BOONE — Before N.C. 194 stretches north from this mountain town into the hillsides patterned with Christmas tree farms, before it reaches tiny churches with proud steeples, before it leaves behind small towns with too few jobs, it passes the Goober Peas Country Store.
Maggie Hampton, 37, works the cash register at the small convenience store. She carpools to work to save gas money and closely watches her money.
Hampton doesnt pay much attention to what happens three hours east in Raleigh, but she knows how the recent legislative session affects her. She worries about the elimination of the back-to-school sales tax holiday next year. Her husband recently left his job as a special education teacher at the local high school after years without raises and job security. And her sons sixth-grade homeroom class is packed.
I cannot imagine he is getting the best education possible with 35 kids in a class, she says. But they cant hire teachers to alleviate that.
A year ago, Hampton voted to send Republicans to Raleigh, saying the state needed a change. But now her support is wavering.
If it continues this way, absolutely, she says about switching her vote in the next election. Its important for your kids to have a good education. And if you continue to cut, you cannot have a good education.
Whether talking education or the economy, her sentiment echoes a familiar refrain from voters across North Carolina. The historic legislative session in which Republicans controlled the states entire lawmaking process for the first time in a century brought major shifts to the right. GOP lawmakers say it was the change voters demanded; Democrats argue the ruling party overstepped.
In interviews with dozens of voters in three legislative swing districts, its clear the upheaval left moderate voters wavering, even as the GOP agenda energized the polar ends of the political spectrum.
From Greenville in the east to Boone in the west, the message is consistent: The economy is improving too slowly. The uncertain effects from major legislative changes to education, voting, economic development and taxes are worrisome. And large pay raises in the McCrory administration at the same time teachers receive no help are upsetting.
The mood which is reinforced by statewide polls may make a dozen competitive state House districts vulnerable in the next election a year from now. The new district maps make a Democratic takeover in both legislative chambers unlikely, but the minority party is vying to slow the GOP agenda by winning a few swing seats and establishing a foothold ahead of the 2016 governors race.
At the same time, the conversations indicate that Democrats, a party weakened by a lack of leadership, money and energy, will face a difficult challenge to win the support of voters many of whom arent paying close attention.
The battle to win those minds will decide whether Republicans maintain their course.
House District 93: Republicans wavering
Up the road from Goober Peas, where Meat Camp Road intersects N.C. 194, education and health care are on the mind of Lisa Miller.
We are losing our good teachers, says Miller, a mother of three who owns a consignment shop at the intersection. You want a healthy, educated population or you are going to end up with a sick, ignorant one.
Miller, 31, is cynical about politics and the new crop of leaders in Raleigh. I wish I could say were different, she says. Were still a broke state.
She identifies as a Libertarian but typically splits her ballot, siding with Democrats on social issues and Republicans on fiscal ones. She supports the voter ID requirement and opposes restrictions on guns. But she criticized the proposal to toughen rules on abortion clinics. To me its not about party, its about whos doing the best job, she says.
The political talk draws the ear of Nathan Church as he emerges from the store with an orange soda. He voted for Gov. Pat McCrory and the Republicans. But I wish I didnt, he says. And Im straight-out Republican.
Church, 33, worked at TT Electronics until 2012 when the companys Boone manufacturing plant closed and relocated to Mexico. Hes upset that Republicans curtailed unemployment benefits. Hes taking classes at the local community college to learn new skills but still cant find a job.
To hear voters talk, its easy to see why Watauga County is considered one of the states top swing districts. Republican Jonathan Jordan, a West Jefferson attorney, represents the area and neighboring Ashe County in House District 93. He won by 4 percentage points in 2012, but he votes with his party most of the time. Of the districts The N&O visited, his is the poorest and the one with the fewest available jobs.
The areas economy is foremost on local residents minds. A manufacturer recently announced plans to expand, but it wont compensate for the loss of 250 jobs when another factory closes at the end of the year.
We need some jobs, says Penny Knobel, 53, who owns Belladonnas hair salon in downtown West Jefferson, a half-hours drive into Ashe County from Boone. Her daily business is a quarter what it was a couple of years ago. We think every day about what we are going to do. We just hope it picks up a little or well have to close.
Knobel supported McCrory but doesnt feel strong political loyalties. She doesnt hear anything from Raleigh that would help her community, and she thinks the state is headed in the wrong direction. I just dont think the economy is going anywhere, she says.
