“We have a mandate to legislate,” state House Speaker Tim Moore lyrically declared. Continuing their habit of jaunty rhetoric, both Moore and his Senate counterpart Phil Berger are boasting of vindication in the 2020 election. In their telling, North Carolina voters endorsed the conservative vision that has guided state government for the last decade. But a more holistic look at the election results indicates that North Carolinians want a different approach.
Contrary to Republican aspirations, there is more than one branch in state government. The governor’s office may be weak under the NC Constitution, but it sports a higher profile than the legislature and often symbolizes what people want for the state. When the state elected Pat McCrory, voters sent a change message. When, four years later, McCrory lost, the election communicated a desire for a different course than the hapless GOP incumbent had followed. November 3’s resounding reelection of Roy Cooper meant that his performance had impressed North Carolinians, and that they wanted a two-term governor for the first time in a decade.
Voters’ thumbs-up to Cooper was more powerful than their tepid reelection of the Berger-Moore majority. Look at the results. While Moore’s caucus only managed to win by 1.4% Cooper won by over three times that margin. Moreover, the House GOP’s victory matched the state’s presidential result in direct proportion. Their win reflected negative partisanship trickling down from the level of national politics. Whereas Cooper, with his high profile and clear strategy of communication, won on the strength of state policy.
Notably, the contrast between Cooper’s approach and the preferences of the GOP legislature displayed itself on the election’s most high-profile issue. If anything dominated this election, it was Cooper’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic. While Cooper has taken a prudent approach, Republican legislators tried to ram through bills that would have forced the administration to reopen the state. Looking at Cooper and a Republican opponent in Dan Forest who marched in lockstep with the legislature, voters chose the Democrat.
More broadly, polling has shown that voters prefer Cooper’s style of state governance. One highly regarded pollster asked whether North Carolina should put a hold on further tax cuts to invest in education, or continue down the legislature’s supply-side path. Public investment won resoundingly. And Medicaid expansion–the main point of conflict between Cooper and Berger/Moore–has consistently received broad support in surveys of the public. Dismiss polling if you want, but it only adds to the clear verdict of NC voters on COVID-19 restrictions and strengthens the case that Cooper has a mandate.
Moore’s boast that “we have a mandate” speaks more to what he really believes than the halfhearted promises of cooperation he and Berger offered to Cooper after the governor defeated their party’s nominee. He and the Senate leader clearly believe that they have the state on their side. But the elections and polling tell a different story: Cooper, not the General Assembly, has won the hearts and minds of North Carolina. The governor is the one with the mandate.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.