Before my husband and I moved to North Carolina a year ago, we’d lived in some of the bluest of the blue states–New York, Illinois, California, and Washington. Coming here, we expected to find some cultural differences, but took heart in the idea that while North Carolina was technically located in the south, it wasn’t part of “The South.” That is, it wasn’t the deep south like Alabama, or Mississippi, or even South Carolina. After all, Obama had eked out a victory in North Carolina in 2008, so how red could it be?
As it turns out, very red. For now. Steve Benen opines that the North Carolina provides an excellent case study of what “conservatives gone wild” looks like at the state level, where Republicans have managed push through large parts their aggressively conservative agenda. But, here in North Carolina, they’re fighting unfavorable demographics, which will likely render most of their present victories pyrrhic.
The 2010 Elections
In 2010, the GOP took control of both the state House and Senate–the first time it had held a majority in the Senate since 1898. They were abetted in their victory by the man dubbed “The Third Koch Brother“–Art Pope, who heads up both the family-owned Variety Wholesalers and the $150 million Pope Family Foundation. Pope’s organizations poured $2.2 million into 22 state legislature races, winning 18 for an 82% return on his investment. His groups accounted for 75% of independent spending in those races.
The Republicans’ big win happened just in time for redistricting, allowing them to consolidate their gains, especially given that, by law, Democratic Governor Beverly Perdue could not veto their redesign. Republicans took full advantage of their opportunity, gerrymandering the state map to pack as many Democrats as possible into three congressional districts, one of which, the 12th, literally snakes from Charlotte to Greensboro to include a majority black area of Greensboro. These efforts paid off in the 2012 congressional elections. The state’s delegation in the House of Representatives changed from majority Democratic (7-6) to majority Republican (8-5), a pick-up of two seats.
Republicans also bedeviled Governor Perdue, who vetoed 19 bills in two years, only to have 11 of those vetoes overridden. These included:
- the “Women’s Right to Know Act,” which required women seeking an abortion to wait for 24 hours, to receive state-specified counseling on the risks involved in the procedure, and to submit to an ultrasound;
- a partial rollback of the 2009 Racial Justice Act, “which allowed death-row inmates to have their sentences reduced to life in prison if they could prove racial bias influenced the outcome of their cases”;
- a regulatory reform act that limited when and how state agencies could issue rules; and
- a bill creating a pathway to make fracking legal.
The 2012 Republican Triumph
The Republicans’ brightest moment came during the 2012 elections, when one of their own (Pat McCrory, who’d served as mayor of Charlotte from 1995-2009) was elected governor, giving them full control over both the legislative and executive branches. Pope again played a crucial role in this election, spending more than $2 million, which helped provide a Republican supermajority in the House and bought him a position as state budget director.
You never would have guessed that McCrory was a Republican from the campaign he ran. I initially assumed he was the Democratic candidate because his early TV commercials touted his ability to reach across partisan lines and never bothered to mention his party affiliation. His deepest concern seemed to be rebuilding the economy by making the state more friendly to business interests. McCrory, who had a reputation as a moderate, faced nominal Democratic opposition and sailed to a ten-point victory, opening the floodgates for the Republican House and Senate to pass all kinds of legislation guaranteed to put smiles on the faces of hardcore conservatives, but to make just about everyone else unhappy. Here are some of the highlights:
- A “reform” of unemployment compensation that reduced the number of weeks unemployed people are eligible for state-funded unemployment benefits to 19 (the national average is 26) and slashed the maximum weekly benefit by about one-third. The latter provision caused the state’s long-term unemployed to lose access to the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program, which prohibits states who wish to participate in the program from cutting weekly benefits. As a result of the legislation, North Carolina–which has the fifth highest unemployment rate in the nation–became “the only state in the union with no safety net for the long-term jobless.” Hooray for us!
- A full repeal of the 2009 Racial Justice Act, which throws current cases into legal limbo and makes it likely that the state’s moratorium on executing death-row inmates, in force since 2006, will soon end.
- Legislation requiring health educators to teach seventh graders that abortion might cause preterm birth, even though scientific proof for this proposition is sketchy at best.
- An anti-abortion measure–amended to a House motorcycle safety bill at the 11th hour without public notice–that requires clinics that perform abortions to meet the same standards as outpatient surgery centers. Because an ambulatory surgery center costs about $1 million more than an abortion clinic to build, opponents estimate that all but one of the state’s 16 abortion providers will close. The law also requires that doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, prohibits abortions for the purpose of gender selection, and bans publicly funded insurance plans from paying for most abortions. McCrory, who’d promised during the campaign not to approve any legislation further restricting abortion, signed the bill anyway, stating that it didn’t limit women’s access to the procedure but merely made it safer for them.
- And the piece de resistance, new voting legislation that critics have described as among most suppressive in the nation. The bill sports an aptly Orwellian name, the Restore Confidence in Government Act. Republicans claim that it will combat voter fraud, not that they offered evidence that widespread, or indeed any, voter fraud actually exists in the state. But to ensure it doesn’t happen, voters will now be required to show specific government-issued photo ID cards (no student IDs, no public employee badges), which could keep as many as 300,000 people from the polls. The legislation also eliminates same-day registration, cuts early voting by a week, makes it easier for conservative “watchdog” groups like True the Vote to challenge voters at the polls, greatly increases both the number of poll watchers and what they’re allowed to do, and prevents county officials from extending voting by an hour in case of long lines or other extraordinary circumstances, among other things. McCrory has promised to sign it, even though he hasn’t yet read key sections of the bill.
