North Carolina is different. In 2014, the country as a whole saw the lowest voter turnout in decades. In North Carolina, turnout was about average for a non-presidential year. While a Republican wave washed over the rest of the country, North Carolina Democrats picked up three legislative seats and the US Senate contest was the closest in the nation.
Democrats’ infrastructure accounted for some of that turnout. Since Obama ’08, North Carolina Democrats have built a machine that knows how to drive turnout and likely offset some of the drop-off seen in other states. More importantly, though, voters were motivated more by state issues than national ones, though ISIS and Ebola emerging in October likely cost Hagan the race.
When Republicans took control of the state legislature and Governor’s office, they took the state sharply to the right. After years of moderation, people across the state were shocked at the attitude of the General Assembly toward public education and the GOP’s strong embrace of divisive social issues. Moral Monday awakened the base by bringing attention to voter suppression laws and cuts to public schools and universities. The Republicans’ authoritarian nature showed up in heavy-handed attempts to redistrict local offices, restructure and reschedule local elections, and taking assets owned and controlled by local governments.
Those issues played out even in the US Senate race in 2014. As one person told a reporter, Hagan’s campaign almost turned the race into a school board election. Videos of ISIS beheading journalists and the threat of Ebola in the US shifted the focus of the race in the final month. Up till then, though, state and local issues dominated the political debate.
This year might be similar. While the presidential race will certainly weigh on people’s minds and drive much of the turnout, the impact of House Bill 2 is also on the ballot. It’s hard to compete with Donald Trump but losing the ACC and NCAA tournament games certainly gives him a run for his money. The Fourth Circuit’s ruling on the voter suppression law laid bare the racial bias in the bill, motivating African-Americans to organize against GOP attempts at disenfranchisement.
The business wing of the GOP keeps touting the modest economic gains North Carolina has seen while desperately trying to turn the conversation away from the damage the GOP has done to our national reputation. It’s not working so far. People aren’t feeling that much better about their economic circumstances, but they are aware that the rest of the country thinks something is wrong with our state—and that perception has been caused by Pat McCrory and the Republicans.
The presidential race may draw people to the polls, but as many people will be choosing a direction of the state as they will a president. The race for governor is really referendum on the job the GOP has done for our state. Gerrymandered districts may protect the legislature that’s driven the right’s agenda, but they can’t protect Pat McCrory, who has become the face of North Carolina’s Republican Party.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >