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Will the new governor part ways with his fellow Republicans in the legislature?
By Bryan Warner
Published: Dec. 11, 2012
RALEIGH - While Democrats celebrated the victory of President Barack Obama on election night 2012, North Carolina Republicans were cheering as their party won the governor’s mansion after a 20-year hiatus and expanded GOP majorities in both the state House and Senate. For the first time since the 1800s, Republicans would control state government – and by a wide margin.
The GOP swept to power in the N.C. General Assembly with the 2010 elections. But while they enjoyed a veto-proof majority in the state Senate, Republicans fell four seats shy of achieving the same in the House. That silver lining was key for Democrats, as Gov. Bev Perdue issued a record 19 vetoes in the 2011-2012 legislative session.
Republicans were able to sway enough House Democrats to override Perdue’s veto of the state budget and on such controversial issues as natural gas “fracking.” But Democrats held firm on sustaining other vetoes, including Perdue’s rejection of a photo ID requirement for voting.
And so Republicans were overjoyed as election results this year showed them picking up nine seats in the House and adding another two in the Senate, giving them a solid veto-proof advantage in both chambers.
Yet just when the GOP gained enough seats to stifle a gubernatorial veto, Republican Pat McCrory defeated Democratic Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton to win the governor’s mansion. As such, it would seem the GOP’s veto-proof majority could be more symbolic than practical in the coming legislative session. Or will it?
While the legislative super-majority and Gov.-elect McCrory share a common party, their respective constituencies differ greatly. House members represent districts with a population of about 80,000. Members of the Senate come from districts of roughly 190,000 residents.
McCrory will govern a state of over 9.6 million citizens – and one where registered Democrats and unaffiliated voters outnumber Republicans by more than 2-1. Indeed, a key to McCrory’s success in 2012 was winning over independent voters and pulling over enough Democrats to carry the governor’s race. A survey by Public Policy Polling on the eve of the election found McCrory leading Dalton by 30 percent among unaffiliated voters and favored by one-in-five Democrats.
Republican legislators may have far fewer reasons to concern themselves with winning support outside their party. Of the incoming 33-member Republican majority in the N.C. Senate, 12 had no Democratic opponent in November and the 21 that did face off against a Democrat won by an average of 18 percentage points.
That trend held in the N.C. House, where the GOP majority will be made up of 28 members who had no Democratic rival this year and the remaining 49 won by an average of 20 points. The insular nature of these House and Senate districts is due in large part to the Republican legislative majority coming to power in 2011 and just in time to draw new voting maps favorable to their party, after decades of Democrats doing the same.
Of course, McCrory will surely keep an eye on the Republican base and likely support many bills dear to GOP voters. In fact, one of the remarkable aspects of his candidacy in 2012 was that, as a perceived moderate former mayor of big-city Charlotte, McCrory escaped any serious right-flank opponent in the primary.
A March 2011 survey from Public Policy Polling found that 43 percent of Republican voters wanted a gubernatorial nominee that was more conservative than McCrory, with just 29 percent indicating that they would “firmly support” McCrory as their choice in a primary election. A year later, McCrory had shored up Republican support across the board en route to an easy ride to the GOP nomination.
Now in power, however, McCrory will need to strike a delicate balance between placating the more conservative elements within his party, while maintaining support among independent voters, along with a segment of moderate Democrats.
One way to do this could be to carefully issue the occasional veto, knowing that it would likely be overridden in a legislature where the Republican majority is able to pass whatever it pleases. The well-placed rejection of GOP-crafted legislation could assert McCrory’s role as more than a simple gubernatorial rubber stamp, while earning a reputation as an independent voice in government.
Indeed, given the persistently abysmal approval ratings for the legislature – regardless of which party holds control – McCrory would be wise to at times move to the beat of his own drum if he wants to hear a victory tune again in 2016.
Bryan Warner is editor of The Voter Update magazine.