Rob Christensen

Christensen: The 2016 governor’s race is well underway

“Did you get that coal ash off your hands?” software entrepreneur Jim Goodnight quipped to Gov. Pat McCrory last month while showing him around a new SAS building in Cary.

“You’re not messing up this building,” Goodnight added.

McCrory’s 2016 re-election is two years away, and he had already been stuck with the label of having “coal ash on his hands” thanks to an expensive TV ad campaign run by the National Resources Defense Council.

Even as North Carolina was enduring a $111 million U.S. Senate race this year, the 2016 governor’s was well underway. We are in the age of the nonstop political campaign where election cycles don’t actually begin or end but sort of meld into one another.

The ad campaign – by an environmental group – accusing McCrory of not moving aggressively against Duke Energy was just part of the ongoing 2016 election campaign.

With his own numbers tanking, McCrory’s backers, Renew North Carolina, ran $800,000 worth of TV ads in fall 2013 bolstering his image – just nine months after he took office.

Moving to center?

Democrats have been lining up extraordinarily early to take on McCrory. Former state Rep. Ken Spaulding of Durham announced his candidacy in August 2013. Attorney General Roy Cooper might as well have announced.

The Republican-led legislature, in what seemed like a run-up to the 2016 governor’s race, stripped the attorney general of his control of the State Bureau of Investigation earlier this year.

The day after the Nov. 4 election, the state Republican Party put out a news release with this headline: “Roy Cooper Failed to Protect the Integrity of the Voting System.” Don’t think the Democrats will wait until 2016 to begin a rat-a-tat attack on McCrory.

McCrory, a popular mayor in Charlotte, was elected in a landslide in 2012, running as a center/right Republican who could work with Democrats. But his numbers rapidly slid when he seemed to buy into what Sen.-elect Thom Tillis called “the conservative revolution” in Raleigh.

As he faces re-election, McCrory is confronted with the task of keeping his conservative base happy while convincing enough of the independent swing voters that he is the same guy he was when he was Mayor Pat.

McCrory has been making some feints in that direction in recent weeks. He was muted in his remarks about court rulings legalizing gay marriages in North Carolina, and he has suggested that he might be open to expanding Medicaid, the federally-funded health insurance program for the poor and the elderly.

Approval up

Tillis, the former House speaker, proved that being tied to the GOP legislature is not politically fatal, although his was the closest Republican Senate victory in the country.

Tillis was helped by a bad environment for Democrats. A recent High Point University poll found that only 26 percent of North Carolina voters thought the country was headed in the right direction and only 43 percent approved of the job that President Barack Obama was doing.

McCrory faces the same discontent with a lackluster economy. But at least his approval ratings seem slightly better than those of the president. The High Point poll showed a 47 percent approval rating while an earlier Elon University poll showed 37 percent approval and one by Public Policy Polling had 40 percent.

A better indicator of McCrory’s standing is how the Republican candidates used him. The last GOP governor, Jim Martin (1985-93), was viewed as a major political asset during the mid-term elections and he campaigned extensively for the Republican ticket.

McCrory was rarely used by local Republican candidates in TV or radio ads and brochures, and only occasionally on the stump.

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