It's official: The last — and most heated — outstanding gubernatorial race of the year has come to a close, with incumbent GOP Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina conceding in a Monday video message to Democratic challenger Roy Cooper.
McCrory is now the first North Carolina governor to lose reelection. His concession brings to a close a nearly month-long saga that seemed to grow more — not less — convoluted and heated by the day, and a four-year governorship that was marked by flash points on LGBT rights, police brutality and gerrymandering.
His defeat is also a rare bright spot in an otherwise dark 2016 election cycle for Democrats: McCrory's loss makes him the only incumbent governor to lose this year — and one of just a handful of sitting governors to lose in the modern era.
Cooper, North Carolina's attorney general, thought this election was over on election night. He claimed victory with a 4,000-vote lead out of 4.2 million votes cast. But McCrory refused to concede, citing unproven suspicions about manual vote counts in Democratic-leaning Durham County. McCrory requested a recount, and he and his allies spent weeks scouring voter rolls across the state for evidence of fraud.
But McCrory's voter fraud challenges failed to present any evidence of the kind of widespread voter fraud that would swing the election by thousands of votes. At least eight Republican-controlled boards of elections rejected all or most of the challenges because of lack of evidence.
And as provisional and absentee ballots were counted, Cooper's lead surged past 10,000 votes, which is the state's maximum vote margin to conduct a recount.
So confident was Cooper of his lead that his campaign announced a transition team in the midst of the recount drama.
“It will be the honor of my life to serve this great state,” Cooper said in a statement Monday after McCrory conceded.
McCrory’s contest-every-vote strategy came under criticism from election officials and newspaper editorial boards. In one county, a dead person they claimed voted was actually alive. In another county, two alleged convicted felons were not felons at all. In another, an election protest was thrown out after the GOP lawyer who filed it didn’t show up until after the hearing ended.
“It puts a cloud over the integrity of the election process of North Carolina,” Rhonda Amoroso, a Republican State Board of Elections member, told the Raleigh News & Observer:
There was also a remote possibility that the GOP-dominated legislature could step in to try to settle this. But the chips would have had to fall a very certain way for that to happen, and GOP legislators had indicated that they’d be reluctant to get involved, even to try to save a governor from their own party.
McCrory’s camp said that given the closeness of the race, it made sense to wait until every last vote was counted for either side to declare victory.
In McCrory's concession, he reiterated that he still had concerns about voter integrity.
The final year of McCrory's four-year tenure was marked by drama surrounding some of the country's touchiest subjects. Prominent LGBT rights groups got involved in trying to unseat McCrory after he signed a bill this spring that limited which public bathrooms transgender people could use and blocked municipalities’ ability to pass anti-LGBT-discrimination laws.
McCrory's approval rating dropped after the law was signed, and backlash to it reverberated across the business, sports and entertainment communities. PayPal pulled out of a deal with the state, and Bruce Springsteen canceled a concert there. The NBA and the NCAA also canceled their moneymaking basketball tournament games in the state.
The boiling debate over the bathroom law had just dropped to a simmer this summer when McCrory was forced into yet another defensive position, this time over another controversial bill he signed into law.
In July, three judges on a federal appeals court struck down the state's 2013 voter ID law, writing: “The new provisions target African Americans, with almost surgical precision.”
The court ruling striking down the law was a huge win for voting rights advocates, who had been playing whack-a-mole with voter ID laws across the country. And it was a blow to McCrory just months before the election: North Carolina is fast becoming one of the most crucial swing states, thanks in part to an increasingly politically active African American community whose members overwhelmingly vote Democratic.
Then, in September, there was violence, and perhaps the biggest test of McCrory's term, when 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott was fatally shot by a police officer outside a Charlotte apartment complex. Scott's killing hit a nerve in North Carolina's largest city, and McCrory declared a state of emergency as protests, some of which turned violent, filled the streets. It was the most intense reaction in several years to a police shooting.