The heated battle between for a U.S. Senate seat from North Carolina between incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan and her Republican challenger, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, has unfolded as most political observers expected.
Tillis is trying at every opportunity to tie Hagan closely to President Obama, whose approval ratings are underwater in the state, a situation that’s not unusual for most incumbent presidents halfway through their second term in office.
That’s a big structural advantage for Tillis. But unlike many challengers around the country, he brings his own significant baggage to the race, a deeply unpopular General Assembly that he has led for the last four years that has lower approval ratings in the state than the president.
Thanks to gerrymandered districts, many North Carolinians haven’t had the chance to express their opposition to the far-right agenda of the legislature in any meaningful way at the ballot box. Tillis as the Republican Senate nominee gives them that chance.
The stakes in the race are enormous. The outcome may determine which party controls the Senate for the next two years–so every speech, commercial and poll are being parsed by journalists and pundits and partisans across the country.
But there’s somebody else who is surely watching the Senate battle carefully— Governor Pat McCrory—and not just because of his own political affiliation or his close relationship with Speaker Tillis.
The race is in many ways a preview of what McCrory will face in 2016 when he presumably will be running for reelection. Despite his efforts to claim independence from the powerful leaders of the General Assembly—most notably his incessant claim that he is “stepping on the toes of the right and the left”—he has been a willing if not enthusiastic partner of the hard-right agenda of the legislative leadership that is so unpopular.
He has signed and defended budgets in the last two years that slashed funding for public schools, left many classrooms without teacher assistants and many students without textbooks, and created a voucher scheme diverting public money to unaccountable private schools and religious academies.
He signed a bill that severely restricts a woman’s ability to access abortion services after explicitly promising during the 2012 campaign that he wouldn’t.
He insisted that last year’s tax reform would be revenue neutral but signed a plan that costs the state several hundred million dollars a year with its benefits flowing primarily to the wealthy and corporations while the state Earned Income Tax Credit that helped the working poor was abolished, emergency unemployment benefits were denied to laid off workers, and billions in federal Medicaid funding that could have provided health care for 400,000 low-income adults were left on the table.
Then there are the assaults on the environment, from authorizing dangerous fracking to blocking effective regulation of coal ash until the Dan River spill made even the “get-government-out-of-the-way-crowd” flinch.
Thanks to legislation McCrory signed, it’s harder for low-income parents to get help with affordable child care for their son or daughter but it’s ok to take a loaded, hidden handgun into a bar or local park or playground.
McCrory also signed into law a measure that repeals the Racial Justice Act and is explicitly designed to speed up executions in the state, a startling idea given the recent release of two men wrongly incarcerated for 30 years, one them awaiting his execution, for a crime they did not commit.
And he is still touting a bill that it makes it more difficult for students, the poor and people of color to vote. That legislation is being challenged in the courts, as is the sketchy school voucher scheme.
If there is any doubt that McCrory’s political fate is closely tied to the General Assembly that polls show is out of touch with mainstream North Carolina, the latest pro-Tillis commercial clears that up.
McCrory is prominently featured in the ad being run by Carolina Rising, a new conservative advocacy group in Raleigh. The narrator oddly credits Tillis and McCrory together for legislative “accomplishments” in a commercial obviously designed to help Tillis’ campaign.
Ridiculously, the group is not required to disclose its donors, so there’s no way to know who paid for the ad. But McCrory’s equal billing in it has some observers wondering if some of the money came from a shady political group with close ties to McCrory.
That is the almost forgotten subplot in the Tillis-Hagan battle. It not only has huge ramifications for who will control the U.S. Senate, it provides some compelling foreshadowing of the coming fight to determine who will lead North Carolina.