A few blocks away, Jerry Abreu and George Santana, both 65, look through the front window of their electronics store. Across N.C. 194 is Leviton Manufacturing, or whats left of it. Trucks once departed from the electrical wiring device company like clockwork, they say. Now its sporadic.
They are big Republican supporters. I voted for the change (in Raleigh) because I thought we were headed in the wrong direction, Abreu says.
So far hes very happy with the results. If anything, Abreu says, he wants the lawmakers to go further and eliminate the personal income tax, saying it would help the states economy. Id pay more sales tax, he says. If the playing field is level, its not going to hurt anybody.
Senate Republicans considered such a proposal as part of a major tax bill but backed down amid concerns from the governor and House GOP leaders.
The new majority needs more time, Abreu says. Democrats ran Raleigh forever, he adds. Youve got to give the governor and the legislature the opportunity to improve some things.
House District 9: Democrats see new energy
Democrats such as Mary Louise Rothschild will try to make sure Republicans dont get another chance. The retired elementary school teacher from Illinois leads the Democratic Party in Pitt County, where Republican Brian Brown upset the partys seven-term incumbent in 2012.
Democrats hold a 9 percentage point registration advantage in the district, which covers eastern portion of the county and includes East Carolina University in Greenville. But Brown won by 2 points, overcoming a sizable deficit to help give the GOP a supermajority.
In 2014, a nonpresidential election year, Rothschild and volunteers at the county level will largely drive the effort to oust Republicans.
But before she looks forward, she starts the conversation explaining why Democrats lost a year ago. I just think there was this lax attitude that we just thought people would think we could do the better thing for them, she said. The Democrats down here are realizing they sat on their haunches and it didnt work out so well.
The party registration advantage is deceptive. In Eastern North Carolina, many Democrats hold conservative values that often align them with Republican candidates. The district picked a Democratic governor in 2008 but a Republican one four years later.
We realize that you can register all the voters you want, but it doesnt help if you dont help educate the voters, Rothschild says.
Going forward, she says Democrats are refocusing, energized by the GOP changes to voting laws and education. The GOP agenda, she says, established a clear distinction between the parties that Democrats believe will send voters their direction.
In years past, the county Democratic Party met a few times a year, drawing 30 to 40 people at a time. Now, she says, the party is hosting monthly meetings that consistently draw 40 to 50 people.
We arent just sitting there having speakers come and doing rah, rah, rah, speaking to the choir, she says. We have people who are working in small groups. We are looking to see: How do we move forward?
Brown impressed local Democrats by voting against the Republican state budget, saying it would hurt ECU. But he voted with his party the majority of the time. Brown and the county GOP chairman did not respond to interview requests.
Nancy Sheck, 64, is satisfied with Browns performance so far. She is leading a knitting lesson at a corner table in a popular chain restaurant east of downtown. She doesnt mind breaking the first rule of her knitting group to talk politics. She is conservative and supports the legislatures work this session, particularly the voter ID requirement. Most voters in the state do, polls show.
We have to show ID when we fly, when you go to a school, she says. You show ID for everything else. Why not voting?
A few tables away, Joyce McGalliard believes the Republicans went too far, particularly in education. The 70-year-old retired from teaching after 32 years. But now, she says, I think I would rather scrub floors than teach.
You cant take education and cut and cut and cut and not give teachers raises to get good teachers, she continues.
McGalliard voted for Democratic state Rep. Marian McLawhorn, the incumbent who lost to Brown. But she also voted for Republicans in 2012. I wish I hadnt voted for one of them our distinguished governor, she says snidely. He doesnt seem to understand our education system.
She also felt insulted by the GOPs moves to restrict abortion clinics. A woman has the right to do with her body what she wants, she says. A higher being will determine whether it was wrong. I dont like men to decide for us.
The legislation, she says, makes her choice clear in the next election. And shes not splitting her ballot. She says shes voting for change.
House District 41: A lawmaker walks the political line
It takes a careful lawmaker to navigate a legislative swing district, particularly what is possibly the most competitive district in the state.
House District 41 stretches along the southwestern edge of Wake County, covering all or portions of Morrisville, Cary, Apex and New Hill, the booming Raleigh suburbs.
