Rob Christensen

Christensen: The many faces of Pat McCrory

What makes Gov. Pat McCrory’s election campaigns so intriguing is you are never sure which McCrory will show up.

Will it be Mayor Pat, the moderate Charlotte mayor? Conservative Pat, catering to the GOP’s conservative wing? Or will it be Pragmatic Pat, who promises to get along with everybody?

Each time he has faced the voters, McCrory has presented a different political persona to the public.

When he first ran for governor in 2008, he ran as Mayor Pat. McCrory was mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina’s largest and fast-growing city. McCrory was widely seen a pro-business pragmatist as a Republican mayor in a Democratic-leaning city that has traditionally been dominated by a forward-looking business community.

Among other things, he angered some conservatives by supporting mass transit. McCrory was endorsed by all of the state’s major newspapers including The News and Observer when he ran in 2008.

He ended up losing to Democratic Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue by a 50 to 47 percent margin, in what was the closest governor’s race in the country that year. Arguably, McCrory would have been elected governor that year if had not been for the strong showing of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama who carried the state.

Not long after his defeat, McCrory decided to run again in 2012.

During his 2008 campaign, he had been criticized by his primary opponent as being insufficienty conservative.

In an effort to head off a GOP primary challenge from his right in 2012, McCrory’s chief strategist, the late Jack Hawke, had him court conservatives. He formed a close relationship with Americans for Prosperity, the Koch Brothers-funded anti-tax organization, touring the state and recording automated telephone messages opposing passage of the Affordable Care Act otherwise known as Obamacare.

The strategy worked and McCrory had clear sailing in the Republican primary.

In the fall election, McCrory trimmed his ideological sails and moved to the center. Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, faced with poor polling numbers in the midst of the recession, decided at the last minute not to seek re-election. That left Democratic Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton to quickly assemble a campaign.

McCrory’s TV ads were put together by Fred Davis, a Hollywood image maker, and they showed McCrory talking in a warehouse and in a diner about all the progress made during his 14 years as Charlotte mayor and his proven track record of working across party lines with Democrats.

McCrory easily won this time by a 55-45 percent margin.

After three years as governor, McCrory has struggled to find his footing. He has been roundly criticized by Democrats for siding with a markedly conservative GOP legislature as they have sought to move public policy sharply to the right.

At the same time, he has not won the confidence of party conservatives who still do not view him as one of their own. As a result, his favorability ratings in the public opinion polls have ranged from 36 percent to 46 percent. Perdue’s favorability rating was 37 percent at this point in her administration.

Facing re-election, McCrory seems to be taking a two-tiered track.

The first track is to take credit for the recovering economy – a tactic used effectively by President Obama in 2012.

“Some say we could do better, but the results show that no one has ever done it better than this administration,’’ McCrory said Wednesday in kicking off his re-election in Kernersville. “The results speak for themselves.”

This is the message aimed for the broad electorate.

At the same time, McCrory has also been seeking to re-engage the Republican conservative base, by raising hot button issues and perhaps trying to make sure that no conservative primary opponent pops up at the last moment.

McCrory was one of 31 governors – all but one Republicans – who have asked the federal government to stop sending Sryian refugees to their state until more is known about the vetting process. McCrory quickly turned the refugee issue into a fund raising missive on his campaign web page featuring a dark graphic and the headline “NO SYRIAN REFUGEES IN NORTH CAROLINA.’’

He has joined the battle over bathroom politics, by signing on in his capacity as governor to a friend of the court brief opposing forcing schools to use gender identity, instead of a person’s biological sex, to determine which bathroom a student can use at a public school.

He baited his likely fall opponent, Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, to join him in the suit.

While McCrory was mayor, he courted Charlotte’s sizeable Latino community. But last month, McCrory signed into law the nation’s first anti-sanctuary law. The measure restricts local law enforcement’s ability to cooperate with federal immigration officials. It also requires government agencies to use the E-verify system to check the legal status of job applications and contractors, bars government agencies or law enforcement from using consular or embassy document to verify someone’s identity or residence and limits food assistance for able-bodied, childless adults who are unemployed.

The best light you can put on McCrory’s changing personas is he is trying to do accomplish an ideological juggling act — attempting to govern in a state which polls show to be centrist, but one in which his party is dominated by social conservatives.

A less kind interpretation, is that McCrory is a pragmatic politician who will sing from whatever hymnal is placed in his hands.

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532, rchristensen@newsobserver.com, @oldpolhack

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