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John Hood: Be careful with rule changes

RALEIGH — To the extent that Roy Cooper has a reasonable chance of defeating Gov. Pat McCrory for re-election, it’s because many of his fellow Democrats failed in their efforts to change the electoral process in 1980s and early 1990s.

In 1984, U.S. Rep. Jim Martin was elected governor of North Carolina. He wasn’t the first Republican governor in modern times. That distinction belonged to Jim Holshouser, narrowly elected in 1972 as part of the huge GOP wave that re-elected President Richard Nixon and helped put Jesse Helms into the U.S. Senate and Jim Martin himself into Congress.

But from the standpoint of North Carolina Democrats, Martin’s defeat of Rufus Edmisten in 1984 was far more troubling than what had happened in 1972. Martin didn’t just edge Edmisten. He won more than 54 percent of the vote (higher than the share Helms won in his re-election bid against Jim Hunt). Taking office with Martin were 50 Republican legislators. Thanks to Hunt’s previous securing of gubernatorial succession, Martin could now run for a second term in 1988. And Martin also came into office with an ambitious agenda of tax cuts and government reforms that Democrats both didn’t like and feared might prove popular.

So shortly after Martin took office in 1985, leading Democrats began to strategize about how best to weaken his office, reduce his influence in Raleigh, and ensure that neither he or any other Republican would hold the office for long.

For example, Dennis Wicker, a future lieutenant governor who was then serving in the North Carolina House, proposed a constitutional amendment to repeal gubernatorial succession. By April 1985, it had already passed both chambers. Later, as the legislative session was drawing to a close, the Democratic majority quickly authorized another constitutional amendment to move North Carolina’s non-federal elections to odd-numbered years. They figured that without help from GOP presidential candidates at the top of the ticket, Republicans could never hope to be victorious in races for governor, legislature, and other offices.

The election-year switch was scheduled to be on the ballot in May 1986. The repeal of gubernatorial succession would follow on the November 1986 ballot. It was to be a one-two punch to knock out the North Carolina GOP.

But neither measure became law. One reason is that Democratic leaders themselves had second thoughts. What if these changes proved to be so unpopular that they hurt Democrats with the voters? And what if the electoral patterns changed? Perhaps one day it would be Democrats who would benefit from a popular presidential ticket and Republicans who’d fare better in non-presidential cycles.

After pondering these questions, many of the very Democrats who had drafted the amendments backed off. As the May 1986 referendum to shift the election year approached, Democrats refused to campaign for the measure. Voters overwhelmingly defeated it. A few weeks later, during the 1986 legislative session, the Democrats voted to repeal Wicker’s bill authorizing the succession amendment, so that proposal never even made it to the voters.

After Martin was re-elected and an unprecedented 59 Republicans won legislative seats in 1988, some Democrats were again tempted to change the rules. Indeed, a bill to shift gubernatorial elections to the midterm cycle rather than presidential cycle passed the North Carolina Senate in 1991. Its main sponsor was another future Democratic lieutenant governor, Bev Perdue, who would win the governor’s race in 2008. But in 1991, cooler heads prevailed in the House. That change never happened, either. If it had and, say, Perdue had run for governor for the first time in 2010 instead of 2008, she’d have been crushed by (presumably) Pat McCrory. And if he had then run for re-election in 2014, another pro-GOP midterm cycle, neither Roy Cooper nor any other Democrat would likely have been competitive.

So my message to today’s North Carolina Republicans is this: change an electoral rule if it makes sense on the merits, but don’t do it assuming that your party will benefit. Back in the day, Democrats checked their swing. Now they’re glad they did.

Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation. Follow him @JohnHoodNC.

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