Roy Cooper is not an ideologue. But he is a loyal, partisan Democrat – always has been. And today’s hyperpartisan political environment suits him like a glove.
Gone are the days where politicians seek out compromise to win crossover appeal and broad support. Now, it’s all about the base. If you don’t toe the party line, the hardcore will come after you.
The governor has been vetoing a lot of bills – with little to show for it, of course. The joke around Raleigh is the surest way for a bill to become law is for the governor to veto it. In the old days, a governor facing a hostile legislature would choose their vetoes carefully – better to sign a few less-than-perfect bills here and there, or else risk looking weak when the legislature overrides you.
That’s all changed. Nowadays, signing legislation passed by the other party is surrender, capitulation. Even worse, that gives the opposing side a win – and demoralizes your team. The only alternative is to veto, veto, veto away. And if you get smacked down by the legislature – well, that’s when you go back to your base and say, “See? Look at how badly I got beaten by the Republicans. I’m one of you, and I’ve got the scars to prove it.” And so far, that’s what Cooper’s been doing – playing to his base.
The one exception to this, maybe, was the HB 2 repeal compromise. Cooper agreed to the HB 2 “fix” after ineptly sabotaging deals that were much more favorable to liberals – and only because his base’s demand for full repeal was so zany and politically unfeasible that he had no other choice.
And what effect did Cooper’s compromise have on his support from the base? Almost nil. Sure, there were tweets from liberals calling him McCrory 2.0, and the perpetual virgins comprising the “Air Horn Orchestra” staged a half-hearted protest outside the governor’s mansion. That lasted about two days. Since then, Cooper has been met with near-universal acclaim from the Left, as this diary from Daily Kos indicates. (In what was certainly a first, the diary was widely disseminated by Cooper’s staff.)
McCrory styled himself as the governor who stepped on toes of both the Right and Left. Cooper is now the governor who steps on toes – of the Right only. That’s dangerous territory in which to be. Cooper’s victory was extremely narrow and came about on behalf of Trump voters.
Already, it’s gotten him into trouble. Despite the clamors of approval from the Kos crowd, Cooper’s calling the General Assembly for a special session on redistricting was widely perceived as a partisan political stunt. Even the Charlotte Observer joined the fray, opining that Cooper’s stunt was unnecessary and only increased acrimony between Republicans and Democrats in Raleigh. And of course, the effort went nowhere, as Republicans rebuffed his call for an unusual special session-within-a-session. In the end, Cooper ended up looking like both a strong partisan and a weak executive. That’s exactly what voters – especially of the Trump/Cooper variety – do not want.
Who are the Trump/Cooper voters? They can be found everywhere in the state, but they’re particularly concentrated in the west. They’re culturally conservative, but social issues don’t drive their votes. They see Democrats as elitist and out of touch. At the same time, they’re not entirely on board with the GOP economic agenda. And most of them aren’t Yellow Dog Democrats who will vote against any Republican not named Donald Trump. In fact, they largely supported McCrory when he was first elected.
The point is that these voters are a fragile part of the Cooper coalition, just as they were a fragile part of the McCrory coalition. Their votes can be lost very easily. If Cooper develops an image as a partisan Democrat, his base will be fired up – but it will alienate the people whose votes sent him over the top.
I don’t think he’s there yet. So far, Cooper has enjoyed high approval ratings, an indication that people who voted for McCrory are giving him a chance. But if I’m right, subsequent polls will show that the “honeymoon period” is over, and the governor’s support with Republicans and independents has slid. A lack of cross-over appeal, leaving little margin for error come reelection time – it’s one of the drawbacks of being a partisan.
John Wynne is the “conservative voice” at PoliticsNC, where he also provides polling analysis and commentary on legislative campaigns. When not writing about politics, he enjoys gardening and listening to opera. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.