Christensen: GOP's new control signals a conservative shift in state policies

rchristensen@newsobserver.comNovember 7, 2012 

— Republicans took the reins of North Carolina state government for the first time since horse and buggy days Tuesday, likely signaling a conservative shift in policies ranging from education to taxes.

The GOP completed the task begun two years ago, when inspired by a tea party revolt against federal policies in Washington, they won control of the General Assembly. With Republican Pat McCrory sitting in the governor’s chair in January, the Republicans will bear full responsibility for governing in North Carolina for the first time since the 1800s.

In doing so, McCrory and his GOP legislative allies will likely follow in the footsteps of other Southern Republicans, such as Florida’s Jeb Bush and Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, in seeking more conservative options than have been championed by Democrats.

“There is no doubt public policy in the state will move to the right,” said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University. “It has clearly done so since 2010 anyway.”

There will likely be efforts to overhaul the tax system, including reducing corporate and personal income taxes and to deregulate business. Also on their list: changing teacher tenure laws, implementing performance pay for teachers, expanding tax-paid vouchers for private schools, and containing the costs of Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor.

Expect, too, a renewed push for a voter ID law.

“We kind of know what to expect – not immediate radical transformation of the state, but significant pushes in areas such as education, tax reform, budget reform and I think transportation,” said John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative Raleigh think tank.

Republican gains are likely to influence the state’s political culture, with more Republicans being hired as lobbyists, to head trade associations, to be appointed as university trustees and to serve on other important state boards and commissions.

The last similar transformational moment comparable to this was in 1900, when the Democrats gained control of state government from a Republican-Populist coalition called Fusionists.

Despite Tuesday’s outcome, there is little evidence of any sea change in views of North Carolinians. Polls suggest that North Carolinians remain as closely divided as ever.

Republicans profited from the state’s 9.6 percent unemployment rate and a series of Democratic scandals and ethical lapses involving Democratic Govs. Mike Easley and Bev Perdue, former House Speaker Jim Black, former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps and others which have tarnished the Democratic brand.

The McCrory narrative – that it was time for change because state government and the state’s economy were broken – was powerful.

There may also be a certain sense of inevitability to Republican gains, particularly in the governor’s race. North Carolina had 20 straight years of Democratic governors – the longest run of Democrats east of the Rockies. Objectively, such a long run of Democrats never made sense in a state as closely divided as North Carolina.

All across the South, state houses have been moving from Democratic to Republican hands.

“It had to end,” said Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic consultant. “The Democrats had the governor’s office 20 years. That’s unnatural, particularly after a couple of governorships that had their share of troubles.”

That North Carolina remained Democratic long after most of the rest of the South went Republican, Hood said, is a tribute to the political skills of former four-term Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt.

Pearce, a longtime Hunt adviser, said the progressive programs of Hunt and Democratic Gov. Terry Sanford matched the mood of a majority of North Carolina voters. And he said even past Republican governors, such as Jim Martin and Jim Holshouser, were moderates who fell within that broad tradition.

One of the compelling questions of this election is whether McCrory will fall within the Martin-Holshouser tradition or whether he will be more attuned to the GOP’s more conservative voices, Pearce said.

“What kind of governor will McCrory be?” Pearce said. “Will he be a centrist governor or will he be a tea party governor?”

Some of the Republican victories on Tuesday were the fruits of the 2010 legislative elections. Power begets power.

The Republicans could not have had better timing in winning the legislature, just as redistricting occurred. The legislature was able to draw districts that all but assured the re-election of the GOP majority – even though polls suggest the legislature was as unpopular as Perdue.

Redistricting also was instrumental in a major re-alignment of the U.S. Congressional delegation from North Carolina. The delegation was likely to go from its current 7-6 Democratic majority to either a 9-4 Republican majority or a 10-3 GOP majority.

Faced with difficult districts, two Democratic congressmen, Brad Miller of Raleigh and Heath Shuler of Bryson City, chose not to seek re-election. Two others, Larry Kissell of Biscoe and Mike McIntyre of Lumberton, faced huge obstacles to retaining their seats.

Controlling the legislature, with the ability to raise money from special interests, also gave the Republicans a large money advantage in funding in key swing legislative districts. And it gave the GOP the ability to raise large sums on behalf of N.C. Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby, in the Republican effort to retain control of the court.

Tuesday’s results will probably spark debate concerning whether there is a Republican re-alignment – with the GOP legislature helped by redistricting and by McCrory’s non-ideological campaign for governor.

Taylor said Perdue was a “very unpopular governor” and Democratic candidate Walter Dalton was not a strong gubernatorial candidate. McCrory, he said, ran as a strong, pragmatic leader who could get things done rather than running on the Republican philosophy or as a conservative.

“So the jury is still out on whether this is a lasting Republican re-alignment at the state level,” Taylor said. “It’s certainly a historical and meaningful event.”

Christensen: 919-929-4532

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