Under the Dome

Sabato moves NC governor race from ‘leans GOP’ to ‘toss-up’ over HB2, down-ballot effect

Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, one of the nation’s top campaign-rating organizations, on Thursday moved North Carolina’s gubernatorial election from “leans Republican” to “toss-up,” based on the state’s controversial nondiscrimination law and the impact on down-ballot races of having Sen. Ted Cruz or Donald Trump as the GOP presidential nominee.

He also nudges the U.S. Senate race from “likely Republican” to “leans Republican.”

Sabato runs the Crystal Ball out of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Here’s some of what he has to say about the campaign for governor with national ramifications:

“Tar Heel State’s statehouse race has always been the marquee gubernatorial contest this cycle. Not only is North Carolina the most populous state holding a gubernatorial race this year, but it’s also one of only two gubernatorial states (the much-smaller New Hampshire is the other) that are likely to be presidential swing states in the event of a close national race.

“Gov. Pat McCrory (R) has generally had fairly weak approval numbers throughout his time in office, and he is now dealing with a challenge similar to the one (Indiana Gov. Gary) Pence faced last year: McCrory just signed a bill that bans cities from creating local policies dealing with gender-identity discrimination and forces transgender students in public schools to use the bathroom that corresponds with their birth gender. ...

“Republicans have long recognized the threat that Attorney General Roy Cooper (D) presents to McCrory, and both sides are gearing up for an expensive, nasty race. Because of incumbency, we were giving McCrory the benefit of the doubt. But no longer: A Donald Trump or Ted Cruz nomination could very well allow the Democratic nominee to win North Carolina, and even if the GOP nominee does carry North Carolina in the fall there’s no guarantee that McCrory will run ahead of the presidential ticket.”

In the race between Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Democratic challenger Deborah Ross, Sabato says this campaign comes down to “basic coattail math: If the GOP presidential nominee falters, the Tar Heel state will likely be the first red-state domino to fall.” He notes Mitt Romney carried North Carolina by only two percentage points in 2012.

With a Cruz or Trump nomination, he says, Democrats could carry the entire state, giving Ross a boost. Sabato notes that’s how Kay Hagan beat Sen. Elizabeth Dole in 2008, on President Obama’s coattails.

Yet he calls Burr an “often underestimated candidate who outperforms on Election Day.”