The stars seemed aligned for Republican Pat McCrory to easily win re-election as North Carolina’s governor.
When McCrory took office in January 2013, the economy was already months into its recovery from the Great Recession and would continue its upswing during the next four years.
McCrory was the first GOP governor in modern times to have the other two branches of government – the legislature and the judiciary – both controlled by Republicans. No sitting governor had been defeated since the constitution was changed in the 1970s to allow governors to serve a second consecutive four-year term.
And there was McCrory himself – who as Charlotte’s mayor for 14 years, blessed with a boyish charm and a gift for gab, had proven himself adept at the public-relations side of politics.
So how did McCrory lose to Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper in what otherwise was a big Republican year here and across the country, finishing 63,000 votes behind Donald Trump and 96,000 votes behind Sen. Richard Burr?
When you lose by the razor-thin margin of 10,000 votes, you can always point to multiple causes, any one of which might have been fatal.
Here are several thoughts.
McCrory had been in political trouble from nearly the start.
Although McCrory was elected in a landslide in 2012, his polling numbers quickly plummeted and were underwater just six months into his administration. They were so bad that a McCrory committee took the extraordinary step of running TV advertising to improve his image before he had been in office for even a year.
The same thing happened to his predecessor Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue. Voters made a decision early about Perdue and didn’t change their minds. She decided not to seek re-election rather than face likely defeat.
Many voters sized up McCrory early and found him wanting. In some ways, there was a stature gap. McCrory lacked what the Marines call “command presence.”
When he came to Raleigh, McCrory knew very little about state government or state politics and seemed in over his head – long on slogans, short on policy details.
(As mayor of Charlotte, McCrory’s duties had been limited by the council-manager form of government, where most of the executive authority resides in the city manager, and the mayor can take little action without the consent of the city council.)
This allowed the Republican-controlled legislature, which was not inclined to cede power to the executive branch anyway, to set policy in Raleigh.
There was also an image problem. McCrory ran as a pragmatic business conservative from Uptown Charlotte – his campaign ads were soft-focused messages in which he promised to promote economic growth and work with Democrats.
But when he took office, McCrory seemed overwhelmed by a rural-dominated legislature that was deeply influenced by conservative Christian evangelicals. They pushed McCrory to the right on a series of issues involving abortion, transgender rights, voting rights, health care for the poor, school vouchers and other issues.
The sharp conservative swing spawned a “Moral Monday” movement – which included civil disobedience – that was unlike anything ever seen before in North Carolina and which drew national attention.
McCrory, as governor, became the face of the Republican conservatism – which seemed to some independent voters who backed in him the campaign to be a bait and switch. Good old friendly “Mayor Pat” became a polarizing figure, so that even something as innocuous as bringing cookies to protesters was seen as provocative.
Governors and legislatures often have spats. But McCrory’s relationship with the legislature seemed particularly toxic. On many issues, the Republican legislature undercut the first Republican governor elected in 20 years – a generation really – and it may have contributed to his defeat.
One small episode in 2013 seemed to illustrate the legislature’s lack of respect for McCrory. One of the first lady’s projects was to regulate puppy mills. The legislature not only didn’t pass her bill but went out of its way to embarrass the governor.
During the House debate in 2013 – with the first lady in the visitor’s gallery looking on – Rep. Michael Speciale of New Bern ridiculed the bill for requiring breeders of a certain size to adhere to standards such as exercising dogs and humane euthanasia.
“Exercise on a daily basis – if I kick him across the floor, is that daily exercise?” Speciale asked. “‘Euthanasia performed humanely’ – so I should choose the ax or the baseball bat?”
While that was a stark and crude example, there are dozens of others where lawmakers walked all over McCrory.
The biggest problem the legislature may have handed McCrory was passage of House Bill 2 requiring transgender people in government facilities to use bathrooms that correspond with the sex on their birth certificate, as well as blocking local governments from passing anti-discriminatory ordinances.
HB2 created a strong national backlash, with corporations, state governments, entertainers, the NCAA and the ACC all boycotting the state.
McCrory, who supported the measure, became the public face for HB2.
The HB2 controversy also damaged McCrory’s main campaign narrative – that the state was undergoing “a Carolina comeback.” While McCrory wanted to emphasize the recovery, there seemed to be nearly daily stories about another organization or individual boycotting the state.
Perhaps because the recovery was unevenly distributed, numerous polls also suggested that many North Carolinians did not feel as though these were good times. And McCrory’s message was undercut by Republican presidential candidate Trump, who campaigned frequently in the state, talking about how bad things were.
McCrory also had a less than sterling political operation. There were often complaints that calls from political donors from the 2012 campaign were not returned. Cooper outraised McCrory in this election, a rarity for a challenger.
Any of these were enough to cost McCrory crucial votes in a close election.