Could North Carolina Lead A 'Red-State Resurgence'?

Aug 2, 2013

Pat McCrory hasn't fared too well with protesters.

The Republican governor of North Carolina has signed off on a vast array of conservative legislation this year, cutting taxes, slashing unemployment benefits and abolishing teacher tenure. So much change so fast has led to protests, including "Moral Monday" events staged at the capitol a dozen weeks in a row by the NAACP.

McCrory said last month he was "cussed" out by those protesters, but it turned out he hadn't met with them. Earlier this week, he dropped off a plate of cookies for women protesting new abortion restrictions, but they gave them back.

"Hey, Pat, that was rude, you wouldn't give cookies to a dude," they chanted.

The rafter of new laws enacted in the state last year has earned McCrory plenty of negative press, including critical coverage not only in The New York Times and Washington Post, but in state newspapers and blogs as well.

But in Raleigh, it's not at all clear how much any of this is hurting the governor. Democrats, of course, are unhappy — but they don't control the votes. After more than a century of Democratic domination, Republicans hold not just the governorship, but supermajorities in both legislative chambers as well.

North Carolina has long had a reputation for being perhaps the most progressive state in the South. Now, it may more closely resemble its neighbors. Throughout the region over the past 20 years, states that were long controlled by Democrats have almost entirely turned over power to the GOP — and then stayed that way.

"My view is that North Carolina will be leading the red-state resurgence," says Marc Rotterman, a GOP media strategist in the state. "I think McCrory is going to end up being one of the most popular governors in the country."

Democrats Set The Stage

Rotterman is a partisan and his predictions may come as a surprise, given the spate of critical attention the state's received. After all, from a national perspective, North Carolina has been looking more ripe for Democrats, not less.

In 2008, Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state in 32 years. McCrory, then the mayor of Charlotte, narrowly lost in his first bid for governor — a loss he personally blamed Obama for at a White House meeting the president held with mayors shortly after taking office in 2009.

Last fall, Obama narrowly lost North Carolina, one of two states (along with Indiana) he failed to carry a second time in his re-election bid.

But the president's not the only Democrat whose fortunes have fallen in the state. Everyone knows about the sex scandal that ended the career of former Democratic Sen. John Edwards.

Democrats in Raleigh have suffered other embarrassments in recent years, however, including Mike Easley becoming the first North Carolina governor to admit to a felony and Jim Black, a former Democratic state House speaker, being sent to the federal pen.

David Parker, then the state party chairman, was shunted aside because of his handling of a sexual harassment case, just as Democrats were holding their national convention in Charlotte last year.

"There had been some Democrat fatigue, there's no question about it," says Gibbs Knotts, co-author of The New Politics of North Carolina. "If something was going wrong in Raleigh, you knew who was to blame."

Republicans Take Control

Republicans have been able to take full advantage of dissatisfaction with the old Democratic regime. In 2010, they took control of both chambers of the Legislature for the first time since 1870.

Although Democrat Bev Perdue was still governor, the GOP was able to get its way on many issues. House Speaker Thom Tillis was fond of keeping veto override messages under glass on a table in his office as trophies.

Last fall, the GOP was able to win its supermajorities, thanks in part to aggressive redistricting, and McCrory finally captured the governorship.

"Having government agencies that are cooperative, versus working with an executive branch that wants to veto whatever you're doing, is a completely different ballgame," says GOP state Rep. Tom Murry.

Republicans this year have been able to slash taxes and spending, impose voter ID restrictions and change the state's death penalty rules. Democrats are convinced they've overplayed their hand.

"We're a 50-50 state, and the presidential race shows that, but it's a 70-30 Legislature," says Gary Pierce, a longtime Democratic consultant. "Long term, I don't think that will last."

Waiting For A Backlash

Democrats took heart from recent polling that showed McCrory's approval rating slipping into negative territory. They hope that voter backlash against GOP policies will boost the re-election chances of Sen. Kay Hagan next year.

Even if conditions are favorable in 2014, however, they might not have much hope of eating into the Republican majorities, in part because current state legislative districts are heavily tilted toward the GOP.

"The next election is a midterm, and in a lower turnout situation, the Republicans are going to do a little better," says Knotts, who recently left the state to teach at the College of Charleston. "It's almost like the backlash could be muted somewhat."

For many people in Raleigh, the question is not whether the GOP will lose its majority, but whether McCrory can alter the Legislature's conservative bent — if he even wants to. Most observers say that the Legislature has driven the action during the governor's term thus far.

"They had two years of developing an agenda and knowing what they wanted to do, with a governor who had no statewide experience," says Ran Coble, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research. "They had a two years' running head start on him."

Problems Are Possible

As mayor and in his two campaigns, McCrory presented a more moderate face than he's offered as governor. And the demographics of the state suggest some possible challenges, given the substantial black population, a growing Hispanic one and more growth in the more liberal urban areas than rural counties.

"McCrory is not protected in any way by a district," Knotts says. "His district is the state of North Carolina, and that's the same state that's been very close in the last couple of presidential elections."

Still, it's a long time before McCrory will have to face voters. Plenty of governors have engendered more controversy in their first year than McCrory and bounced back to win.

"The left shouldn't be surprised at all," says Rotterman, the Republican strategist.

"The Republicans were elected overwhelmingly, they said what their agenda was going to be and they executed it," he says. "If they really want to get change, they should get their people elected."

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