On the southern end, sprawling horse farms along rural two-lane roads feel the squeeze of encroaching subdivisions, while the northern end abuts the Research Triangle Park with its glass, traffic, jobs and big incomes.
The district voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, giving him 52 percent both times. But it split the top of the state ballot between Republicans and Democrats, helping elect McCrory last year, according to the N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation, a business-backed political research firm.
Its a crapshoot, says Rep. Tom Murry, a second-term lawmaker who won re-election in 2012 with 52 percent in a district formerly held by a Democrat. All I can say is they vote for the person (not the party), and Ill take my chances with that.
Murry, 36, is a top-ranking Republican who helped drive the GOP agenda last session. But representing a district where the biggest bloc of voters is unaffiliated, he voted against his party on two major bills.
He doesnt mind walking the line, even at a recent Apex Peak Republican Club meeting. Addressing a dozen die-hards at Annas Pizzeria in Apex, Murry avoided spitting partisan fire and instead started by touting his work on an education bill with the teachers association, a frequent critic of the GOP leadership. He also emphasizes how state lawmakers spent more in the overall state budget to cover needed services and should have given teachers raises. They received a modest 1.2 percent raise in last years budget.
But in the same remarks, he aligns himself closely with McCrory, saying he led the governors effort to privatize elements of the states Commerce Department. And he hits a GOP talking point in advocating for further cuts to the corporate income tax.
Outside the Republican club, Murry tried to reassure an uneasy electorate cautious about change. He is hoping his constituents separate him from the legislature as a whole.
When you have a reform-minded legislature its going to change things, but its going to be net positive, he tells voters in his district. We are trying to move in the proper direction for job creation and economic development.
Murry tries to balance his partisan role by winning favor one voter at a time. He canvasses his district on foot and writes letters to his constituents children when they receive their Girl Scout ranks, or the like.
But this session, the headlines are making his job tougher.
June Caummisar, a 45-year-old mother of two, is particularly upset about the cuts to teaching assistants, the lack of raises for teachers and the elimination of higher pay for those teachers with masters degrees. At first, she gets too emotional to talk about it.
Its that upsetting to me, she says as she waits in her minivan to pick up her 7-year-old at Olive Chapel Elementary School.
But it doesnt take long for her to find her voice.
I think its terrible. I dont know why anybody would want to move to North Carolina. Knowing the state our schools will be in, why would anybody want to bring their family here? she asks. Im wondering why I want to stay.
Caummisar voted for all Democrats in 2012 and worried about Republican control. But even she was surprised by how far GOP lawmakers went this session.
I knew it would be bad, but now that its happening, I just sort of ask every day How can we change this? she says. I ask my husband every day; I dont understand how people are OK with this.
A surprising number in Murrys district say they didnt know much about the legislative session.
A group of mothers waiting outside a Panther Creek High School for cheerleading practice to end say they didnt pay attention and didnt know anything about the Moral Monday protests.
Even Republicans who have been paying attention say its too early to make a call.
Jim Ralston, a retired Cary resident, closely watched the lawmakers efforts to revamp the states tax code, but hes not sure what it means for him. The plan cut personal and corporate income taxes but increased some sales taxes and eliminated other tax breaks, leaving mixed results on who will pay more and who will pay less.
I think Im smart enough to know we need to change the tax system, both local and federal. Its antiquated and needs to be fixed, he says as he sits on his trucks tailgate at a Harris Teeter parking lot in Cary.
But, he adds, Im a little bit surprised about what the majority is doing in terms of taxes and education. ... This tax issue is very frightening. Im not a rich man, but it will impact me.
Ralston, 73, pauses, then explains his thinking.
I also want to give McCrory a chance, he says. Im a Republican. I dont want to be too critical, but Im just sitting back, listening and watching whats happening. I think we needed to clean up state government, obviously.
Id give him a C, but perhaps its too early, Ralston concludes.
He gave the state lawmakers the same grade but added, Im not sure.
Kevin Thompson, 43, is an ardent Republican whos quicker with his opinions.
The manager at Dannys Bar-B-Que in Morrisville says he is most worried about the government taking away his Second Amendment rights. State lawmakers loosened gun restrictions this year, allowing concealed weapons in bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. Thompson wants them to go further.
I will give this governor four years, he says. They had a productive first session.
Murrys job is to convince voters he deserves another two years, too.