The one-year anniversary of House Bill 2 came and went last week with little movement in efforts to repeal or change the law – even as deadlines loom for preventing further backlash from the NCAA.
The lack of compromise between Republican and Democratic legislators makes it increasingly possible that HB2 could remain a potent issue in the next election. That will likely happen in 2018 when all 170 legislative seats are up for election, unless the U.S. Supreme Court acts soon to reinstate a court-ordered 2017 special election in a redistricting lawsuit. The high court put that election on hold while reviewing the case.
The next election would likely see low turnout because North Carolina won’t have any statewide races on the ballot. The last time that happened, in 2006, just 37 percent of registered voters participated – far below the 69 percent turnout in 2016. But HB2 could drive Democrats to participate.
“When you have an off-year election with no statewide election, turnout becomes a big part of the election – whose voters are most motivated makes a big difference,” veteran Republican political strategist Carter Wrenn said, adding that HB2’s impact “depends on what happens between now and then.”
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Legislators working on the issue are hoping to find a solution before the NCAA blocks North Carolina from hosting championship college-sports events through 2022. The organization has said it plans to announce the winning cities on April 18.
Last week, Republicans scrapped efforts to find a compromise with Democrats and are now working on less sweeping changes to HB2 that the GOP could pass without votes from Democrats.
Republicans had argued that Gov. Roy Cooper needed to back any compromise before it would get enough votes from Cooper’s fellow Democrats to move forward. In late February, Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady – who was leading HB2 negotiations – questioned whether the governor is willing to compromise on what could be a beneficial election issue in 2018.
“His senior staff told me a week ago that his political advisers strongly urged him not to compromise at all because the political issue would help Democrats in the 2018 election,” McGrady wrote in a Feb. 26 Facebook post. “So has he decided to listen to them and not do what is right for the state?”
House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson says he was in the meeting McGrady referenced and disputes the characterization of Cooper’s motives.
“At no time in that meeting did anybody say that House Bill 2 was being used for political purposes or that we should sit on it,” Jackson said. “There was not discussion on ‘we’re not going to do anything on HB2 because it’ll benefit us in 2018.’ ”
Cooper’s senior adviser, Ken Eudy, said he was the staff member referenced in McGrady’s post, and the comment was actually about a proposal to add an Indiana-style “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” provision to the HB2 overhaul. A “conscience protection” provision is now part of a draft HB2 replacement bill under consideration by Republicans.
“I said, ‘Be my guest, the Democratic consultants would salivate over the opportunity to run against RFRA in 2018,’ ” Eudy said. “It wasn’t a threat, it was just a joke.”
Jackson said it’s too soon to know what issues might drive voters to the polls in 2018. “It’s hard for me to know if something would be the primary motivator 19 months from now,” he said.
Democrats do have a clear goal for the next election: breaking Republicans’ legislative supermajority, which would make it harder for the GOP to override Cooper’s vetoes of controversial bills. To do that in the House – the easiest path – Democrats would need to flip at least three seats held by Republicans without losing any Democratic seats.
Democratic political strategist Perry Woods says the loss of more NCAA championship events could drive voters to turn out next year if HB2 isn’t repealed.
“Basketball is close to religion in North Carolina ... that alone will impact people’s lives more than most things government does, and that will likely have an impact on the election,” he said.
Woods says he expects most voters will blame Republicans when their team must play out-of-state games, as Duke and UNC did this month.
“They can try to spin it every which way they want, but they own this hook, line and sinker,” he said.
Wrenn, however, isn’t sure the issue would be as powerful for Democrats as it was in last year’s race for governor. Voters might now view Democrats as unwilling to compromise on HB2. “I think that may actually help Republicans,” he said.
Wrenn said potential competition in the 2018 primaries could also affect how legislators approach HB2. In conservative districts, lawmakers know most of their Republican constituents support the law, while Democrats in liberal districts are hesitant to back a compromise that’s opposed by LGBT advocacy groups.
“A lot of the Democrat primary voters are not going to want a compromise that doesn’t give (Equality North Carolina leader) Chris Sgro what he wants,” Wrenn said.
National politics could help Democrats next year, making the election a referendum on President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress.
“Usually midterms tend to be more beneficial to the party out of power,” said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury.
Wrenn notes that the national political climate in 2018 is difficult to predict now. “You can’t tell who gets most motivated at this point,” he said. “I suspect it has more to do with the political fights in Washington than in North Carolina.”
As for HB2, by the end of next year, Wrenn says, “people could just get worn out with the whole thing.”