has to expand to bring back conservative Democrats and the corporate community, which largely is now siding with Republicans.
House and Senate Democratic caucuses also have to overcome the perception they are anti-business or support higher taxes.
"There is no ideological balance in those caucuses anymore," Davis said. But he added that urban population growth still brings tremendous opportunities for Democrats to rebound in the future.
Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of the liberal-leaning North Carolina Policy Watch, said elected officials in the party have failed to step up after Democratic heavyweights like Sens. Marc Basnight and Tony Rand left the political stage in the past four years.
"It's an opportunity to clear the lot and start over in terms of party infrastructure and strategy and fundraising," Fitzsimon said.
Potential Democratic standard bearers could include Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx and State Treasurer Janet Cowell. It's unclear whether Attorney General Roy Cooper will take a more prominent party role or consider a gubernatorial run in 2016. Others believe Parker is still the problem and want him out. He said he hasn't decided whether he'll run for chairman again in a few months.
Republicans who served in the minority for years cautioned Democrats against being too intensely partisan, or risk failing to accomplish things for constituents.
"The member has to decide whether to be effective in the body, or do they want to be a politico," said former House Speaker Harold Brubaker, who was just one of six Republicans in the House when he arrived in the chamber in 1977.
Democrats acknowledge political victories will be rare.
"Is it going to be pleasant? No, but I've always said there's always a dignity to being in the minority party," Ross said, "so we'll go forward. We have no choice."