RALEIGH — Pat McCrory became the first Republican elected governor in 20 years, easily defeating his rival Tuesday and giving his party complete control of lawmaking for the first time since the 1800s.
The former Charlotte mayor’s victory served as a slap to Democrats, whose iron grip on state government grew weak amid persistently high unemployment and scandals that tarnished the two most recent administrations.
With the GOP at the helm, the state’s direction is expected to shift to the partisan right, a continuation of the work Republicans began two years ago when they assumed control at the statehouse.
“There is a sense of urgency in this state right now,” the governor-elect said in his victory speech from a Charlotte hotel ballroom full of supporters. “People are hurting right now, and people are worried about their future, and that’s what we are going to begin working on immediately.”
McCrory held a double-digit advantage against Democrat Walter Dalton, according to early election results. Libertarian Barbara Howe finished a distant third. The Associated Press projected McCrory’s victory an hour after the polls closed.
The result reflected the state of the race in the final months, as McCrory used a head start and his deep campaign coffers to maintain a comfortable lead.
Dalton, the current lieutenant governor, started with a handicap after unpopular incumbent Gov. Bev Perdue made a last-minute decision in January not to seek re-election. A Democratic primary battle in May further slowed Dalton’s start, as he struggled to distance himself from the current administration and find a message that excited voters.
“We knew it was tough when we got in this race, and we did the most we could with limited resources,” Dalton said in his concession speech in a Raleigh hotel ballroom. “But we always ran to win, and I am proud of that.”
Reflecting the state’s flagging economy, McCrory, 56, campaigned on a message of change. He pledged to “fix a broken government” and create jobs through tax cuts while offering few, if any, specifics about what he would do once he took the helm.
What he lacked in an agenda, McCrory replaced with enthusiasm, traveling the state with his squinty-eyed big grin. His political skin morphed throughout the two-year campaign as he moved hard right at times to appease wary conservatives in his party before shifting to the center in the final weeks, casting himself as a moderate who would seek bipartisanship.
McCrory focused much of his efforts on raising money. His total haul approached $12 million, and he used about $6.3 million on a television and radio advertising campaign that touted his experience as mayor. The ad campaign began in August – a month before his Democratic rival’s – and doubled his lead in the polls.
“I believe he will do a better job of making sure we’re spending money on the right things and not wasting money we don’t have,” said Jason Laborde, a Republican from Cary who voted for McCrory.
The N.C. governor’s race was the No. 1 target for national Republicans, who spent $5 million to boost McCrory. The Republican Governors Association aired relentless attack ads against Dalton, linking him to the current administration and blasting his one-time support for a sales tax increase. McCrory pledged to run a positive campaign, a message he reiterated in his victory speech, but he broke his word by sending negative mailers against Dalton, and he failed to denounce false negative ads.
An outside Democratic group tried to help Dalton by attacking McCrory and questioning his ethics, but it failed to spend enough money to make a difference. Dalton’s campaign struggled, too, raising about $4 million – less than what McCrory received in three and a half months.
Reversal from four years ago
McCrory’s triumph atoned for his narrow defeat four years ago, when a Democratic tide, led by Barack Obama’s campaign, lifted Perdue to victory, even in McCrory’s home county. This year, Dalton didn’t get an overwhelming boost as Republicans mounted a stronger challenge in the presidential race.
Perdue called McCrory to congratulate him soon after the results were announced. She pledged to work together with her former rival to ensure a smooth transition.
With the win, McCrory is the first Charlotte resident to become governor in 92 years, ending a jinx that reflects the state’s power shift toward urban areas and away from rural eastern North Carolina, which the state’s past three chief executives called home. “It can happen,” McCrory said. “The curse is over.”
McCrory’s margin of victory falls just shy of the high water mark for a Republican in a statewide campaign. Former Republican Gov. Jim Martin took 55.1 percent in his 1988 re-election bid, the last time Republicans won the governor’s mansion, improving on the 54 percent he claimed in 1984. Former Gov. Jim Holshouser won with 51 percent in 1972.
Unlike Martin and Holshouser, who needed surges from Republicans at the top of the ticket to win, McCrory cruised to victory despite a dead heat in the presidential race, and drew a number of ticket-splitters, such as Norman Massengill of Charlotte. A Republican, Massengill voted for Obama and McCrory.
“I have not been pleased with the way Democratic governors have led this state,” said Massengill, 53, a warehouse worker. “I was pleased overall with what McCrory did for Charlotte.”
Challenges from the start
McCrory is expected to travel Wednesday to Raleigh to start his transition. He begins with an ability to make an immediate impact on the state, more so than any recent governor. His first task is assembling a transition team to help recruit staff and state agency leaders. A new state law gives McCrory 1,000 jobs to fill with political allies – more than double the current amount.
But the broader challenges facing his administration are more profound.
The state is mired in joblessness, with the fifth-highest rate in the nation, and a static economy means crafting a state budget in the new year with few dollars to spare.
In his speech, McCrory appealed to the state’s residents to work harder to help improve the state’s standing and potential.
“What I want to tell the state is this: This state has unlimited opportunity,” McCrory said. “What we need to do as individuals is make sure we all fulfill our potential. In fact, now with the tough competition around us … we need to exceed our potential, every one of us.”
At the same time, McCrory is poised to make progress without doing much on his own, as some sectors of the state’s economy slowly rebound and experts forecast 12 million new jobs nationwide in the next four years.
Another question remains about how he will work with the GOP-led legislature. The party’s dominant position in the lawmaking process means legislation Democrats blocked, such as voter ID requirements, face near certain approval. But the governor-elect’s proposal to revamp the tax code over many years will meet detractors who want to move quickly.
Staff writer Austin Baird and Jim Morrill contributed to this report.