There are signs that North Carolina’s political leaders are beginning to inch their way back toward the political middle, a welcome sign in one of the nation’s most moderate states.
The Tar Heel State’s leadership has undergone one of the biggest ideological swings in the country during the past few years, what U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis called “a conservative revolution.”
But in recent days, the Republican-controlled state House has passed a budget with broad bipartisan support in the middle, but which drew fire from both the left and the right.
Last week, GOP Gov. Pat McCrory vetoed a bill that would have allowed local magistrates to opt out of presiding over gay marriages. He also vetoed a bill aimed at stopping whistle-blowers, particularly animal rights activists who seek employment in agricultural processing plants in order to expose abuses.
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On the Democratic side, many Democrats didn’t just cross party lines to vote for a Republican-crafted budget. A group of moderate Democrats, called NC Main Street Democrats, added three members to its ranks last week to help give the party a more centrist voice.
All of this suggests that the state’s political leadership is aligning with the voters.
North Carolina has long had a history of being a middle-of-the-road state, which is why we are always targeted by presidential campaigns, the national parties, and various political committees and independent groups.
The Gallup polling organization, asking residents to self-identify themselves ideologically, found in 2014 that North Carolina was the 23rd most conservative state in the country. That was pretty close to the middle of the 50 states and made North Carolina ideological cousins of such states as Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, New Hampshire and Ohio. The only Southern states to the left of North Carolina were Virginia and Florida.
The Gallup polls have found no ideological shift in recent years. North Carolina was also the 23rd most conservative state in 2009.
Which is why North Carolina has mainly elected centrists to office, whether center-left Democrats such as Jim Hunt, Mike Easley or Bev Perdue or center-right Republicans such as Jim Holshouser or Jim Martin.
McCrory was elected in 2012 as a Martin-type, pro-business Republican. But he was soon overshadowed by a far more conservative and assertive legislature.
It is only in recent months that McCrory has begun to reassert the persona he had as Charlotte mayor – as a more centrist Republican. He has found an ally in House Speaker Tim Moore.
The $22 billion budget passed by the House is hardly a liberal document. But it does increase education funding, including a 2 percent to 6 percent raise for teachers and a 2 percent hike for other state employees. That the measure passed by a 93-23 vote is a measure of its bipartisan backing.
The budget still faces a difficult road in the state Senate, where ideological conservatives such as Senate leader Phil Berger hold sway.
Abortion waiting period
While there are signs of the Republican legislature becoming more moderate, one can make too much of it. The legislature is on the verge of requiring North Carolina women to wait three days before having an abortion – which would make it one of the longest waiting periods in the country.
Twenty-one former Democratic legislators have formed a group to work to elect more Democratic lawmakers. Many of them are moderates – the kind of people needed to win the swing districts that the Democrats have lost to Republicans.
“We want to make sure there are more middle-of-the-road, pro-business Main Street Democrats serving in the state legislature,” said state Rep. Ken Goodman of Richmond County. “That way we can focus on the real issues facing voters on Main Street.”
If the Democratic Party is ever going to become competitive again, it must broaden its base to attract many of the moderates that were once an important segment of its governing coalition.
In the long run, I still have faith that in a democratic society the views of the elected and those of the electorate will align. A moderate state like North Carolina will eventually have a moderate government.