Pat McCrory is clearly trying to redefine himself and he’s using the General Assembly as his foil. He’s casting himself as the moderate force putting the brakes on a legislature veering too far to the right. His veto of two bills last week, and his promise of more to come, sends a message to voters as much as it does the House and Senate.

In 2013, right after he took office, McCrory looked like a bystander as the legislature shifted hard right. Instead of standing up to the leaders in the General Assembly, the governor was just along for the ride. Democrats hoped to run against that Pat McCrory in 2016, but the governor’s people have different ideas.

His veto of a bill that would allow magistrates to opt out of performing marriages for gay couples shows that the governor and his polls know that his party his out of step on social issues. His veto of the so-called “ag-gag” bill that would limit employees’ ability to report wrong-doing in the workplace sends a signal to workers that he’s willing to stand up for them. His tough talk in delivering these vetoes harkens back to his rhetoric about “stepping on the toes” of both the left and right.

Next up is the abortion bill that is moving quickly through the legislature. During the 2012 election, McCrory pledged not to sign any bill that would further restrict access to abortion. Progressives claim he broke that promise in 2013 but a veto of the restrictive bill this year would negate that argument and help him make the case he keeps his promises even if they aren’t popular with people in his own party.

McCrory’s actions could have a big implications for his re-election bid. He’s running against his own party in an attempt to reach out to the middle. He’s banking that no credible candidate will emerge to primary him from the right while a token opponent allows him to show off his moderate bonafides.

For Attorney General Roy Cooper’s nascent campaign, McCrory’s moves make it more difficult to cast the governor as either weak or out of step with the mainstream. He’s still got the 2013 education budget around his neck but his more recent moves will play stronger in the minds of voters. Cooper and company will need to find other contrasts that resonate with voters.

McCrory’s moves come with some risk. The legislature could override McCrory’s vetoes, potentially making him look weak, but Republicans in the House will probably have difficulty finding the votes for the magistrate bill. Overriding the ag-gag veto is more likely since the bill passed with a fair amount of Democratic support, but the ag-gag bill is the less emotional and more obscure of the two issues.

A veto override could also be a boon for Democratic legislative candidates. They could argue that the GOP legislators are so out of the mainstream that even the governor disagrees with them. The General Assembly needs more Democrats to sustain vetoes on extremist legislation.

Last year, Republicans nearly lost a US Senate race in North Carolina during a wave election due largely to the actions of the General Assembly. Pat McCrory’s polling must show the attitudes haven’t changed much and those actions are even more of a liability in a presidential election year. He’s quickly moving to the center with both his actions and his rhetoric. And he’s betting that the GOP base will get behind him in the election regardless of what he does now. It’s a pretty good bet.


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