North Carolina Democrats may be on the verge of becoming relevant again.
The Democrats have had a diminishing voice in Raleigh since Republicans won control of the legislature in the Tea-Party inspired GOP landslide in 2010.
In recent years, the Democrats have often been relegated to little more than bystanders – or demonstrators at Moral Monday protests – as Republicans engineered what then House Speaker Thom Tillis, now a U.S. senator, termed “a conservative revolution.”
Republicans had moved North Carolina – historically among the most moderate Southern states – in a markedly more conservative direction in recent years on a whole range of issues including taxes, unemployment insurance, voter ID, abortion, environmental protection, gun rights, charter schools and so forth.
But with Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper having led in Election Day returns for governor, that Republican tide may be slowed. We will have to await the counting of the provisional ballots – and perhaps a recount – before we know for certain that Cooper has defeated Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.
But in what was a bad election for Democrats, Cooper’s prospects for regaining the Executive Mansion are a bright spot for the battered party.
If Cooper is elected, Republicans will remain the dominant force in Raleigh, with a veto-proof supermajority in the legislature. But a Democratic governor would have both a bully pulpit, and leverage through control of the executive branch, to influence public policy.
If the Democrats are ever to make a comeback, this would be an important first step.
The other major gain for the Democrats was winning a N.C. Supreme Court seat, tilting the court from a 4-3 Republican majority to a 4-3 Democratic majority.
Party affiliation should have no bearing on decisions regarding the law, but there have been a number of party-line votes on politically sensitive cases, suggesting the court has become more politicized. Mike Morgan, a Democratic Superior Court judge, defeated Republican Associate Justice Bob Edmunds in a race in which party affiliation was not listed.
For Democrats, that at least holds out the possibility that there will be independent judicial review of some of the new laws passed by the Republican legislature.
If Cooper ends up defeating McCrory, it will in some ways be rather remarkable. McCrory ran during a year when the economy had rebounded from the recession, and during a very good Republican year led by a strong showing by GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump at the top of the ticket. McCrory would be the first North Carolina governor defeated for re-election.
But McCrory damaged his prospects when he became the public face of House Bill 2, which was passed earlier this year by the legislature. HB2 eliminated Charlotte anti-discrimination protections for gays and transgender people and requires that people in government facilities use only restrooms and changing facilities that correspond with the sex on their birth certificate. The law also prevents N.C. municipalities from enacting anti-discriminatory laws.
The law prompted a national boycott against the state, which Forbes Magazine estimated has cost the state at least $630 million since March.
The issue undermined the McCrory re-election campaign narrative that the economy had improved under his watch – what he termed The Carolina Comeback.
Compounding McCrory’s messaging problem was Trump, who campaigned across the state telling voters how bad things were.
“Your companies won’t be leaving our country under a Trump administration, they’ll be staying right here,” Trump said in Greensboro in October. “And believe me, there are plenty of them right now negotiating to leave, I hate to tell you that.”
Statewide polls have suggested that most North Carolina voters don’t believe they are better off, even though statistics suggest they are.
McCrory had other problems as well. He was at a financial disadvantage in getting his message out. Cooper outraised him $22 million to $14 million, almost unheard of for a challenger. McCrory refused to cancel an unpopular toll-road project on Interstate 77 in the Charlotte area. He took a hit for his handling of the 2014 coal ash spill. There seemed to be a stature gap, as he was repeatedly pushed around by a Republican legislature.
All of this left an opening for the beginnings of a Democratic comeback.
Rob Christensen has covered politics for The News & Observer of Raleigh for nearly four decades, and is also the author of The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.