In a night of impressive Republican victories across the country, and right here in North Carolina, the state’s Democrats may well have accomplished their top priority of defeating Gov. Pat McCrory — by a whisker.
At this writing, Roy Cooper’s 5,000-vote margin will likely generate a recount. Nevertheless, it’s worth pondering how so many things could go right for Republicans and still not necessarily end well for the state party’s titular leader, Gov. McCrory.
The problem wasn’t the top of the ticket. Donald Trump won North Carolina by nearly 200,000 votes, thanks to strong turnout among Republicans and GOP-leaning independents who were highly motivated to vote against Hillary Clinton. Critically, these voters didn’t just vote for Trump and the party’s top-polling candidate, Sen. Richard Burr, who defeated Democratic opponent Deborah Ross by six percentage points. Most Burr-Trump voters stayed at the polls long enough to vote all the way down the ballot.
That’s one reason that, contrary to most expectations, Republicans didn’t lose any ground in the General Assembly this year. They maintained their supermajorities in both chambers, even padding their lead in the state senate. Moreover, the GOP won historic victories in Council of State races for state treasurer (Dale Folwell), state superintendent of public instruction (Mark Johnson), and insurance commissioner (Mike Causey), while reelecting Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, and Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry by solid margins.
In judicial races, Democrats won the biggest prize. Wake County judge Mike Morgan defeated Supreme Court Justice Bob Edmunds, thus flipping the high court Democratic. But Republicans won all five races for state court of appeals, where most cases get decided.
I guess a key lesson here is that North Carolina politics remains highly competitive and volatile. This isn’t just a function of turnout differentials. Although ticket-splitting is far less common than it used to be, some North Carolinians continue to mix and match their votes in seemingly inexplicable ways.
I say “seemingly inexplicable” because, of course, such voters think their choices are entirely reasonable. Imagine that you were a non-ideological voter who didn’t think much of either party and saw both the state and the nation as headed in the wrong direction. Wouldn’t you consider voting against the incumbent party in the White House as well as the incumbent party in the governor’s mansion?
Here’s another one: imagine that you were a Republican-leaning voter who believed the party should be more welcoming to gays and lesbians. That might lead you to vote for Trump, based on his prior history and recent statements on LGBT issues, and against McCrory, based on his defense of House Bill 2. You may also have voted for Dan Forest, who was at least as resolute in his defense of the bill — but because you don’t follow state politics very closely, you didn’t know that.
Given the other election results, in other words, it would be highly problematic to interpret a possible Roy Cooper win by a tiny margin as some kind of sweeping message about Republican rule in Raleigh. If North Carolina voters truly thought the GOP’s conservative policies on tax cuts, regulatory relief, entitlement reform, education, and other issues were the wrong direction for the state, why did they just give Republicans more power in the General Assembly and new authority over the state’s finances and public schools? And why did they just vote for Republicans for president and Congress who promised to pursue a similar agenda in Washington?
As I’ve pointed out all year, North Carolina Democrats hoped that the 2016 elections would produce victories from the White House to the school house. They worked hard to defeat Trump, Burr, and Republican lawmakers. But by far their fondest wish was to recapture the governor’s mansion. They vastly outraised and outspent McCrory and his allies. They gave Roy Cooper every form of aid he required. They went all in.
And if his thin margin stands, they’ll have something most Democrats around the country won’t have — something to celebrate.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.