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NC Democrats pick Asheville's Keever as next chair; money and elections are big challenges

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PITTSBORO, North Carolina — A wounded but determined North Carolina Democratic Party promoted its No. 2 leader Saturday to become its next chair, while party leaders looked for unity, campaign funds and ultimately electoral victories in the critical 2016 cycle.

Party activists meeting in Chatham County elected 1st Vice Chair Patsy Keever of Asheville over four other candidates seeking to succeed chairman Randy Voller, who declined to seek a second two-year term. The party said Keever received 369 votes from the 560 members of the State Executive Committee casting ballots in Pittsboro. Second place went to Marshall Adame of Jacksonville, a former congressional candidate, with 169 votes.

Squarely in the minority in state politics for the first time in more than 100 years, Democrats have a big chance to rebound next year, where races for governor, U.S. Senate and president are on the ballot. North Carolina is expected to be a battleground presidential state.

"It matters what happens in North Carolina, so it matters what each of us does," Keever said during her nomination speech. "We have a lot of work to do and I'm ready to get started."

The party's organization struggled during the past two-year cycle, the first since the GOP held control of both the legislature and Executive Mansion for the first time since 1870.

Things began going south for Democrats in the 2010 elections, when Republicans won the General Assembly. The 2011 redistricting helped reinforce Republican gains so the GOP now holds 10 of the 13 U.S. House seats. Republicans now also hold both U.S. Senate seats after Thom Tillis narrowly defeated Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan.

Keever, 67, arrives with the party needing to pay debt that totaled more than $260,000 as of the end of 2014 and bring back big-time donors who have bypassed the party for independent expenditure groups. The former schoolteacher vowed to use her networking skills to bring money back and pointed to the party's "grassroots boots on the ground" as an advantage. Democrats still have 700,000 more registered voters than Republicans.

"I think people are very ready for the Democratic Party to be successful," she told reporters after the meeting. "We've been struggling for years and for a number of reasons — it's not anybody's fault. But I think people are ready to start over, start with a new foot."

Voller was hamstrung by the loss of $1.5 million in annual income tax check-off money when the program was repealed by the Republican-led legislature. But Voller didn't help himself when he fired his executive director early last year, angering local party leaders.

As the majority party for decades, Democrats are more accustomed to holding meetings in hotels and conference centers. The committee for the cash-strapped party held its second straight meeting Saturday in a high school auditorium.

Current Executive Director Casey Mann announced her resignation Saturday in part, she said, to give Voller's successor a clean start at party headquarters. Keever said last week she would hold a national search for the post.

The party tried to rebuild unanimity, as former Chairman David Parker led the crowd in singing "We Are Family" and speakers criticized GOP policies.

"The Republican leadership has taken us down the wrong path at every opportunity, and if we don't stop them now, we will lose decades of progress," said Sen. Valerie Foushee, D-Orange, told the crowd. "We are in desperate need of a Democratic revival."

But Voller, in his departing remarks, told fellow Democrats they needed to face the reality that they "are operating in a different world" politically under GOP rule and that activists who complained about his term as chair now need to write the party checks to support it.

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