By Steven Rader:
The Republican primary for US Senate in North Carolina in 2022 features three major candidates, Congressman Ted Budd, former Governor Pat McCrory, and former Congressman Mark Walker. A key question is – which would run better as a GOP nominee against a Democrat?
An electable nominee is not only critically important for the GOP to gain control of the US Senate itself. As the head of the Republican ticket on the NC ballot, the strength of the Senate nominee can have a real impact, positive or negative, on down ballot races. A strong nominee who builds enthusiasm to bring GOP oriented voters to the polls can be a significant factor in regaining a GOP super majority in the General Assembly and in regaining control of the state Supreme Court, as well as on competitive Congressional races in a redistricting year.
All three candidates have a track record with voters. McCrory won multiple terms as mayor of Charlotte. Both Budd and Walker served multiple terms in Congress, both winning their initial GOP primaries as underdogs who had never served in public office but came from behind to defeat much better known politicians. McCrory is the only one who has run statewide, and as a result starts with much higher name recognition. A real warning sign, however, is that although McCrory has run three times statewide, every time in races he should have won, he only managed to win once and that was against a second string Democrat opponent. Most significantly, he trailed the rest of the ticket when he ran for reelection As President Trump noted, a two time loser is not a promising nominee.
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Minor brushes with scandals by two of the candidates cause some concern but are probably not deal killers. Walker was mentioned in court documents on the fringes of the Lindberg bribery scandal but nothing in it linked him directly to criminal wrongdoing. McCrory has been accused of sexual harassment of a male ABC News reporter shortly after announcing his candidacy for Senate, but that received little attention and seems to have died as non-event.
There are major policy issues on matters that have a high profile with GOP voters that will likely be used as issues in the primary, like McCrory’s approving NC drivers licenses for DACA illegal aliens or Walker’s voting for Nancy Pelosi’s cancel culture efforts to rename Fort Bragg and to remove historical monuments from the US Capitol. However when it comes general election time, most Republican activists, even if they disagree on such things with the nominee, will likely view the Democrat opponent as a bigger threat, including on these issues. These major issues will nonetheless impact the level of enthusiasm from the party base, which is critical in an off year election.
The real hit to electability comes from issues that hit so close to home for elements of the GOP base and/or swing voters that they simply will not ignore these issues when it comes time to vote. These are the issues that can make usual GOP voters skip over a race, vote for a protest candidate, or stay home entirely. Three examples show that candidate Pat McCrory faces serious problems from being tone deaf on issues while he was governor..
McCrory’s first problem is the issue that cost him re-election as governor, the fierce opposition of the usually Republican voters of northern Mecklenburg County and southern Iredell County to the I-77 toll lanes which McCrory’s administration approved. In 2016, those voters turned out for other Republican candidates but they abandoned McCrory in droves. This is an issue that is down home and personal for them. They drive that road daily to jobs and shopping in Charlotte, and it is a continuing headache for them that they are still mad with McCrory over. The anti-toll organization in the two counties did a very detailed vote analysis of the 2016 election results that was published in the Daily Haymaker clearly showing that the votes McCrory lost there were more than enough to have put him over the top for re-election. Those voters would likely come out for either of the other US Senate candidates, but there is probably nothing McCrory could do to get them back for himself.
North Carolina’s commercial fishermen and their supporters represent another probably insurmountable hurdle for McCrory as a result of his sandbagging them on key appointments to regulatory bodies when he was governor. Those appointments were where McCrory appointed people linked to an environmentalist organization, that claims to represent recreational fishermen and who are mortal enemies of the commercial fishermen and their ability to stay in business, to control the Marine Fisheries Commission. This is a continuing heartburn for the commercial fishermen and McCrory’s name is mud with them. It is an issue he cannot fix. Commercial fishermen have been a largely GOP voting block going back decades but McCrory has burned his bridges with them and their friends.
Commercial fishermen are particularly irked by the way the sellout went down. Their leaders had negotiated at length with McCrory’s Director of Boards and Commission, and an agreement had been reached on compromise nominees that the fishermen could live with. Allies of the environmentalists then went directly to McCrory, who overruled his own staff and gave the appointments to hardline opponents of the commercial fishermen. To add insult to injury, the governor’s office sat on the announcement and only made it on the eve of the 2016 election when most of the commercial fishermen had already early voted – mostly for McCrory. That commercial fishermen are still stewing over what they view as a betrayal that undermines their ability to earn a living is putting it mildly.
