Will more ‘Moral Monday’ protests affect the North Carolina Senate race?

May 2

Can anything upset the script of the 2014 U.S. Senate election in North Carolina, as it’s now being written? It may depend on whether a 2014 renewal of the “Moral Monday” coalition and an accompanying voter registration effort will increase dissatisfaction with the state’s rightward legislative shift and motivate enthusiasm for the Democratic incumbent.

Because of diverse opposition to issues that range from a refusal of the Medicaid expansion to education cuts to limits on unemployment benefits to new voting rules now being fought in the courts, the nationalized partisan voting trends hardening in a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll may not be as firm in North Carolina.

North Carolina NAACP President Rev. William Barber at January King Day rally in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
North Carolina NAACP President Rev. William Barber at January King Day rally in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

The state is certainly seen as a battleground, crucial as Republicans taste a Senate majority. It’s the reason ads by outside groups have flooded the airwaves.

On the GOP side, the race is taking shape. After three debates among the four top Republicans vying for the chance to face Democratic incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan, Thom Tillis has increased his lead. The speaker of the North Carolina House has emphasized socially conservative credentials on abortion and same-sex marriage to blunt the appeal of the Mike Huckabee-backed pastor, Mark Harris. Despite a planned Monday appearance in Charlotte with his chief backer, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), tea party candidate Greg Brannon is not making much headway in polls, despite his memorization of and frequent reference to the Constitution. Veteran and nurse practitioner Heather Grant is running behind all three.

Tillis has also gathered the marquee endorsements of establishment types, such as former Florida governor and current rumored presidential hopeful Jeb Bush, Karl Rove, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory. Most recent polls show Tillis clearing the 40 percent bar he needs, and the party hopes he captures, in the May 6 primary so he can avoid a July runoff, and – with his deep-pocketed supporters — concentrate on Hagan.

His conservative primary opponents have made Tillis run to the right, so the 2014 election will be a sign of just how deeply red the state has become and how successful each party can be in motivating the base.

Before a 2012 election that resulted in Republican control, with a GOP governor and super-majorities in the general assembly, North Carolina had a more progressive reputation. The Rev. Dr. William Barber II said the “Moral Monday” protests he led at the Legislative Building in Raleigh last year continued the state’s tradition of fusion politics, with a coalition that reached across party and demographic lines.

In a conference call this week to mark the one-year anniversary of the first demonstrations and arrests, Barber announced a new round of protests – the first on May 19 — after lawmakers return to Raleigh for a short session to deal with lingering issues, beginning May 14. Barber, the head of the state NAACP, was in the first group of mostly clergy arrested for trespassing. The weekly demonstrations eventually drew thousands, with more than 900 arrested.

Republican lawmakers have said they were elected to change the direction of North Carolina. McCrory said his goal was to improve the state’s economy, and said of the crowds that gathered in the capital, “We both have different opinions, and I respect their opinions, but I don’t think that one group is moral and the other group is immoral, either.”

On this week’s call, Barber, citing policies and laws that he said denied safety nets to those who needed it and provided more tax breaks to the wealthy, called the legislature’s actions “constitutionally inconsistent, morally indefensible and economically insane.”

Barber emphasized the moral base of the movement and said it was not about left vs. right or red vs. blue. “It’s not just tied to one election,” he said, it’s “tied to the very soul and our concern about the very soul of our state.” In February, a crowd the NAACP estimated at 80,000 gathered for a march in Raleigh to support the more than 150 groups involved in the state’s Forward Together Movement, including those working on women’s, immigrant, environmental and LGBT issues. Rallies across the state in cities such as Asheville have drawn crowds. Other states, including South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, have held protests based on the “Moral Monday” model.

Voting rights have been the focus of the North Carolina movement, specifically what Barber has called a “monster voter suppression law” that, besides requiring strict forms of identification, limits early voting, eliminates same-day registration, allows voters to be challenged by any registered voter in the same county rather than precinct, bans 16- and 17-year-olds from pre-registering to vote, prohibits paid voter registration drives and more. The law is being challenged by the U.S. Justice Department and several groups. This week’s call took place after a federal judge struck down Wisconsin’s voter ID law.

Penda Hair is one of the lawyers from the Advancement Project, a national rights group supporting the state NAACP’s suit against the voting bill, which was passed last year after the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. “If the rules for voting and conducting elections are rigged then the moral voices that are being raised over many, many issues can be thwarted,” Hair said on this week’s call, “because in our democracy, the way you express your satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the policies officials are making is through voting.”

Hair said she was optimistic about a July court hearing seeking a preliminary injunction against parts of the law scheduled to take effect this year; Barber said the state NAACP is conducting a summer voter registration drive.

Is Moral Monday Forward Together a “movement, not a moment,” as Barber describes it? If protest translates into votes, it could affect the midterm election in the state, and the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3
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