At least the Second Amendment is safe in North Carolina. Thank goodness. We’re now allowed to carry concealed weapons into bars (guns and alcohol being a winning combination), keep them locked in our cars on any public university or school campus, and bring them with us to playgrounds, greenways, and other public recreation areas. I know I feel safer.
The Vocal Opposition
The Republicans’ opponents have not gone silently into that good night. Instead they’ve raged, albeit respectfully. For the past thirteen Mondays, demonstrators by the thousands have filled the mall outside the General Assembly building in Raleigh to protest the policies put forth by the legislature and approved by the Governor. The last “Moral Monday,” as these events are called, drew more protesters than ever, despite the fact legislators had left for summer vacation three days earlier.
Since the beginning of the demonstrations some three months ago, more than 900 people have been arrested. Initially started to protest the proposed voter ID bill, Moral Mondays have grown into, as Bob Zellner describes them, “a multiracial, multi-issue movement centered around social justice.”
Last week, educators joined the fray to protest the latest budget signed by McCrory. As reported by Nick Wing in The Huffington Post:
The bill didn’t include raises for the state’s teachers, [who] are already among the lowest-paid in the country. It also effectively ended teacher tenure, eliminated bonuses for educators with higher degrees and approved $20 million for “opportunity scholarships” that opponents say looks like a school voucher system.
Moral Mondays won’t be ending anytime soon. The Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP and one of the main organizers of the demonstrations, has vowed to take the protest to each of the state’s 13 congressional districts, starting on August 5th in Asheville. According to Barber, the goal of Moral Mondays “is to dramatize the shameful condition of our state.”
The Moral Monday folks aren’t alone in their protests. Last Monday and Tuesday, Planned Parenthood and its supporters organized two twelve-hour vigils outside the governor’s mansion to protest the abortion regulations McCrory signed into law on July 30th. McCrory, who refused to speak with protesters (but did personally offer them a plate of cookies) accused them of putting politics ahead of the health and safety of the state’s citizens. He claims the new regulations will not limit women’s access to abortion in the state, although they will likely cause almost all of the state’s abortion providers to close their doors. The public isn’t buying this argument.
No Love for Republican Policies
Republicans and their financial backers may be pleased with the slew of conservative legislation passed during this session, but a majority of the state’s citizens are not. McCrory’s approval ratings have taken a nosedive into negative territory, declining by 15 points in the last month and 22 points in the last three. A new PPP poll puts his approval rating at 40 percent with a 49 percent disapproval rate.
The General Assembly has fared far worse. Only 20% of the populace approve of the job they’re doing, while some 56% disapprove. Most of the hate is aimed at the GOP. They have a 35-55 favorability spread, versus the Democrats 40-45 spread. Democrats now lead the generic legislative ballot by 51-42 margin.
The PPP poll also shows widespread opposition to two of the Republicans’ signature pieces of legislation–the new abortion regulations and the big cut to unemployment benefits. Voters wanted McCrory to veto the abortion legislation by a 48-33 margin. The unemployment legislation is even more unpopular. Only 27% support it, while 55% oppose it. As PPP’s president, Dean Denham, explains: “The Republicans in control of the legislature have moved to the right even of Republican voters in the state. Many of the most high profile contentious bills that have passed recently are strongly opposed by voters across party lines.”
Will Demographics Doom the Republican Agenda?
Before 2010, North Carolina had been known for its relatively progressive (by Southern standards) politics. As Ari Berman notes, “it was an island of moderation amid a sea of conservatism.” Like a number of other states in 2010, it moved from purple to deep red. While this might seem like good news for Republicans at both the state and national levels, there’s plenty of reason to believe that the 2010 elections were an aberration here and to hope that North Carolina will eventually return to its state of moderation.
The same PPP poll that showed Governor McCrory’s popularity in free fall put party registration at 45% Democratic, 35% Republican, and 20% independent. Moreover, some 10% of voters identified as very liberal, 20% as somewhat liberal, 26% as moderate, 22% as somewhat conservative, and 21% as very conservative. In other words, some 56% of the state’s voters identify themselves as being to the left of conservatism.
It’s a little too early to tell if voters will take out their unhappiness with the current crop of Republican legislators at the ballot box in 2014. Gerrymandering and plenty of Pope family money (thank you Citizens United) will probably play a role in keeping at least the House in Republican hands, although even those forces may not prevail if Republicans keep passing legislation that a majority of voters find not merely unpalatable, but abhorrent. McCrory, if he hopes to attract business to the state and keep his post in 2016, might find it prudent to step away from some of the Legislature’s more draconian ideas and tack back toward the center.
- The Research Triangle area of Raleigh-Durham, home to Duke University and University of North Carolina, as well as a significant high tech industry and lots of small business start-ups. The area saw its population grow from 804,000 to 1.125 million between 2000 and 2009, a 40 percent growth rate. The Triangle’s population skews young and well-educated.
- The Charlotte metropolitan area, which is the second largest banking center in the country after New York. Charlotte’s population went from 1.34 million to 1.74 million in the last decade, a 30.2 percent jump.
My husband and I are hardly the only migrants from the country’s bluer states who brought with us our liberal political bent. We’ve met plenty even here in the Piedmont area and, while some may be conservative, many are not, particularly the younger ones. If the state’s urban centers continue growing at a rapid clip, its politics are likely to moderate. North Carolina is never going to be California, but it’s not Alabama either.