House Bill 2 may energize partisan base in governor’s race

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 31, 2016

Will recent statewide controversy over LGBT rights affect November’s general election for governor? Perhaps not.

Incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, and challenger Roy Cooper, a Democrat, have engaged in a fierce war of words about a state law that, in part, requires North Carolinians to use bathroom corresponding with their biological gender. Known as House Bill 2, the state law struck down a Charlotte non-discrimination ordinance, prevents local governments from raising the minimum wage and prevents employees from suing over discriminatory work practices.

McCrory says the bill has been inaccurately portrayed. He has characterized House Bill 2 as protecting privacy and safety. It struck down a “radical breach of trust,” McCrory said.

Cooper says House Bill 2 signs discrimination into law. He has called the bill a “national embarrassment.” Cooper, the state’s attorney general, has also refused to defend North Carolina against a federal lawsuit over House Bill 2.

Instead of swaying voters to another gubernatorial candidate, however, the political rhetoric may only energize the base of the Republican and Democratic parities. With at least three statewide polls on the issue, liberals and Democrats would’ve preferred if state officials left Charlotte’s ordinance alone. Once all three survey results are combined, data on conservatives and Republicans is inconclusive. The survey that included the most respondents found conservatives would rather the legislature intervened.

Catawba College Politics Professor Michael Bitzer said controversy over House Bill 2 helps both ends of the political spectrum.

“The way I see it playing out is that it has been an advantage for both sides,” said Bitzer. “Certainly Republicans see this as a social conservative victory. … Even though Democrats see (House Bill 2) as a negative, Cooper can use it to energize his base.”

McCrory needs rural, socially conservative voters, Bitzer said, while Cooper needs urban, progressive voters.

When asked about the bill on Wednesday, the McCrory campaign used a poll from the conservative-leaning Civitas Institute as a sign that most North Carolina residents support House Bill 2. Some questions used in the poll emphasize similar points as Republican leaders. Instead of stating the Charlotte passed an updated version of an existing nondiscrimination law, the poll called it a “bathroom ordinance.” When giving background information, the poll says Charlotte ordinance opponents are concerned men could “use the women’s bathroom and locker rooms in front of women and girls.”

Of 400 registered voters who were interviewed for the Civitas poll, 69 percent said the Charlotte ordinance was unsafe. The Civitas poll didn’t break down results by political ideology.

An early March survey by WRAL-TV, which involved more respondents than either of the other two polls, muddies results further. It found a majority or plurality of conservatives supported legislative action by the N.C. General Assembly. The poll found a majority of liberals supported leaving Charlotte’s ordinance alone.

Survey results from liberal-leaning Public Policy Polling found most voters think “Charlotte should have the right to pass its own law without interference from on high.” It’s the only one of the three showing a plurality of conservatives preferred leaving Charlotte alone. A majority of self-described liberals surveyed said they supported leaving Charlotte alone.

In the NC General Assembly, which held a special session to consider the bill, the State House passed House Bill 2 by a count of 82-26. All Republicans who voted supported the measure. A number of Democrats joined Republicans in supporting the measure. It was a different story in the State Senate, where Democrats walked out in protest before the vote.

The McCrory campaign contends that House Bill 2 and the Charlotte ordinance aren’t political issues. When asked about the measure, McCrory campaign spokesman Ricky Diaz said voters will ultimately have to decide whether to consider House Bill 2 when casting a ballot. Diaz said McCrory’s opponents are only trying “to promote conflict and anger” with rhetoric against House Bill 2.

Cooper campaign spokesman Jamal Little contends House Bill 2 is putting jobs and the state’s economy at risk.

“It has shown that Governor McCrory is willing to put his partisan political agenda ahead of the best interests of our state,” Little said in an emailed statement. “Within twelve hours, the legislature pushed this discriminatory legislation through, and the governor signed the bill into law in the dark of the night. Governor McCrory’s legislation is one of the most discriminatory laws in America and is an active threat to North Carolina’s economy.”

A number of national and international companies have expressed opposition to House Bill 2. Republicans, however, note that none have committed to leaving North Carolina.

In a video posted to YouTube, McCrory said he’s open to new ideas about the bill, which he says isn’t perfect.

However, a new issue may pop up vefore November’s elections. The legislature will also convene for its “short-session” in late April.

By the time voters cast ballots in November’s general elections, a new, significant issue may be at the forefront of voters’ minds, Bitzer said.

“I think it will be one of the big issues, but we’ve got quite a few more months,” he said. “So, who knows what’s going to appear on the radar.”