RALEIGH — If it seems like the campaign against Gov. Pat McCrory’s re-election has been going on for years, you aren’t imagining things.
While parties out of power always spend their time on the “outs” strategizing for ways to get back “in,” North Carolina Democrats have a different relationship to state government in Raleigh than they do to, say, the White House, Congress, the courts, or even local governments. They see it as their political property.
From the turn of the 20th century until 2010, Democrats always held at least one chamber of the North Carolina General Assembly. They held the governor’s office for all but 12 years. State Republicans were acceptable as long as they understood their place — as the Washington Generals to the Democrats’ Globetrotters. It was fine if Republicans controlled a few counties or held some legislative seats, but true two-party competition in fall elections would be, to the Democratic way of thinking, bad for North Carolina’s progressive reputation, not to mention untidy.
So the GOP takeover of the legislature in 2010, and particularly Gov. McCrory’s solid margin of victory in 2012, constituted a political earthquake to Democratic pols. The unthinkable had happened. It had to be reversed.
As I have often explained to national reporters parachuting in this year, Democratic insiders here care much more about the gubernatorial race than they do the presidential race or U.S. Senate seat. Voters seem to agree. In the latest spate of polls, the average share of North Carolina voters who say they are undecided is a bit smaller for governor than it is for president or Senate.
The Democratic nominee, Roy Cooper, has essentially been running against McCrory since 2013. So have many liberal activists and left-leaning media outlets. The situation is strikingly similar to the last time a Republican governor ran for reelection in North Carolina, in 1988. The Democrat then serving as lieutenant governor, Bob Jordan, ran what was in effect a four-year campaign against the Republican incumbent, Jim Martin. He was egged on by Democratic legislators, pro-Democratic interest groups, and pro-Democratic newspapers.
Jordan, as it happens, fell far short in 1988. Jim Martin was reelected easily. But that was also a year in which North Carolina went strongly for the GOP presidential candidate, George H.W. Bush, and gave Republicans many other victories down the ballot. McCrory faces a more daunting challenge in 2016. His top of the ticket, Donald Trump, has trailed Hillary Clinton in North Carolina for most of the campaign (although he may now be surging).
On the other hand, McCrory has factors working in his favor. One is the trajectory of the state’s economy. While North Carolinians join most other Americans in their disappointment about the nation’s sluggish recovery from the Great Recession, our state is doing comparatively well. Since the enactment of Gov. McCrory’s signature policy initiatives in mid-2013 — including tax cuts, regulatory reform, and highway-funding reforms — North Carolina has beaten the national and regional averages in most measures of economic performance.
The most dramatic gains have been in the labor market, where North Carolina’s combined rate of unemployment and underemployment has dropped faster than in all but a handful of other states. The state’s overall economy has grown by an inflation-adjusted average of 2.6 percent a year, again one of the nation’s fastest growth rates.
Another selling point the governor takes into the final days of the campaign is his prudent management of state finances. The McCrory administration has spent more money on high-priority items, to be sure, but it has sought efficiencies and budget restraint in other areas. That allowed the state to build up some $2 billion in rainy-day and other reserves — a decision that will serve storm-ravaged North Carolina well, and that Roy Cooper pointedly and foolishly criticized just weeks before Hurricane Matthew walloped us.
But years of relentless attacks on the governor’s policies, personnel, and character have taken their toll. He and Cooper are neck-and-neck in the final polls. Democrats still hope their restoration is nigh.