By Hastings Wyman –
Republicans across the nation are worrying about whether a ticket led by Donald Trump or even Ted Cruz would cause them to lose other races in their states. This could be a major problem in North Carolina, which has the South’s only gubernatorial race this year, as well as a reelection bid by US Sen. Richard Burr (R).
In the governor’s race, an Elon University Poll of registered Tar Heel voters taken this past weekend, amidst the controversy over HB2 – “the bathroom bill,” Gov. Pat McCrory’s (R) performance rating was 37%/approve to 49%/disapprove, his lowest rating in two years of Elon’s polling. Moreover, he was trailing his Democratic opponent, state Attorney General Roy Cooper, by 42% to 48%, the widest lead for Cooper so far.
The irony is that by 49% to 39%, respondents agree with the premise of HB2, that cities should not be allowed to pass ordinances allowing transgendered persons to choose the public restroom that best fits their gender identity.
The issue is a tough one for McCrory. As a former mayor of Charlotte, he has roots in the GOP’s establishment wing, but also received strong support in 2012 from the evangelical wing, which strongly backs HB2. To win reelection, McCrory will need both sides of the party.
Although Burr (R), seeking a third term this year, has not been embroiled in the gay/transgender rights controversy, he holds an unimpressive lead – 37% to 33% – over his relatively unknown opponent, former state Rep. Deborah Ross (D). In addition, his performance rating is 29%/approve to 41%/disapprove.
The poor ratings of both GOPers reflects a significant drop in their popularity in the past few weeks. A RealClear Politics average of polls in January and February showed Cooper with 42.3%, McCrory with 41.7%; and Burr with 44% to Ross’s 35%.
In addition to the LGBT rights controversy, the poor showings for both McCrory and Burr also reflect the weak performance of Trump and Cruz, who are trailing both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Sanders leads Trump by 51% to 38% and leads Cruz by 49% to 39%; Clinton also beats the two GOPers, leading Trump by 45% to 39% and Cruz by a narrower 44% to 41%. Polls taken in March showed Sanders and Clinton leading, but by much slimmer margins.
In 2008, Barack Obama carried North Carolina, but Mitt Romney put it back in the Republican column in 2012. It is difficult to see a path to a White House victory for the GOP this year without a win in North Carolina.
Ferrel Guillory, Director of UNC’s Program on Public Life, analyzed both races for SPR. “Because Burr is a longtime incumbent, though not one of the most visible of senators,
he’s got an identity,” while Ross (D) is making her first bid for statewide office. “So Burr is in a somewhat stronger position than McCrory, and can separate himself from Trump and Cruz.
“McCrory is more vulnerable. He’s been governor only three years. And he got himself entangled in the controversy over HB2, got himself entangled in the culture/religious maelstrom of the national Republican Party.”
Despite their current poor numbers, Guillory believes that “Trump or Cruz could carry North Carolina … depending on events. It’s not a state the Democrats could take lightly,” noting, however, that they would prefer to run against Trump or Cruz than “someone like a Bush or a Rubio.”
As for “the bathroom bill,” Guillory notes, “Roy Cooper came out immediately and said he wouldn’t defend HB2. Twenty years ago, the Democrats would have avoided this issue. It shows how the political center of gravity has shifted.”
Another long-term observer of Tar Heel politics says, “Cruz would be a stronger candidate in North Carolina… A lot of Republicans who would have supported Bush or Rubio would support Cruz but not Trump.” He adds that with Trump, down-ballot GOPers “would be asked, ‘Do you agree with this or that?’ … Would they have their picture taken with Trump?”
Cruz, however, could also present problems. “Burr is on record criticizing Cruz for the government shut-down. He would be asked, ‘Were you right then, or now?’”
Whether events will continue to increase the Democrats noteworthy gains or shift the race back toward the GOP in this highly competitive state remains to be seen. For now, however, North Carolina is a microcosm of the nation in this complex, highly volatile election year. Stay tuned.