In national news coverage leading up to the March 15 presidential primaries, North Carolina’s election was treated as an afterthought. The winner-take-all GOP primaries in Florida and Ohio dominated the headlines, a reasonable decision given their importance in the delegate math and their existential consequences for the campaigns of Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. John Kasich, respectively.
However, what happened in North Carolina will still have significant ramifications for the fall election, and for American politics more generally.
I’m not just referring to the close GOP contest here between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, although it was certainly surprising and significant. All the other North Carolina outcomes were predictable and predicted — easy primary victories by Gov. Pat McCrory and U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, the Democratic nominations of Roy Cooper to challenge McCrory and Deborah Ross to challenge Burr, and the overwhelming vote in favor of the Connect NC bond package for colleges, universities, and other projects.
If Cruz is to defeat Trump for the GOP nomination — which would probably have to happen at the national convention, via multiple floor votes — the remaining primaries and caucuses will either need to go his way or at least replicate North Carolina’s near-tie in delegates awarded (an estimated 29 for Trump, 27 for Cruz).
But even if Cruz fails, North Carolina will still draw national attention. To explain why, I must first observe that a Trump vs. Clinton race would likely result in Democrats retaining the White House for another four years. By the numbers, Clinton is a horrible candidate for the general election. Most Americans don’t like or trust her. Still, in Trump, Republicans will have found the one candidate who is less liked, less trusted, and less respected than she is.
Even if Republicans can overcome this top-of-the-ticket disadvantage to retain some power on Capitol Hill, a Clinton victory means the Affordable Care Act will not be repealed. It means the U.S. Supreme Court will shift leftward. It means either gridlock in Washington or another wave of Democratic policy experimentation.
In this scenario, then, state governments would be the place Republicans and conservatives still enjoy electoral success and policy influence. It would be the place where taxes can be reduced and reformed, where excessive regulations can be pared back, and where major programs such as education and public assistance can be restructured to help build a 21st-century economy of work, productivity, and a rising standard of living.
Since 2010, North Carolina has been a big part of that story. Together with Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Arizona, and a few other states, North Carolina has led the way in applying the principles of freedom, competition, and innovation to the major fiscal and economic challenges facing our nation.
Most of these states will hold legislative elections this fall. Most will not hold gubernatorial elections, with the key exceptions of North Carolina and Indiana. If a nominated Trump proves to be the inevitable loser that most Democrats (and many Republicans) expect him to me, watch for Democrats and liberal activists to shift significant resources into efforts to defeat the incumbent governors of those two states, Pat McCrory and Mike Pence, and to regain legislative seats in many more.
McCrory’s solid March 15 victories for re-nomination and for his signature capital-building program will give him a burst of momentum as he turns to face Cooper. He and his aides should be under no illusions, however. It will be a challenging, hard-fought campaign. North Carolina Democrats are highly motivated. They cannot imagine another four years of being shut out of power in Raleigh.
If Cruz fails to stop Trump during the remaining primaries, how McCrory and other GOP candidates for state office fare this fall will tell us a great deal about the future of Republican politics — as well as the future of the conservative movement that has spent decades developing ideas, strategies, and institutions to advance the causes of freedom, growth, and constitutional government in America.
That means the North Carolina election will matter — a lot.
John Locke Foundation chairman John Hood is the author of Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans.