North Carolina's Tug-of-War

Victor Juhasz

This piece is the third in our Solid South series. Read the opening essay by Bob Moser here, Abby Rapoport's Texas reporting here, and Jamelle Bouie on Virginia here.  

Bill Cook may be a relative newcomer to North Carolina politics—he won his 2012 state senate race by 21 votes, after two recounts—but he has big plans for the state. By this spring’s filing deadline, Cook, a power--company retiree from the coastal town of Beaufort, had sponsored no fewer than seven measures aimed at rewriting the state’s election rules—largely in ways that would benefit Republicans. Over the past decade, North Carolina has become a national model for clean elections and expanded turnout, thanks to reforms like early voting, same-day registration, and public financing of some races. New voters—mostly people of color and college students—helped Democrats turn the state into a presidential battleground, which Barack Obama won by a hair in 2008 and lost narrowly in 2012.

This new electorate doesn’t sit well with Cook. So the senator introduced a strict measure to require government--issued photo ID at the polls, slash the number of early-voting days, eliminate same-day registration during early voting, and delay by five years the time it takes for former felons to regain their voting rights. None of these proposals is original; they’re the same voter-suppression measures floated in recent years by Republican legislators from Wisconsin to Georgia. But then Cook got creative. He co-sponsored Senate Bills 666 and 667, both of which would ban parents from claiming their college children as dependents on their state taxes if those children vote on campus (as most students do). Then he filed Senate Bill 668, prohibiting the “mentally incompetent” from voting. Why? Because, as Cook told The Charlotte Observer, he had once seen such a person be “manipulated” at the polls.

Unfortunately for Cook, North Carolinians were growing weary of bills like SB 666, which voting-rights advocates immediately dubbed “the Bill of the Beast.” The state had already suffered national ridicule for GOP--sponsored measures to create a state religion and hand out jail sentences to women who expose their nipples in public. Republican leaders hastily distanced themselves from Cook’s measure. House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Republican, said, “It’s not gonna move.”

Still, several Republican voting measures may become law. For the first time since Reconstruction, the GOP controls both North Carolina’s governor’s mansion and its general assembly. These are not the moderate, business-minded Republicans that North Carolinians have long been accustomed to. They are pushing a hard-right agenda on a broad range of issues, from taxes to social services to schools and election laws. They are scrambling to turn back the clock before demographic changes push their brand of right-wing politics to the margins.

How did this happen in a state that so recently voted for Obama? One key factor was big money. Art Pope, a discount-retail mogul from Raleigh and close ally of national Tea Party funders Charles and David Koch, has long been North Carolina’s most influential conservative donor. In 2010, taking advantage of the post–Citizens United free-for-all in campaign donations, Pope spent freely on groups that invested in state house and senate races, helping bankroll a Republican legislative majority. In 2012, Pope helped elect a Republican governor and a supermajority in the general assembly.

Because they took control of the legislature in 2010, Republicans were in charge of redistricting. (Pope served as a pro bono adviser.) The new maps diluted the impact of minority voters by stuffing African American, Latino, and other Democratic voters into a handful of state and congressional districts that are already minority-controlled. The whiter districts, in turn, got even whiter and more difficult for Democrats to win. The purpose was clear: to ensure that the GOP could continue to be strong on the state level for years to come, even if North Carolinians continue to lean Democratic. The effectiveness of the GOP’s new district lines can be measured in members of Congress. In 2012, nearly 51 percent of North Carolina voters picked a Democrat for U.S. House. But thanks to where those voters had been placed, Republicans won 9 of the state’s 13 House seats.

In 2016 and beyond, North Carolina will be fertile ground for Democratic presidential campaigns. Republicans, though, will maintain their advantage in most of the state’s legislative and congressional seats for a few more election cycles. After that, they will have to moderate their message—and policies. Conservative Republicans know that they’re working on borrowed time. That knowledge is spurring them to push public policy further and faster to the right while they still can. What happens when a state becomes more progressive and more conservative at the same time? North Carolinians are finding out.


North Carolina’s hard shift to the right is a jarring change for a state with a long moderate—and at times, progressive—tradition. In 1949, political scientist V.O. Key famously argued that, partly because it had a smaller plantation economy than its Southern neighbors, North Carolina had developed a tolerant and forward-looking political culture—what he called a “progressive plutocracy.” Even during the early 1960s, at the height of the white South’s resistance to civil rights, North Carolina was electing moderates like Governor Terry Sanford, who called for racial reconciliation and championed economic-development policies that built, among other things, the Research Triangle Park. Sanford’s pragmatic progressivism set the Democratic Party’s tone for the next half--century. While Old South politicians like Senator Jesse Helms grabbed national headlines, moderate Democrats back home cemented an enduring alliance around an agenda of investing in schools, accommodating business, and making slow but steady improvements in race relations.

Democratic control of the state created openings for change, which the state’s dense network of progressive advocacy groups seized on to win landmark reforms. Over the past decade, a series of pro-democracy measures expanded voting rights and curbed the influence of big money. In 2004, North Carolina became the first state to implement—with bipartisan support—a “clean elections” program that offers public grants to judicial candidates who raise a certain number of small donations and agree to take no more. More than 80 percent of eligible judges have used the public-financing plan, which has helped elect record numbers of African Americans and women. The public-finance option was later extended to other state races, including those for auditor and insurance commissioner, elections in which big checks from campaign donors can create clear conflicts of interest.

North Carolina has one of the nation’s most generous—and popular—early-voting periods. More than six million citizens, disproportionately African American, have taken advantage of early voting. In 2012, more than 155,000 registered at the polls while voting early, an option popular with students and those in the military. These measures have propelled North Carolina into the top 15 states in voter participation.

The nation got its first glimpse of North Carolina’s emerging electorate in 2008. John Kerry had lost the state by 14 percentage points in 2004, but Democrats drew on the excitement of the Obama campaign—and took advantage of liberalized voting laws—to turn out hundreds of thousands of new voters and carry the state for the first time since 1976.

Those new voters were part of the state’s emerging majority—a more racially diverse, urban, and Democratic--leaning electorate. From the 1960s to the 1990s, the state had a historic influx of nonnative white professionals, who were drawn to high-tech and university jobs in the Research Triangle and to the booming banking center of Charlotte. In recent decades, African Americans have been moving back to the state, part of a “remigration” from North to South. Charlotte saw a 120,000-person jump among African Americans, the sixth highest of any U.S. city. While still relatively small at 8.4 percent, the state’s Latino population doubled in size from 2000 to 2010, while an 85 percent rise in its Asian American population was the third highest in the country. Today, nearly half of North Carolinians 18 or younger are people of color. Voters of all races under 30 lean left on both economic and social issues, and they’ve voted heavily Democratic in recent elections. The path to a new progressive coalition is clear.

 “Over the last dozen years, we’ve gradually changed the structure of our election system to make it more accessible, to make people feel like their voices are welcome and make a difference,” says Bob Hall, whose group Democracy North Carolina has been a leading force behind the voting reforms. “Now, all those structural changes, including the public-financing options for various state offices, are under attack by modern-day Red Shirts and elitists who prefer to see elections decided by the boss man and his money.”


Art Pope has been the big-money boss man of North Carolina conservatives since the 1990s. Drawing on a family fortune amassed through Variety Wholesalers, the discount retail chain launched by his father, Pope has spent more than $40 million to promote a libertarian agenda, along with voter-suppression measures like voter ID. He represents a sharp departure from the business moderates who used to run the North Carolina GOP, and has, in fact, spent heavily in replacing those moderates with right-wing Republicans more to his liking. Through his advocacy network and political machine—he funds five conservative think tanks, publications, and legal groups—Pope has launched an assault not only on decades of reform but also on the very idea of government as a positive agent for change.

