North Carolina Governor Grapples With Biggest Reelection Roadblocks: Republican Legislators

Just like in last year’s U.S. Senate race, the North Carolina legislature’s raft of conservative legislation has endangered Gov. Pat McCrory in 2016.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory
National Journal
May 7, 2015, 4 p.m.

North Car­o­lina Gov. Pat Mc­Crory is ready­ing for one of the most com­pet­it­ive gubernat­ori­al races of 2016, and two years in­to his first term, Mc­Crory is still try­ing to smooth over his greatest vul­ner­ab­il­ity: not his Demo­crat­ic op­pon­ent, but his rocky re­la­tion­ship with con­ser­vat­ives in the North Car­o­lina le­gis­lature.

Mc­Crory is a mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­an and former may­or of Char­lotte, and when he took of­fice in 2013, he was steam­rolled by con­ser­vat­ive lead­ers in the le­gis­lature eager to push their agenda after spend­ing dec­ades in the minor­ity. While there’s some evid­ence the re­la­tion­ship is bet­ter now, the head­ache hasn’t totally gone away, and it could leave an open­ing for Demo­crat­ic At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Roy Cooper, his likely op­pon­ent.

Right now, a con­tro­ver­sial abor­tion bill is cur­rently work­ing its way through the state Sen­ate, and the fate of Mc­Crory’s big hope for the year—put­ting $3 bil­lion worth of trans­port­a­tion and in­fra­struc­ture bond meas­ures on the statewide bal­lot—re­mains un­cer­tain. Statewide bond meas­ures must first be ap­proved by the Gen­er­al As­sembly be­fore they can go to voters.

Just as con­ser­vat­ive le­gis­la­tion and in­tra-Re­pub­lic­an fights in Raleigh threatened Re­pub­lic­an Thom Tillis’s Sen­ate run in 2014, they could hamper Mc­Crory next year. The Raleigh News & Ob­serv­er re­cently pre­dicted: “How well Mc­Crory nav­ig­ates the Gen­er­al As­sembly will dic­tate how much of his agenda he can ac­com­plish—and po­s­i­tion him­self for reelec­tion in 2016.”

This is not a new is­sue for the gov­ernor. In 2013, be­fore Mc­Crory had time to fully lay out his agenda or even staff up the gov­ernor’s of­fice, Re­pub­lic­an le­gis­lat­ors passed a series of re­stric­tions on vot­ing rights and abor­tion, and they made cuts to edu­ca­tion and un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits that sparked pas­sion­ate protests and at­trac­ted na­tion­al at­ten­tion. More than 40 per­cent of Demo­crat­ic TV ads in last year’s Sen­ate race fo­cused on edu­ca­tion after those cuts; for a time, it looked like they would cost Tillis the race. Mc­Crory’s ap­prov­al rat­ing has fallen to­ward the le­gis­lature’s low rat­ing in that time, too.

In a sense, the abor­tion meas­ure pending in the state Sen­ate “is kind of a mi­cro­cosm of what’s been go­ing on dur­ing [Mc­Crory’s] time as gov­ernor,” ac­cord­ing to Cooper ad­viser Mor­gan Jack­son.

The abor­tion meas­ure would triple the re­quired wait peri­od for wo­men seek­ing abor­tions from 24 to 72 hours. Wait peri­ods are not un­com­mon, but the length of this one would be un­usu­al. Ac­cord­ing to the Kais­er Fam­ily Found­a­tion, 26 states have wait peri­od re­quire­ments, but only three states en­force a 72-hour wait peri­od. The bill already passed through the state House and is ex­pec­ted to come up for a vote in the Sen­ate in the com­ing days or weeks.

Mc­Crory won’t say wheth­er he plans to veto the bill. He has gen­er­ally proven un­will­ing to veto le­gis­la­tion he dis­agrees with, in­stead opt­ing to let items be­come law without his sig­na­ture.

