He and his supporters twisted and turned, wriggled and squirmed. But 27 days after the Nov. 8 election, Gov. Pat McCrory finally bowed to the inevitable and conceded that his bid for a second term had come up short.
Yes, his contest with Roy Cooper, for 16 years North Carolina’s Democratic attorney general, was very close. And yes, it must have been galling for McCrory to lose while his Republican Party was generally doing so well. But the governor regrettably allowed his campaign and his party allies to engage in what amounted to a slandering of the state’s election system – a scorched-earth strategy suggesting that the only way Cooper could have won the contest was to steal it.
Even while they claimed to be standing up for system’s integrity, they seemed intent on subverting the public’s confidence that vote totals were honest and accurate. It wasn’t hard to see confusion and suspicion being stirred to the point that the legislature could have intervened, invoking its authority to settle contested elections.
The McCrory campaign filed protests in dozens of counties, based on alleged irregularities such as ballots cast by felons who’d lost their voting rights and by people who were in fact dead. They ended up making a big fuss about nothing, as local elections boards – all under Republican control – found no significant mistakes.
In the spotlight
At the center of the complaints was Durham, the city and county where McCrory pinned his fading hopes. Granted, there might initially have been reason to wonder about a surge of pro-Cooper votes reported late on Election Night – reported after McCrory seemed to be holding a statewide lead.
But the governor and his crew went off half-cocked with hasty accusations of malfeasance after that surge put Cooper narrowly ahead. A protest was lodged with the Durham elections board, and insinuations that something crooked had happened flowed thick and fast. The board, to its credit, allowed the McCrory team to present any evidence of wrongdoing while seeking explanations from state elections officials and voting equipment vendors.
Bottom line: The computer glitch that delayed the reporting of some 94,000 votes hadn’t prevented an accurate tally. More huffing and puffing from the Republican camp convinced the State Board of Elections to order that the disputed Durham votes be recounted – a stretching of the recount rules, but one that resolved any remaining doubts.
While the recount was in progress, and with Cooper’s victory margin holding steady, McCrory made his concession. He didn’t bother to say whether he thought the recount was worth the trouble and expense – but the final result gave Cooper six more votes than he started with. McCrory’s total stayed the same.
Odd man out
As of Dec. 9, when vote totals were scheduled to be certified by the state board, Cooper’s winning margin stood at 10,281 out of 4,711,021 votes cast in the governor’s race.
That’s indeed a close call – 49.0 percent for Cooper and 48.8 percent for McCrory. (The other 2.2 percent went to Libertarian Lon Cecil). But with Donald Trump besting Hillary Clinton in the state by 49.8 percent to 46.2 percent, and with Sen. Richard Burr defeating Deborah Ross 51.1 percent to 45.4 percent to win a third term, it’s clear that McCrory underperformed.
Not only did he lag the other two candidates atop the GOP ticket, but he also made a bit of negative history. Since the state’s constitution was changed 40 years ago to let incumbent governors seek a second term, those who have run again have prevailed – check with Democrat Jim Hunt (who managed the feat twice!), Republican Jim Martin and Democrat Mike Easley.
McCrory ran to succeed Easley in 2008, just as the national economy was cratering. He lost to Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue in a campaign that emphasized cleaning up what he called a Democratic culture of corruption (several top Democrats including Easley had their troubles) and also his record as a pragmatic, center-right mayor of Charlotte who could work across the aisle.
But after that loss, McCrory set out to improve his chances of winning the governorship by toeing a harder conservative line.
He aligned himself with tea party Republicans pushing back against President Obama as Obama tried to counter the effects of the Great Recession and moved to expand health insurance to the poor. When Perdue – buffeted by the bad economy and frustrated by a legislature that went Republican in 2010 – opted not to run again, McCrory was well-positioned for his 2012 race against Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton. He won handily.
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Republican success in the legislature, though, sowed the seeds of McCrory’s eventual defeat.
He found himself cast as a cheerleader for policies that appealed to his party’s most conservative elements but that were bound to alienate large blocs of voters – minorities, public school advocates, the unemployed, those who didn’t stand to benefit from tax cuts oriented toward the affluent. His own party held enough seats to override most of his occasional vetoes, and he struggled to fulfill the governor’s traditional role of agenda-setter.
McCrory became a prime target for the NAACP-led Moral Majority movement, which arose in 2013 as the Republicans’ rightward lurch gathered steam. Among its main grievances was legislation making it harder for voters, Democratic-leaning ones in particular, to cast their ballots.
