North Carolina hit the political trifecta for the first time this year – a key swing state in the presidential race, the hottest governor’s race in the country, and a Senate contest that may determine whether the U.S. Senate flips from Republican to Democratic control.
After at least $122 million spent for an estimated 350,000 TV ads, not to mention countless mailings and robo calls, North Carolina voters are pretty much where they were at the start — closely divided.
The reason they are close, polls have repeatedly shown, is because North Carolinians tend to be pretty much a steady-as-you-go bunch. Asked to self-identify themselves ideologically, Tar Heel residents rank among the most moderate in the country. Welcome to middle America.
Here are a few questions heading into Tuesday’s election.
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1. Can Republican Sen. Richard Burr withstand a headwind?
Burr had previously been elected during strong Republican years. But this year is a much more difficult environment for Republicans. Burr, usually a calm, cerebral sort, has shown a case of nerves, having to apologize for a really bad joke about a “bull’s-eye” on Hillary Clinton. Republicans initially thought this was a relatively safe seat. But Burr was slow to hit the campaign trail, and there was concern that Burr could be washed out in a wave election just as Democrat Kay Hagan was in 2014.
The Senate Leadership Committee, associated with Senate leader Mitch McConnell, has thrown $13 million into the race, most of it in TV ads attacking Democrat Deborah Ross on the issue of sex offender registries. So far at least $66 million has been spent on TV ads in this slug-a-thon.
2. Will this be an HB2 governor’s race or a Hurricane Matthew governor’s race?
GOP Gov. Pat McCrory was elected as a pragmatic business conservative – a self-described “Eisenhower Republican” – who talked in his 2012 ads about how he would work with Democrats to unite the state just as he had done as Charlotte mayor. A few months after taking office, McCrory had become so identified with a sharply conservative legislature that political analyst Nate Silver, then at the New York Times, rated his record as being to the right of such conservative stars as Govs. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Rick Perry of Texas and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.
McCrory later shifted back toward the center. But then he became the most visible spokesman for House Bill 2, which puts new restrictions on where transgender people may use public bathrooms and changing rooms in government facilities, and forbids municipalities from passing ordinances protecting their gay communities.
HB2 has sparked a national boycott against North Carolina, with critics calling it the most anti-gay law in the country.
Recent rankings by InsideGov.com found McCrory was 39th most popular among the nation’s 50 governors.
Hurricane Matthew allowed McCrory to appear in a nonpartisan, nonideological role, helping direct emergency and recovery operations. He even borrowed a page from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, thanking President Barack Obama for his help.
McCrory is now running ads touting his role in handling the hurricane and criticizing his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Roy Cooper, for favoring less savings in a rainy-day emergency fund expected to help with the cleanup.
The question is, which governor will voters remember: HB2 Pat or Hurricane Matthew McCrory?
3. Will African-American voters turn out?
That has long been a question about the post-Obama era. As of the middle of last week, black voter participation was down 11 percent in early voting compared with 2012. That is why Obama made campaign swings through the state last week, with stops in Chapel Hill, Charlotte and Fayetteville, and why the Rev. Jesse Jackson campaigned in Greensboro, first lady Michelle Obama stumped in Winston-Salem and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement, campaigned in Charlotte.
4. Will there be coattails?
The presidential campaigns have almost completely drowned out the down-ballot races. Clinton committees have spent at least $32 million in the state on TV ads, while Trump has spent at least $8 million on ads, and that doesn’t count the various outside groups. The big rallies and the water cooler conversation has been dominated by presidential talk.
In past presidential years, coattails have helped Republicans. But this year, it is the Democrats who have tied GOP candidates to Trump. With so many races close, there is a concern in the GOP that Trump could cost Republican candidates a point or two, which could lead to significant losses down the ballot.
It used to be a big deal if a presidential candidate made one appearance in North Carolina during the general election. Now big noncommercial jets are a common sight at major airports and police-escorted motorcades are getting hard to escape, as are stern-looking men and women with bulges under their jackets and wires coming off their ears.
On Tuesday, North Carolina will return to normal.