Dur­ing his time as gov­ernor, Mc­Crory has of­ten been forced to fall in line be­hind the agenda of Re­pub­lic­an le­gis­lat­ors (in­stead of the oth­er way around) or risk ali­en­at­ing him­self from more con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers of his own party. But there have been no­tice­able changes for Mc­Crory dur­ing this year’s le­gis­lat­ive ses­sion re­l­at­ive to years past, which could of­fer evid­ence that he’s ex­ert­ing more in­flu­ence as he’s gained ex­per­i­ence—and the 2016 elec­tion draws closer.

The Mc­Crory ad­min­is­tra­tion was able to strip out a more con­tro­ver­sial sec­tion of the abor­tion bill that would have barred med­ic­al schools as­so­ci­ated with the state uni­versity sys­tem from provid­ing abor­tion ser­vices. The gov­ernor also voiced his op­pos­i­tion to a re­li­gious free­dom bill in­tro­duced this year that was sim­il­ar to the one passed in In­di­ana, and the bill was sub­sequently tabled.

Some see this as a change in strategy on Mc­Crory’s part. He’s been voicing his opin­ion on con­tro­ver­sial meas­ures earli­er in the le­gis­lat­ive pro­cess, and has been more act­ive in try­ing to shape out­comes by at­tend­ing com­mit­tee hear­ings and in­vit­ing law­makers to meet with him.

Mc­Crory sup­port­ers are eager to give the gov­ernor cred­it for these less tu­mul­tu­ous times. Even if the abor­tion bill be­comes law, it ap­pears to be one of few con­tro­ver­sial meas­ures that might make it out of ses­sion, re­l­at­ive to the cas­cade of con­tro­versy that reigned down two years ago. “He’s work­ing the polit­ic­al side of this job as good as I’ve seen him work it since he got in of­fice,” former Mc­Crory strategist Chris Sin­clair said. “He’s found his sea legs.”

Oth­ers, however, don’t ne­ces­sar­ily see it that way, in­clud­ing oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans. One prom­in­ent North Car­o­lina GOP op­er­at­ive, who re­ques­ted an­onym­ity in or­der to speak freely, thinks Mc­Crory’s re­la­tion­ship with the le­gis­lature ac­tu­ally has de­teri­or­ated: “I think if any­thing it’s got­ten worse, in his deal­ing with the le­gis­lature, and there’s just more bad blood. I think it’s par­tially ideo­logy, but it’s more per­son­al­ity.”

That par­tic­u­lar op­er­at­ive poin­ted to a law­suit that Mc­Crory filed against the le­gis­lature last year seek­ing more con­sti­tu­tion­al au­thor­ity to make ap­point­ments as evid­ence that the power struggle is real, and on­go­ing.

The op­er­at­ive also noted that some ele­ments of the gov­ernor’s dif­fer­ences with le­gis­lat­ive lead­ers are likely in­tract­able. As a former big-city may­or, Mc­Crory as­sumed of­fice with the in­terests of the state’s urb­an areas in mind, while most Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers hail from rur­al areas. Their pri­or­it­ies per­en­ni­ally clash, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing de­bates over eco­nom­ic in­cent­ives and how to al­loc­ate the state’s tax dol­lars.

Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ant Thomas Mills thinks le­gis­lat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans de­serve more cred­it than Mc­Crory for the re­l­at­ively co­oper­at­ive im­age they’ve been able to pro­ject re­cently. “Every­body in the le­gis­lature un­der­stands he’s run­ning for reelec­tion and they’re not go­ing to stick their thumb in his eye like they did in 2013,” Mills said.

If Mc­Crory con­tin­ues to get bogged down in con­tro­ver­sial items pushed by the le­gis­lature, his reelec­tion pro­spects could be in ser­i­ous danger. Cooper is ex­pec­ted to present a cred­ible chal­lenge, and most pub­lic polls have shown the pair run­ning neck-and-neck. But it’s what hap­pens dur­ing the le­gis­lat­ive ses­sion, be­fore Cooper even an­nounces his cam­paign, that could pose the biggest threat to Mc­Crory’s reelec­tion hopes.

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