Christensen: Gov. McCrory seeks reset in year two

Posted by Rob Christensen on January 4, 2014 

It was a year ago today that Gov. Pat McCrory was sworn into office amid high hopes. Now he is hoping for a reset.

Few governors took office with greater promise than McCrory. He had won office in a landslide, and his party controlled three branches of government for the first time since the 1800s. And McCrory’s brand of moderate conservatism – as practiced during his 14 years as Charlotte mayor – seemed a good fit for a state that polls suggest is philosophically centrist with a slight conservative lean.

Moreover, he inherited an economy that was slowly emerging from the Great Recession, with unemployment having declined from 11.3 percent in January 2010 to 9.4 percent by November 2012 when he was elected.

But fed a layup, McCrory has managed to bobble the ball out of bounds.

He was steamrolled by his own GOP legislature, which forced the governor to adopt their own tea party-influenced legislation and which often totally disregarded him.

McCrory had campaigned as the next generation’s Jim Holshouser-Jim Martin – two successful and popular North Carolina Republican governors. But in the view of many, he has governed more like Rick Perry of Texas.

Last spring, Nate Silver, then a columnist for The New York Times, rated McCrory the ninth most conservative of the nation’s 30 Republican governors. He put McCrory to the right of Perry, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, among others.

Legislature takes lead

McCrory signed the largest tax cuts in the country, eliminated tax breaks for low-income workers, signed the biggest cut in unemployment benefits in the country, rejected federal money that would have extended Medicaid health insurance to 500,000 poor residents, continued the trend that has made North Carolina teachers among the worst paid in the nation, and signed a new law that abortion rights advocates say will restrict abortion clinics after promising not to do so in the campaign.

McCrory campaigned on some of those issues – such as tax cuts – as a way to improve an economy with high unemployment. On other issues, he was pushed into taking more conservative stands by the legislature. On several bills, McCrory sought to be a moderating influence in negotiations.

To make matters more difficult for the governor, McCrory has had the same foot-in-mouth disease that infected his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue.

Things are so bad for McCrory that Democrats are lining up to challenge him three years before the 2016 election. In an effort to stop the hemorrhaging, McCrory’s allies spent several hundred thousand dollars running TV ads this fall to bolster his image. I can’t remember an incumbent governor – or his allies – ever running TV ads the same year he was elected.

McCrory started with an approval rating of 45 percent, saw it drop to as low as 35 percent three months ago, then climbed back to 42 percent approval, according to Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm based in Raleigh. But 47 percent of voters still disapprove of him, compared with 19 percent when he took office.

McCrory has spent recent weeks trying to recover his momentum – essentially trying to return to where he was a year ago. He has been traveling the state, giving interviews on radio and TV stations. He has been striking a more conciliatory tone.

In an end-of-year video, McCrory apparently referred to the wide-scale “Moral Monday” protests that were prompted by the Republican policies.

“We all want a better North Carolina,” McCrory said. “We must respect our different paths to reach that goal and find consensus when we can.”

Time to recover

Perdue hit the skids in the first months of her administration and never recovered, no matter what she did. She chose not to seek re-election in 2012 rather than face a likely defeat.

McCrory may have better prospects for two reasons. One is the economy is in better shape. If people are feeling good about things, that generally works to the incumbent’s advantage.

The unemployment rate had dropped to 7.4 percent in November and will likely continue to decline, as it has nationally. Because governors get the blame for rises in unemployment, they can also take the credit for its decline.

Second, McCrory came into office with a larger reservoir of political good will than did Perdue, having won by a wide margin.

He also has a general likability factor, no small thing for a politician. Independent voters may be willing to give him a second chance, even if many Democrats have written him off.

Expect McCrory to reposition himself more in the middle. He is already talking about pushing for a teacher pay raise in the 2014 budget.

He also has three years to rebuild his image – a lifetime in politics.

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