Pat McCrory, Roy Cooper, Richard Burr, and many other confirmed or potential candidates for statewide office in North Carolina have plans. They have backers, and staffers, and plenty of ideas for how to win their elections next year. But there’s a key variable required before determining how likely they are to succeed: the identity of the Republican nominee for president.
The Democratic nominee will be Hillary Clinton. Everyone already knows that she will run a skilled, well-financed campaign that seeks to reassure the Democratic base and supporters of Barack Obama that she will protect the policy wins her party has enjoyed over the past seven years while also separating herself from the president on matters, such as national security, where he and most voters have clearly gone their separate ways.
Clinton’s GOP opponent, though, has yet to be determined. While I don’t subscribe to the theory that the contest might last all the way to the Republican convention next summer, I do think it may take a while for GOP primary voters to settle on a victor. I further think that McCrory, Cooper, and other candidates in North Carolina will alter their campaigns to adjust to that victor.
If Donald Trump ends up with the GOP nomination, for example, I see Cooper and other Democrats as greeting the outcome with great joy. Perhaps they will be mistaken, but they’ll assume that Trump will prove to be a disastrous candidate in the fall. They will spend a great deal of time and resources attaching Trump’s face and name to every Republican candidate for every office in North Carolina — who will, in turn, put as much distance as they can between themselves and the national ticket.
If Ted Cruz is the GOP victor, Republican won’t be as fearful and Democrats won’t be as gleeful. The Cruz strategy will be to focus on turnout among likely GOP voters, emphasizing both his positions and his outsider status to attempt to energize conservative voters who may not have cast ballots in 2008 and 2012. Although many electoral analysts don’t think a weak GOP turnout is the correct explanation for Obama’s victories, few discount the renewed importance of get-out-the-vote efforts in 21st century politics. Still, Democrats have a strong ground game of their own, and a belief that Cruz will not attract enough swing voters to prevail in battleground states.
In my experience, North Carolina Democrats are most nervous about the prospect of a Marco Rubio nomination. They believe he has significant potential to attract independents and moderate Democrats, including young and non-white voters, thus pulling apart the Obama coalition that narrowly won the state in 2008 and narrowly lost it in 2012. Again, I concede the Democrats could be mistaken.
If nominated, Rubio will need to move quickly to heal his party’s primary wounds and invest sufficient resources in a grassroots operation to ensure strong Republican turnout. The opportunity to vote against Hillary Clinton, in other words, won’t be enough for conservative voters who believe that previous Republican victories for Congress haven’t resulted in enough progress on conservative priorities in Washington.
I don’t mean to be unkind to the other Republican candidates for president, but I doubt seriously that either major party’s candidates in North Carolina are developing strategies for any other outcome. I really think the GOP race is down to Trump, Cruz, and Rubio at this point. Each has a scenario, although I view Trump’s as improbable.
North Carolina is now a highly competitive state. While Republicans have won most of the recent contests, Democrats retain significant political strengths, including talented campaign operatives, a motivated donor base that desperately wants to regain power in Raleigh, and an energized base of left-of-center voters who disagree with the conservative policies enacted over the past five years.
The races for governor and most other statewide offices will be hard-fought. Many will be close. Both parties will be hoping their respective presidential standard-bearers will help get them over the top. Only one will be right.
John Locke Foundation chairman John Hood is the author of Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans.