Many Republicans are terrified that the HB2 issue will bury them in the 2018 midterms. More specifically, they fear that they will lose their veto-proof majorities in the legislature. There is little room for error. Hence the constant talk of a compromise on the law that will put the issue behind them.
There are drawbacks to such a compromise, however. Give too much to the Left and one risks the wrath of the conservative base. This is why full repeal of HB2 – giving the freedom for municipalities to enact Charlotte-style ordinances all over the state – is politically unfeasible and those who suggest it not serious.
And yet, the battle in 2018 will not be fought in rural areas where religious conservatism dominates, but in suburban districts where HB2 is seen as a misguided and unnecessary law with bad consequences. Such sentiment is what led to McCrory’s defeat last November, despite of a booming economy and renewed prosperity. Democrats hope these suburbanites will look around them to see brand new subdivisions, more jobs, and an influx of new residents, conclude that HB2 has been economically calamitous – and blame Republicans.
Sounds far-fetched, but that’s exactly what happened last November. For Democrats, HB2 was a godsend – giving them a trump card where previously they had no cards to play. And play it they did, toppling the Republican governor and sending a number of suburban GOP legislators packing.
Roy Cooper, the Democratic nominee for governor, campaigned on repealing HB2 – but Democratic legislators who attempted to do just that prior to his election aroused his fury. “You idiots, you can’t take my key issue off the table. If HB2 is repealed, what do I have to run on? Listen: we’ll make HB2 go away. Just wait until after I’m elected.”
Of course, Cooper won. It was a tiny victory and not much of a mandate, but a victory nonetheless, and his team celebrated just the same. Then, once all the celebrating died down, Cooper sat down with his advisers and they plotted strategy. His top priority: how to work with the Republican legislature to get rid of the legislation he had campaigned against so fervently.
“It’s hurting our state,” said the new governor. “How do I work with Berger and Moore to find a solution to this?”
“Well,” said one of his top advisers, who was holding printed out copies of the latest polling, “I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. Look, Roy, this issue still has some juice in it! HB2 is really hurting the Republican brand in North Carolina. Just look at these numbers with suburban married white women with a household income of $100,000 or more a year. I’m telling you, this issue is a winner for us. We shouldn’t want to repeal it. We should try to make it stay as long as possible!”
“But,” Roy protested, incredulous, “won’t the base get mad at me? What will EqualityNC and the Human Rights Campaign think?”
“Oh, Roy,” the adviser chuckled. “HB2 is a cash cow for those groups. EqualityNC had a banner year in fundraising. No, they want this law to stay just as much as the NC Values folks do.”
“So they advocate for LGBT equality while secretly wanting HB2 to stay?” said Cooper, puzzled. “How do they get away with that?”
“Easy,” said the adviser. “They insist on full repeal, or nothing. And I suggest we follow their lead.”
“Full repeal?” said Cooper, scratching his chin doubtfully. “I don’t think that’s possible …”
“Of course it’s not. That’s the point. Don’t you get it? If we insist on full repeal, and for some reason they go with it, then we win, and they upset their base. If HB2 stays, we get to use the issue in 2018 against them and we win. We win either way.”
“Interesting,” said Cooper, nodding understandingly.
“The only way to lose is if we compromise,” the adviser warned.
“OK,” said the governor. “From now on, it’s full repeal or nothing! I’ll be sure to say that in the State of the State.”
“No, no, no,” said the adviser, shaking his head impatiently. “You can’t actually say that. That makes you look extreme. The trick is to appear willing to compromise while not actually entertaining compromise at all.”
“OK, I think I can pull that off. I can be duplicitous if I want to. But what if Berger and Moore come up with a compromise bill? How do I go about rejecting it without looking like a jerk?”
“Easy. Just find some provision in it and call it a ‘deal-breaker.’ No matter what they propose, just keep saying there’s something in it that’s a deal-breaker and that you’re willing to entertain alternative proposals. When in actuality, everything that’s not a full repeal is a deal-breaker.”
And thus was the current Cooper strategy born. They want the HB2 issue to survive, and they hope it will be a potent one in suburban swing districts. The flaw with this strategy is that the longer this goes on, the more this becomes a bipartisan problem – the fault of both parties. That there is now a debate on social media as to which side is more to blame for the impasse reflects a fundamental shift. One can easily see this exchange playing out in candidate forums in urban counties around the state next year:
Democratic candidate: I support repeal of HB2. We must do away with it because it has hurt our economy and our reputation.
Republican incumbent: I also support repeal of HB2. Unfortunately, the governor continues to shoot down compromises that will put this issue behind us. I look forward to working with the governor to end HB2 so we can get back to work on growing our economy, improving our education system, and keeping North Carolina one of the best places to do business in the country.
The bottom line is that Democrats should not expect HB2 to have the same level of potency in 2018 as it did last year. Indeed, I doubt any state-level issue will play a substantial role. I expect the national mood and perceptions of Donald Trump will play a much bigger part in determining if Republicans keep their supermajorities next year.
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.