Pope’s family foundation supplies well over 80 percent of total funding for the state’s leading conservative groups. His right-wing philanthropy has been complemented by generous election contributions. Pope and his family have given almost $4 million to state Republican candidates and the North Carolina GOP. But it wasn’t until 2010 that Pope’s roles as conservative benefactor and Republican donor fully meshed to alter the course of state politics. 

After Obama’s victory, it was now or never for North Carolina Republicans. Fortunately for Pope and the GOP, the stars aligned in 2010. The Tea Party had galvanized white conservatives in North Carolina. At the same time, the state Democratic Party found itself in crisis. Governor Beverly Perdue was dogged by accusations of campaign-finance violations, and a sexual-harassment scandal at party headquarters forced the executive director to resign after bitter infighting. Many first-time voters from 2008—the ones who’d turned out for Obama more than for the Democrats—were unlikely to return to the polls for the midterm elections.

Pope pounced on the opportunity. Three outside spending groups he helped fund—Americans for Prosperity, Civitas Action, and Real Jobs NC—accounted for 75 percent of the outside money that flooded into North Carolina’s legislative races. That unprecedented level of spending fueled the historic Republican takeover. Among the right-wing newcomers Pope helped to elect was Bill Cook, who now champions changes to election rules that Pope has long advocated. In 2012, Pope’s largesse helped Republicans win a supermajority in the general assembly, while taking back the governor’s office for the first time in 20 years.

For a private citizen, Pope has amassed an extraordinary amount of political power, perhaps unmatched by a nonelected official in any other state. The Republican governor he helped elect, former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, named Pope state budget director, the most powerful appointed position in North Carolina. Rob Schofield, director of research and policy development of the progressive group NC Policy Watch, has likened it to “a President Romney appointing the Koch brothers as his directors of the EPA and IRS.” McCrory also picked key members of Pope’s network to serve as his chief of staff and to lead the state department of transportation. Perched in the executive branch, surrounded by lawmakers who owe him their jobs, and backed by an advocacy network he created, Pope can push North Carolina hard to the right.

Recognizing that this conservative moment might not last long, Republican legislators are moving swiftly. Despite the headlines, the most notorious bills—like the resolution to establish a state religion or the measure to outlaw public nipple displays—have been nonstarters. But the core of Pope’s agenda is going ahead. Every lawmaker in North Carolina knows that agenda: Scale back taxes, especially for businesses and the wealthy; slice away at the social safety net; and reverse the state’s focus on public schools as an engine for social and economic progress.

In February, lawmakers decreased maximum weekly unemployment benefits from $535 to $350 and shortened the period in which workers can receive them—an especially harsh measure given that unemployment in North Carolina is the nation’s fifth highest at 9.2 percent. North Carolina is one of 15 states that refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, a move that would have covered about 500,000 uninsured North Carolinians with the federal government picking up the tab. Now Governor McCrory is pushing to privatize management of the state Medicaid program, which would funnel North Carolina tax dollars to out-of-state managed-care companies while raising costs and reducing access to care.

Taxes became more regressive when lawmakers voted to end the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, which was claimed in 2011 by more than 900,000 low-income, working North Carolinians. Senate Republicans are now considering a bill to cut the state’s corporate income tax from the highest to the lowest in the Southeast, which would be low indeed. It could have been worse. An earlier Senate plan, promoted by Pope’s Civitas Institute, would have abolished corporate and personal income taxes altogether, replacing them with a higher sales tax—the most regressive form of taxation. Even Pope shot down that idea, saying sales-tax increases would “hurt the economy.” (They would definitely have affected sales in his retail chain.)

Republicans have also set their sights on gutting environmental laws, proposing to repeal the state’s renewable-energy standard, speed the way for fracking, and allow offshore drilling for oil and gas. The party is also taking aim at the historic centerpiece of North Carolina progressivism: public education, which has long been a target of Pope’s network. Last session, cuts to schools eliminated more than 4,300 teaching jobs. This time, one Republican bill would shift $90 million of public-school funding to private schools through vouchers. Another would eliminate teacher tenure. A proposal to shutter at least one UNC campus is on hold, following a public outcry.

