By Hastings Wyman –
North Carolina was already a battleground state before a police officer shot and killed Keith Scott, an African American. But protests in the Queen City over that death seem sure to intensify the political battle raging across the state, stirring the emotions of an already divided citizenry– conservative, mostly working class whites against African-Americans and socially liberal, college educated whites. And not only are the state’s 15 electoral votes at stake in the hard-fought contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, but Tar Heel voters will also be deciding elections for governor and US Senator, as well as many down-ballot positions.
Traditionally, of course, when protests over controversial police shootings turn violent, with looting, fires and window-smashing – all of which occurred on the first night of the Charlotte protest of the death of Scott – the Republicans, who are perceived as the law-and-order party, benefit, while the Democrats, who depend heavily on support from African Americans, tend to lose.
Other factors may influence the longevity of this as an issue. Will other evidence, including additional videos, make clear whether or not Scott was armed? Will wider knowledge that he had a criminal record influence public opinion? Will the fact that the police officers and the Charlotte chief of police are also African Americans lessen the outrage of black voters, angered by yet another questionable killing of a black man by police?
Clinton announced that she would go to Charlotte on this past Sunday; Trump said he was considering a later trip to the embattled city. Mayor Jennifer Roberts (D), in a CNN interview, urged both to delay their visits, citing the city’s stretched law enforcement resources. Both candidates promptly did so.
The latest Elon University Poll of Tar Heel voters showed Trump with 44% to Clinton’s 43%. The results are racially polarized: Black voters prefer Clinton by 98% to 2%; whites prefer Trump by 65% to 35%. According to a Public Policy Polling (PPP) (D) survey taken about the same time, Trump is ahead by 45% to 43%.
Ferrel Guillory, Director of the University of North Carolina’s Program on Public Life, says it’s too soon to assess the impact of these events on the election. He pointed out, however, that North Carolina is “very polarized.” He noted that Gov. Pat McCrory (R) mobilized the National Guard, “but any governor would do that… If the Charlotte business is over in two days, maybe it will not have much impact.”
Another issue that, until the events in Charlotte, has been a hot potato, especially in the governor’s race, is the battle over HB2, the statute enacted by the Republican legislature and signed by McCrory (R), that requires transgendered persons to use the public restroom that corresponds to the gender designation on their birth certificates and bans court challenges to local anti-gay laws. In the wake of a national outcry over the issue, which got lots of media attention, national sports groups, including the NCAA, canceled events in the state, angering sports fans. According to the Elon poll, HB2 is opposed by 50% of voters, to 40% who favor it.
Ironically, McCrory, a former mayor of Charlotte, has been viewed as a moderate GOPer, but events have forced him into a more socially conservative posture than he would probably like. “The issue seems to be hurting McCrory… Has the HB2 issue and how he’s handled it already locked in voters’ minds?” asks Guillory.
Attorney General Roy Cooper, the Democratic nominee for governor, has separated himself from McCrory on the HB2 issue by refusing to appeal a lower court ruling against the controversial statute.
The Elon University poll showed McCrory ahead with 49% to Cooper’s 46%. But in the PPP survey, Cooper leads McCrory by 46% to 41%.
In addition to the governor’s race, the battle for the US Senate seat currently held by 12-year veteran Richard Burr (R) is also competitive, and of national significance. If Burr loses to former state Rep. Deborah Ross (D), who once headed the American Civil Liberties Union in the state, if will make it more difficult for the GOP to maintain its majority in the upper chamber. Elon showed Burr in a shockingly close race, with 43.4% to Ross’s 44.4%, a sliver of a lead for the Democrat, and in the PPP survey, Burr and Ross are tied with 41% each. That Ross, a relative unknown, is running a strong race is another sign that voters are no longer ticket-splitters, but tend to vote for one party or the other, from the top to the bottom of the ballot.
The battlegrounds in the Tar Heel State, including the contests for president, governor and US Senate, are likely to be volatile and important from now until November 8. And the battles in the streets of Charlotte may well influence those contests. Stay tuned.