The North Carolina governor’s race is the cycle’s marquee race for the Tar Heel State and the most competitive gubernatorial contest in the nation this year.

It is also a battle for the heart and soul of North Carolina. The great Jesse Helms/Jim Hunt Senate race of 1984 was viewed in a similar light, and therefore this governor’s race can be viewed as that election’s sequel. Democrats hope that, to borrow George Will’s adage: “It took 32 years to count the votes, and Hunt won.”

Largely, the race is a referendum on Pat McCrory. Like in all races featuring an incumbent, the challenger stands by and waits for the verdict of the voters. Has the incumbent done a good job, or a bad job? If the latter, the challenger is called in for an interview. If the voters (employers) are impressed, the incumbent gets booted. If not … there’s a difficult decision to be made.

But the race is not just an up-or-down vote on McCrory’s accomplishments. It’s also a referendum on the Republican legislature and the course the state has taken since 2013, the year the state became completely controlled by the GOP. The party has pushed through a largely conservative agenda, dramatically reshaping not only the state’s ideology but also its identity.

McCrory, originally elected to office as a Charlotte moderate, has largely gone along with the General Assembly’s agenda, with a few notable exceptions. McCrory is difficult to categorize politically, and his actions are occasionally unpredictable. While the General Assembly is more ideological and “big picture”, McCrory is generally more pragmatic and detail-oriented.

Regardless of how one views the governor, he has tangible accomplishments to which he can point. While some would dispute his “Carolina Comeback”, the state has seen a dramatic drop in the unemployment rate. The state’s tax code has seen major revisions, and North Carolina is now seen as having a much more friendly business environment. McCrory was also the strongest voice in support of the ConnectNC bond, which was endorsed by the voters last month and will result in billions of dollars to support new infrastructure and improvements for the university system. Supporters say that Governor McCrory and the conservative legislature have enacted a reform agenda that will result in long-term job growth and prosperity and is already seeing results.

If the race was viewed from a purely economic standpoint, the governor would probably have the upper hand. Instead, it’s the conservative legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by the governor that has divided North Carolinians, and has made this such a fascinating race. The legislation has shifted the state’s policies sharply to the right – painful shifts for the well-entrenched progressive forces within the state, as seen by the reactions of the “Moral Monday” movement. Governor McCrory, once seen as a Charlotte moderate, is now allied with cultural conservatives, meaning that his crossover appeal from 2012 has diminished.

Given all that has happened in North Carolina over the last four years, Democrats are energized and determined to take back the Executive Mansion. To do so, they have a strong candidate, longtime Attorney General Roy Cooper. Cooper was seen as having ambitions for higher office for years, but never pulled the trigger. Democrats are optimistic about Cooper’s chances. He fits the profile of the typical successful Democratic gubernatorial candidates of years past – a long career in politics, viewed as a centrist, from Eastern North Carolina.

But in statewide races, the Democrats are not nearly as strong as they used to be. The party organization is still reeling from bitter divides between the establishment and the activists. More importantly, the party can no longer depend on socially conservative ticket-splitters. Instead, the path to victory is increasingly identical to the path to victory for Democrats in presidential races – turning out large numbers of urban liberals and black voters.

As a result, the party has shifted to the left, a vicious cycle which will similarly diminish Cooper’s crossover appeal. McCrory’s campaign team is already on the attack, casting Cooper as an Obama liberal who is at the same time a throwback to failed Democratic policies of the past. While McCrory has to walk a tightrope, so does Cooper. He has to energize progressive voters while keeping conservative Democrats in his corner, which is easier said than done. He has to generate black turnout while not scaring away more conservative whites.

Cooper and the Democrats have a potent issue with which to maintain this balance: education. They charge that McCrory and the General Assembly have short-changed public education and are threatening the futures of North Carolina’s children. They see steep cuts to the university system will hurt job growth and will diminish the quality of life in the Tar Heel State.

McCrory has an ample counter: during his term, teachers saw their first raise in years, with more coming. Families now have more options for education thanks to laws expanding charter schools and making it easier for those with low incomes to afford school vouchers. But education is one of those battlegrounds where Democrats consistently seem to win, so making the election about education could be a winning strategy for Cooper.

The issues defining this election already seemed set in stone, when just two weeks ago the General Assembly passed House Bill 2. The so-called “bathroom bill” makes it illegal for individuals to use any public facility not associated with the sex listed on their birth certificate, but it does other things as well, including ending non-discrimination ordinances tougher than state law and making it impossible for municipalities to enact minimum wage laws. The statutes relating to transgender individuals is more an expression of values than anything else, but it has already generated controversy and has led to multiple companies and individuals boycotting the state for its perceived hostility to LGBT individuals.

The law could help McCrory coalesce the conservative base around his candidacy, while forcing Cooper to take the side of “sexual predators.” At the same time, HB 2 could hurt the state’s economy and the governor’s standing with moderate, suburban voters. Right now, it’s too early to say what will happen or how this will affect the race. Polls show voters oppose the Charlotte bathroom ordinance that sparked the debate but are wary of the law’s economic impact on the state. The law might be revisited during the short session, but the events following its initial passage will no doubt be an issue of debate in the next few months.

Even further complicating things is the presidential race. Republicans could be on the verge of nominating Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. Polls show that if they do, North Carolina could be in play for Democrats. If Hillary Clinton wins the state, McCrory may have a hard time being reelected. The worse a Republican presidential candidate does in November, the worse McCrory will do at the polls. This is, once again, an unknown factor.

So there you have it. On one side, Governor McCrory, who with the General Assembly has transformed North Carolina into a laboratory for conservative policies, for better or for worse. On the other, Roy Cooper – the Tar Heel State’s great hope who can restore the progressive policies that made North Carolina a leader in the South – or, Roy Cooper, a puppet of Barack Obama and the liberal agenda who is intent on turning the clock back and returning to the failed Democratic policies of old.

What can North Carolinians expect over the next few months? In a word: war, and a fight as unrelenting as the Helms/Hunt race. This is a battle for the heart and soul of North Carolina. Both sides know it, and both sides are going to do everything in their power to win the Executive Mansion. The future course of the state depends on it.

Race Rating: Pure Toss-Up

2012 Result
54.6% McCrory
43.2% Dalton

Voter Registration
40.4% Democratic
30.5% Republican
28.6% Unaffiliated

70.4% White
22.3% Black
7.3% Other

Results in Other Elections
2014 Senate
48.8% Tillis
47.3% Hagan

2012 President
50.4% Romney
48.4% Obama

2010 Senate
54.8% Burr
43.1% Marshall

Facebook ‘Likes’
Pat McCrory – 130,011
Roy Cooper – 36,894

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