Southern heritage voters are another normally Republican voting block where McCrory has worn out his welcome to the point that there is little possiblity of getting them back. In an unforced error, McCrory announced that he would end the special license plates for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the earliest major cancel culture move against southern history in North Carolina. While McCrory’s move was blocked by the state senate leadership, it led to these voters who had mostly supported McCrory in 2012 to turn on him in 2016. With the far left’s cancel culture against southern history still in full swing, this is something that these voters are unlikely to forget when they go to the polls. Many southern heritage groups were quite active in word of mouth campaigns against McCrory in 2016, and their feelings toward him are not likely to change.
In addition to these three issues that directly and personally impact specific elements of the GOP base and McCrory has no realistic hope of damage control, there is one major high profile issue from his term as governor where he shot himself in both feet, made himself enemies on both sides, and probably has no way to come back from it. That is the men in the ladies room – House Bill 2 – issue. McCrory made himself a poster boy for this legislation’s opponents, meaning it will be a rallying cry to them to turn out the liberal base in 2022 if he is the nominee. The fact that McCrory’s support for it was always lukewarm, he was constantly looking for ways to climb down, and after he left office he flip-flopped and publicly supported its repeal, mean nothing to them. They will use it to gin up their base.
However, McCrory’s flip flop in supporting the repeal of this legislation is probably even more damaging because it spotlights him as a phony with a very important statewide GOP voting block, the Christian conservatives. He faces a very difficult, and likely impossible task of restoring trust with this key group as a result of what is viewed as an opportunistic stab in the back. The fact that Tennessee’s Republican governor has just signed their own HB2 style legislation into law also makes McCrory and GOP legislative moderates look like cowards for supporting repeal.
The political impact of the HB2 issue is often misrepresented by the media. While McCrory whose support for it was lukewarm, lost in 2016, his Lieutenant Governor, Dan Forest, was a strong and vocal supporter of HB 2 and won by a wide margin. Moreover, Democrats spent a lot of money and effort pushing this issue in legislative races in 2016, only to see Republicans re-elect their supermajority and even make gains against the Democrats. As part of their analysis of election trends in their area, the anti-toll group in northern Mecklenburg / southern Iredell, pointed out that in Thom Tillis’ old House seat in northern Mecklenburg, the Republican incumbent won by an even bigger margin in 2016 with the Democrats spending heavily pushing this issue than he had in 2014.
When Republicans lost ground as a result of HB2 was in 2018 after GOP moderates joined legislative Democrats to repeal the legislation. With the Christian conservatives thrown under the bus, enough of them stayed home that a number of moderate Republican legislators who had voted for repeal lost their seats, causing the GOP to lose its legislative supermajority. In Mecklenburg County, the epicenter on HB2 for both sides, the GOP lost heavily. It was the moderates who had voted for repeal who went down. The only GOP legislator left standing in the county in 2018 was Senator Dan Bishop, a vocal supporter of HB2 who had voted against repeal.
McCrory also faces a problem with Republican activists who still resent his largely ignoring them on staffing his administration and in many board and commission appointments. McCrory, unlike previous GOP govenors, usually did not turn to party stalwarts for key appointments. An example of this hurdle for McCrory was the result of the straw poll at the recent state Republican convention. Although he was far and away the best known of the three main candidates, McCrory finished a distant third among convention delegates. While party activists are likely to still vote for whoever the GOP nominee turns out to be, many are likely to sit on the sidelines as to campaigning and fundraising if that nominee is McCrory.
McCrory has a record of being tone deaf on issues, and his positions on a number of them make him the least electable in a general election of those seeking the Republican nomination for US Senate. Neither Budd nor Walker faces the same problems.
Steven Rader has held a variety of positions in the NC Republican Party at the state, district, and county level and has been inducted into the NC Republican Party Hall of Fame. He has also worked professionally with campaigns and political parties both in the US and in Europe.