Governor Roy CooperA case study.
Until 2016, no Democrat from the top of the ticket had been elected in North Carolina since President Obama and former Senator Kay Hagan both won the state in 2008 [link to our Hagan case study). Since then, Republicans have won both Senate seats, governorships, and have held supermajorities in the legislature. Since being elected governor in 2012, Pat McCrory signed into law, conservative policies that included rolling back voting rights, new abortion restrictions, and slashing funding for education. His policies were so disdained, that it led to the Moral Mondays protests every week in Raleigh.
In October of 2015, then-Attorney General Roy Cooper announced his candidacy against incumbent Governor Pat McCrory. Despite having served as attorney general for 16 years, only about half of voters in the state knew who Cooper was at the start of the race. At the same time, even though voters were not familiar with his performance as governor, McCrory had modest approval. McCrory also entered the race with more support in Mecklenburg County than most Republicans typically have because of his time as Mayor of Charlotte prior to becoming Governor. Defeating McCrory would require not only introducing Cooper statewide, but convincing voters in Mecklenburg and Charlotte that McCrory was not serving as governor the way he had served as mayor.
Our early research indicated that education and the economy were the top issues for voters. On education, they felt that McCrory had not made it a large enough priority, but that he was not to blame for all the state’s problems on education. On the economy, while voters did not believe that the state had fully recovered, they did believe that things had improved and that McCrory was touting a “Carolina Comeback” due to the state’s recovery from the recession. However, most voters opposed some of McCrory’s more extreme policies on women’s health, voter ID, and other issues. Many voters had not followed the issues closely and McCrory was able to get away unvarnished.
As we began introducing Cooper, our focus was on demonstrating that he had the right priorities when it came to the state budget – as governor, he would restore and increase funding on education, would focus on attracting new jobs and industries to the state, and incentivize good companies to stay in North Carolina rather than move out of state. This set up a contrast to McCrory, who had largely focused on passing extreme conservative policies rather than the issues most voters cared out.
In March of 2016, Governor McCrory signed into law the controversial “bathroom bill,” known as HB2. This law is most well-known for mandating that people use the bathroom of the gender on their birth certificate; which would stop transgender people from using the bathroom of their gender identity. It also set statewide nondiscrimination policies for both employment and service in public accommodations; the policies don’t include protections for gay or transgender people.
The backlash to the law was immediate, and multi-faceted. In addition to criticizing the law itself, and the fact that it legalizes discrimination, many were outraged that the governor would focus his time and attention on an unimportant issue while the state was facing real challenges. It became a singular representation of the way in which McCrory had failed to address the true priorities of the state in a way that no other issue had previously been able to. The law gained national attention, and shortly after its passage, the state reported billions in lost revenue due to concerts, conferences, and high-profile sporting events pulling out of the state; including the NCAA college basketball tournament.
As attorney general, Roy Cooper came out publicly and refused to defend the law, drawing criticism from the governor. However, the Cooper campaign continued to focus on the issues that our research identified as the real priorities for voters – improving education, providing opportunity for families, raising wages, and attracting new jobs and industries. This was offset by McCrory’s focus on a divisive social issue, and his continued support for an incredibly unpopular law.
On Election Day, Cooper was narrowly elected by just 0.2%, even as Trump won the state by almost four points and Republican Senator Richard Burr was reelected.