Democrats and Republicans in North Carolina are in an ideological standoff, with future elections in the balance.
That explains why Kay Hagan, a Democratic senator facing a tough 2014 reelection race, endorsed same-sex marriage, and Republicans in control of the statehouse made moves to tighten voting restrictions – all in one week.
North Carolina can be hard to figure out, reliably presidentially red in the years since Jimmy Carter, then trending purple with a narrow Barack Obama win in 2008 before returning Republicans to office in 2012. Mitt Romney’s narrow victory margin was not nearly as impressive as the GOP’s new control in the statehouse, with wins in the governor’s race and a veto-proof majority in the legislature.
Yet some actions coming out of the capital in Raleigh would seem at odds with Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus’s prescription to rebrand the party as more inclusive. The party has made a lot of folks mad in North Carolina, citizens who the national GOP wants to attract.
Pat McCrory has been a very busy Republican GOP governor. Last week came the decision to eliminate the state’s office for Latino affairs, shifting its duties to the office of community and constituent affairs. The governor’s chief of staff explained in a statement, “We don’t segment our constituents by race or cultural background any more than we separate them by age or gender,” and noted the Governor’s Advisory Council on Hispanic/Latino Affairs as “a valuable resource to help us address culturally sensitive issues.”
Advocates for the Hispanic community took a different view. Jess George, executive director of the Latin American Coalition in Charlotte, told McClatchy Newspapers, “The message from Raleigh is that Latinos in North Carolina don’t matter.” She said, “To close the office of Hispanic affairs only goes to confirm what many people suspect in our state, which is that, despite movement with the Republican Party at the national level towards more bipartisan solutions around comprehensive immigration reform, North Carolina conservatives don’t seem to have gotten the same memo.”
McCrory had already angered some by supporting a plan, later rejected, to issue driver’s licenses with pink stripes to immigrants brought to the country as children and living here illegally, but protected from deportation by a federal program.
The NAACP and voting-rights advocates are none too happy, either, protesting legislation proposed last week by state Republicans that would reduce the days allowed for early voting — used disproportionately by minorities, young people and Democrats – eliminate same-day voter registration and Sunday voting, end straight-party balloting and make all judicial races partisan.
House Majority Leader Edgar Starnes, a Republican and the bill’s primary sponsor, told WRAL-TV that the legislation would “put some balance into the election process,” and said he opposed Sunday voting because “some things you just shouldn’t do on Sundays.”
You could not help but hear Easter echoed in the comments at a meeting in a Raleigh Baptist church by the Rev. William Barber, state NAACP president, who said, “The legislature is trying to crucify voting rights in this state,” in an AP report. “We believe that they have overreached constitutionally, and we will test in the court everything that they do.”
Efforts proposed weeks ago to institute photo identification as a prerequisite to voting, back on the table after Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed similar restrictions in 2011, had already drawn criticism from the NAACP and Democratic lawmakers.
The McCrory administration also initially defended the display of a Confederate battle flag inside the old North Carolina State Capitol to mark the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. After civil-rights leaders objected, the decision was made to relocate the exhibit.
McCrory had already signed a bill to block the expansion of Medicaid in North Carolina, while fellow GOP governors Rick Scott in Florida and Chris Christie in New Jersey endorsed it despite their initial opposition to the Affordable Care Act. Clearly, he is betting that voters who elected him represent a conservative shift in the state and want more of the same.
Hagan must be looking at a different trend line, one that shows an increasingly diverse state, and an in-migration of voters with more progressive views.
Though just last year voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the North Carolina constitution that stated “marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized,” Hagan last week “after much thought and prayer” endorsed same-sex marriage rights on her Facebook page.
“The fabric of North Carolina and what makes our state so special is our families and our common desire for a brighter future for our children,” her statement said in part. “No matter what your family looks like, we all want the same thing for our families – happiness, health, prosperity, a bright future for our children and grandchildren.”
Hagan was careful to mention religious institutions’ right not to conduct marriages “inconsistent with their religious beliefs.” Even as polls show increasing support for same-sex marriage, and the Supreme Court considers cases that may change the legal landscape of the issue, Hagan’s move has to be seen as a risk as Republicans gear up to gain a Senate majority in 2014.
On the issue of guns, Hagan has been more cautious, favoring the idea of expanding background checks for gun purchases, but waiting for details on any proposed legislation before committing support. Her office told the News & Record in Greensboro that she would be “unlikely to support” a renewal of the 1994 assault weapons ban or limits on gun magazine sizes. Hagan, a co-chairman of the bipartisan Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, features her support of the Second Amendment and the rights of responsible gun owners on her Web site.
She is getting pressure to support legislation from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns group, which is running ads in North Carolina that flash a phone number for Hagan’s office at the end. (During this past Sunday’s round of morning political shows, the ad with the guy holding a shotgun in a pickup truck urging comprehensive background checks was in rotation.)
As in many states, opinion on issues such as voting ID legislation, same-sex marriage and gun control splits along lines of race, religion and geography, with cities often at odds with more rural areas.
Travel across North Carolina, and you can see every constituency and group represented. Will changing demographics and politics catch up fast enough for Democrats to defend a U.S. Senate seat in 2014, or is the state’s true nature conservative enough to make the GOP’s right turn in Raleigh the winning strategy?
The only certainty is that everyone will be watching.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3