There is growing anger over the GOP agenda. In April, the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP began organizing what it calls “Moral Monday” protests at the General Assembly in response to the Republican assault on programs serving the state’s poorest and most vulnerable residents, Timed to coincide with the opening of the session each week, the protests have drawn thousands of people to the legislature from throughout the state, a diverse crowd that has included young and old, black and white, students, working people, professionals, and retirees. Some protesters have engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience by entering the legislative building where they have held signs and belted out civil-rights anthems like “We Shall Overcome” in defiance of police orders to disperse, leading to more than 300 arrests so far for trespassing and other misdemeanor charges. The protests have won the endorsement of the state Democratic Party and the condemnation of McCrory, who has said such unlawful demonstrations “should be unacceptable.” (Full disclosure: After the print edition of this story went to press, co-author Chris Kromm was among 151 people arrested in the June 3 Moral Monday protest.)

The president of the state NAACP, the Reverend William Barber, has said the aim of the protests is to get the legislative leadership to “repent” and “turn around”—or at the very least to focus public attention on lawmakers’ actions, presumably so voters will remember come next November. But even if Democrats retake control of the legislature and begin to reverse some of the GOP policies over the next decade, it will take time to rebuild public schools, restore voting rights, tilt the tax code back toward fairness, and clean up polluted air and water. Though this Republican-right era won’t likely last long, North Carolinians will be living with its consequences for decades, if not generations.


It’s a curious time in North Carolina, as in much of the South. The state is experiencing a generational, partisan, and ideological tug-of-war. Voters are increasingly young and liberal and diverse, but lawmakers are older and whiter and far more conservative.

How long can such a disconnect persist? Longer than you might imagine. North Carolina’s demographics are steadily changing in ways that benefit Democrats. But the party has some rebuilding to do after the scandals and defeats of 2010 and 2012. If they can heal themselves, Democrats will then have to overcome the locked-in advantage Republicans gained when they redrew the state’s political maps in 2011. Until 2020, when the next round of redistricting begins, Democrats will have to win considerably more than 50 percent of voters to control the general assembly or send more members to Congress.

The Democrats’ task will be tougher if the Republicans’ voter--suppression bills—any of them—become law. Republican lawmakers already passed voter-ID laws in 2011 and 2012, only to have them vetoed by the then-Democratic governor. What if voter-ID passes again and is signed, as expected, by the Republican governor? The North Carolina State Board of Elections finds that more than 300,000 already-registered voters—disproportionately African American and low-income—lack the kind of photo ID that would be required. That’s just one bill. Republicans are still looking to shorten early voting, eliminate Sunday voting that African Americans call “soul to the polls,” and end same-day registration.

North Carolina Democrats say they aren’t looking for a miracle recovery. “We are not going to get it all back in 2014,” newly elected party chair Randy Voller recently told a breakfast meeting of party activists. The plan, according to Voller, is to recapture the state legislature over three election cycles. A key barometer of the party’s ability to rebuild—and garner national support—will be next year’s re-election campaign for U.S. Senator Kay Hagan. A centrist elected amid North Carolina’s Democratic wave in 2008, Hagan faces middling approval numbers and what promises to be a well-funded Republican opponent in Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis, who announced his bid in late May. If the party can drum up enthusiasm for re-electing Hagan, even in a non-presidential election year, it would be a sure sign of life.

If Republicans move too far, too fast, they will risk leaving moderates and independents behind—and further alienating the voters of the future. Two polls this spring showed growing discontent over legislative excesses, with North Carolinians disapproving of the GOP-led assembly. Even some Republican leaders understand that the party’s far-right turn is jeopardizing its grasp on power. Tillis, in a series of Facebook posts in early May, bemoaned fellow conservatives who “insist on a fast and wide approach,” saying they didn’t appreciate the challenge Republicans face in more moderate districts. “Our lack of discipline will lay the groundwork for [Democrats’] ascendancy,” he wrote. “And if they succeed we will have only ourselves to blame.”

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