Alexander H. Jones: How Jeff Jackson is winning NC politics

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 23, 2024

By Alexander H. Jones

When he entered politics, Jeff Jackson appeared to quickly be approaching the doorstep to greatness. He was appointed to the state Senate at the young age of 31, joining a body where the Baby Boom generation was normative and where even working parents were a rare presence. The spirited newcomer’s contributions were sufficiently dazzling that some observers of state politics believed he had the wherewithal to become president.

While he remained immensely popular among Democratic activists, Jackson’s stock fell significantly in establishment circles during his first few terms in the General Assembly. Jackson’s colleagues developed a view of the upstart Millennial as something of a self-aggrandizing arriviste. Powerful Republican Danny Britt felt comfortable issuing a plain statement to Politico that Jeff Jackson was a “show horse.” Whether or not this skepticism was fairly earned, the young Senator from Charlotte had become relatively unpopular in Raleigh’s insider firmament.

But while the state’s panjandrums regarded him with a jaded remove, Jackson was building a powerful connection with young voters and highly engaged Democrats across the state. His critics had failed to appreciate Jackson’s unique gifts as a communicator. Clever publicity displays like his famous “Snow Day Legislative Session” helped Jackson to garner attention early in his career. But a deeper talent allowed him to attract enthusiastic admirers across the state and even the country. Jackson resonated with people because he accomplished something that many Millennial politicians aspire to achieve. He came across as a real person, not a plastic politico. This authenticity allowed him to communicate with people on their level and win their admiration and trust.

Jackson’s growing support delivered rewards during his 2022 Senate campaign. Despite the skepticism with which his candidacy was greeted in establishment circles, Jackson elicited giddy enthusiasm as he toured the state. He brought out remarkable crowds nearly everywhere he campaigned. In conservative Johnston County, over 150 people were moved to hear him speak. Even in the single most conservative county in the state — blood-red Yadkin — almost three dozen people braved the stigma attached to liberalism in rural areas to attend the Democrat’s town hall. When his 100-county tour concluded, Jackson summoned another wave of energy with a college tour. He proved that his political following was concrete and enthusiastic, and he earned genuine appreciation from establishment Democrats by withdrawing from the race when it became clear that the only way to defeat frontrunner Cheri Beasley would be to “go negative,” likely weakening her candidacy in the fall.

Jackson had enhanced his stature tremendously. He easily won a congressional seat in the Charlotte area by defeating an aggressive challenger who (like Jackson) had served in Special Operations and who (decidedly unlike Jackson) owned a gun-manufacturing business. By the time of his entry into Congress, Jackson had dispelled most of the skepticism around his politics and become a respected political communicator. The state’s hardline authoritarian legislature ended his Congressional stint with their latest gerrymandered assault on democracy. But Jackson now had the stature to enter the race for attorney general with solid establishment support. He defeated a strong challenger in the primary and became a prized member of the Democratic slate.

Jackson’s rise to elite status represents one of the more remarkable feats in recent North Carolina political history. And it seems auspicious. Jeff Jackson has the opportunity to be a prominent figure in American politics for decades because of his popularity with young voters, the future of the electorate. Partly his popularity with them reflects the fact that he is himself much younger than his political rivals. Jackson and I are both Millennials, and we grew up more comfortable with digital technology than Gen-X, Boomer and Silent Generation voters. But Jackson’s young voter following stems from something more than that. The difference between our generation and the youngest voters — Generation Z — is profound, and Jackson has an uncanny ability to connect with that unprecedented cohort. They will inherit the electorate, and assuming he defeats bigot Dan Bishop this year, Jeff Jackson will have made a dynamite debut as one of their favorite leaders in politics.

Alexander H. Jones is a policy analyst with Carolina Forward. He lives in Carrboro. Have feedback? Reach him at