Rob Christensen

McCrory, GOP in classic divide

The split in the North Carolina GOP can be regarded as a factional dispute between Sweet Tea and Starbucks Republicans.

Gov. Pat McCrory represents the Starbucks Republicans – that is, the Chamber of Commerce, big business, and the fiscally conservative but socially moderate voters who live in the state’s rapidly growing metropolitan regions.

The governor is dealing with a Sweet Tea-dominated legislature. While including fiscal conservatives, the General Assembly is heavily influenced by the more grass-roots, populist and religious-oriented segments of the party. They are less interested in pleasing business and more interested in addressing what they view as the moral and cultural decline of the country, whether it’s the breakdown of the nuclear family, widespread pornography and public sexuality, the continued legality of abortion, the acceptance of homosexuality, or the general secularization of society.

That split is also being played out nationally in the fight over legislation affecting gays in Indiana and in Arkansas as well as in the GOP presidential primary – Jeb Bush vs. Ted Cruz, etc.

The divide was recently brought into focus when McCrory amped up his criticism of the GOP-controlled legislature. He questioned its meddling in local election laws, such as Wake County commissioner districts, saying if they wanted to run for local office they should. He rapped a plan to redistribute the sales tax by taking money from wealthier counties and giving it to poorer counties, comparing it to former Democratic Sen. John Edwards’ theme of “two Americas,” which he did not mean as a compliment.

And perhaps most significantly, he questioned the need for a so-called religious freedom bill that conservatives have begun pushing in states across the country in the wake of legalized gay marriages. The measures have pitted the business community against social conservatives.

“What is the problem they are trying to solve?” McCrory asked on a Charlotte radio station. “I haven’t seen it at this time.”

Like Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchison and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, McCrory faces a balancing act. He needs the legislature to enact his programs but he wants to puts some distance between himself and a sharply conservative and polarizing legislature before the next year’s election. He also wants to be seen creating a friendly environment for business, not an inhospitable one.

Politically, McCrory’s re-election depends on both rallying the GOP base as well as reaching out to independent-minded moderates. The danger for McCrory is that some of those moderates may think the GOP needs to spend more time on jobs and less on people’s sex lives.

In trying to put some space between himself and the legislature, McCrory has taken to the bully pulpit, often in a ham-handed way. The blunt language he has used against some members of his party has arguably not been heard since Democratic Gov. Kerr Scott (1949-53) regularly battled conservative Democratic lawmakers.

But unlike Scott, McCrory seems unlikely to move many lawmakers. Most of today’s GOP members of the General Assembly are entrenched in bullet-proof districts, immune from the sort of public pressure that McCrory is attempting to bring.

While McCrory has shown a willingness to lecture the legislature, he has yet to use his veto power against any major controversial legislation. So far his criticisms have been more talk than substance.

Division’s roots

The Sweet Tea-Starbucks divide is not new. The N.C. Republican Party engaged in trench warfare in the 1970s and ’80s between the traditional business and mountain Republicans, the new conservatives headed by Sen. Jesse Helms and his organization, and what was then called the Religious Right.

Going back even further, when today’s Republicans – or at least their parents – were Democrats, there was a similar divide. The state’s Democratic business leadership pushed an agenda that included aggressive road building, major funding for the University of North Carolina, and funding for the arts as a way to modernize and attract industry.

But at the same time, the social conservatives, also then Democrats, nearly passed an anti-evolution teaching law, made North Carolina one of the first states to pass Prohibition and one of the last to legalize the sale of mixed alcoholic beverages. North Carolina was the last major state in the country to approve a lottery and defeated constitutional amendments to give women the right to vote and the Equal Rights Amendment. The state also passed a constitutional amendment barring gay marriages.

So this uneasy mix of Sweet Tea and Starbucks politics has been with the state for a long time, even if it was called by different names.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@ newsobserver.com

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