The governor signed a bill including a stringent voter ID requirement and defended it as a common-sense measure to prevent fraud – which the record shows scarcely exists. The ensuing law cut a swath among traditionally Democratic constituencies such as African-Americans, students and the poor. No wonder it ran aground in the federal courts.
McCrory also went along with bills to slash unemployment benefits, to cut taxes in ways that left lower- and middle-income earners holding the bag and to refuse a federally funded expansion of Medicaid that would have helped as many as a half-million North Carolinians obtain health care.
Budgets he signed raised teachers’ abysmally low pay – while undermining the state’s ability to finance its public schools, which cope with funding that’s among the nation’s stingiest per capita.
H.B. 2: Oops
For all that, McCrory might well have ridden the overall economic growth wave to stake his claim to an encore had it not been for a gross miscalculation.
When the Charlotte City Council in early 2016 passed an ordinance meant to clarify and expand the rights of transgendered people, conservative strategists thought they saw an opportunity. They would rally voters in defense of their concept of traditional values and cast the Charlotte measure as a boon for sexual predators. Their base would be galvanized and they’d reap the benefits at the polls.
House Bill 2, which requires the transgendered to use public restrooms matching the gender denoted on their birth certificate, as opposed to the gender with which they identify, was passed during a hurry-up special legislative session on March 23. McCrory signed it that same day, despite its hostility not only to transgendered individuals but also to gays and lesbians.
There followed a cascade of costly cancellations – tournaments, concerts, business expansions. McCrory, in a hole, kept on digging. The new law would keep women and girls safe in public bathrooms, he maintained. It was a ludicrous position, as the law had no practical means of enforcement and no penalties. Other laws against sexual misconduct already pertained.
Fairly or not, McCrory became the candidate on whom H.B. 2 opponents could most readily focus their anger. Cooper’s victory margins in populous urban counties such as Wake, Durham, Mecklenburg and Guilford signaled a major backlash against the law and doomed the McCrory effort. No doubt there remains a cultural divide in North Carolina, with many people still leery of LGBT rights, but thankfully this election showed that tolerance has a strong appeal as well.
McCrory’s exit, Cooper’s challenges
Even as McCrory in a video was acknowledging his loss, urging support for Cooper and pledging to ensure a smooth transition, he echoed his campaign’s line that there’d been something fishy about the vote. There are “continued questions that should be answered about the voting process,” he said.
In the same vein, Senate Republican leader Phil Berger saluted McCrory for “graciously conceding an election that brought much-needed attention to the potential for fraud, and other weaknesses, in our state’s election system.” To repeat: Cooper won fair and square, as validated by Republican-controlled election boards. To suggest otherwise is destructive of the public’s trust in democracy, as well as being the essence of sour grapes.
Berger went on as if to challenge Cooper to try to accomplish anything in the face of Republican obstructionism (shades of the GOP’s posture on Capitol Hill throughout Obama’s tenure). Cooper will have to deal with legislators whose chief boast is that their tax cuts have fueled the state’s economy – as if a cause and effect were obvious, which it isn’t.
Cooper’s position – one that resonates with the Council of Churches – is that compared with tax cuts tilted to help the well-off, investments in programs and services enabled by adequate, fairly raised revenues are the more potent drivers of prosperity for all the state’s residents. Better public schools and better health care are among his top issues, and fittingly so.
The new governor won’t be able to get bills passed at the snap of his fingers. But he’ll be able to help steer state government away from the conservative brink. For instance, his appointees will oversee environmental protection, economic development, transportation, public safety and social services. Enlightened leadership of the kind we can expect Cooper to bring should pay dividends in all those areas.
With less than a month left to serve, McCrory’s last turn in the spotlight could come when the legislature convenes Dec. 13 for a special session he has called. The purpose will be to consider aid for counties ravaged by floods and fires, following up on his able performance during those recent crises. But with legislators back in Raleigh, he might be tempted also to go along with machinations to restore conservative control of the state Supreme Court by adding two seats he then could fill.
If he did that, perhaps he’d strengthen his partisan credentials and boost his chances for landing a job in the Trump administration. But he’d leave office on a sour note, or one even sourer than the note already struck by attempts to paint the election as flawed mainly because he lost.
Here’s hoping that as he moves on to his next endeavor, whatever that may be, Pat McCrory continues to show respect for the voice of the people – all of the people – and honors the system that gave him four years to lead North Carolina as best he could.