We’re less than 50 days out. Seven Tuesdays away. No matter which milepost you choose, one thing is certain: North Carolina’s biggest races are also close races. The presidential race here is deadlocked. The U.S. Senate race might be. The race for governor is as volatile as the issue most affecting it, HB2.
What’s ahead in these last seven weeks? To help answer that, we’re happy to bring back two veteran N.C. political strategists, Republican Carter Wrenn and Democrat Gary Pearce. Wrenn and Pearce wrote popular columns for the Observer on the Democratic and Republican conventions this summer. We’ll be checking in with them as the election approaches for their insight – and yes, predictions – on North Carolina.
Q. An HB2 compromise might have been scuttled Monday morning when Charlotte’s mayor said the issue wouldn’t appear on the City Council agenda. If a compromise had happened, would it have been a gamechanger in North Carolina races?
Wrenn: I don’t think you can turn back the hands of the clock. What they’re talking about is they repeal theirs and we’ll repeal ours, and we go back to where we were a year ago. But that doesn’t eliminate everything that’s happened in the past year. It doesn’t significantly have a political impact.
Republicans have taken a hit. That won’t just vanish.
Pearce: It’s a very desperate act from Republicans, and what it tells you is they’re really seeing damage. It’s clearly hurt McCrory, and now you can tell from what the legislators are saying that it’s really hurt them in these swing districts.
It would be the best thing that could possibly happen to the Democrats this year. That would mean the legislature would come back and thrash around. You’d have the Democrats standing pretty strong, because they know the politics of it. Republicans would be split. It would be a city mouse/country mouse kind of split.
It’s one of those things the longer it’s in the news and it’s talked about, the more it hurts Republicans. (The governor) most of all, really.
Q. Republicans have worried for months that Donald Trump might be a drag on state-level races. But Pat McCrory is doing worse in some North Carolina polls. Could the governor be a drag on Trump?
Pearce: I don’t know that it’s a drag on him. It seems to me more that there are just two separate dynamics going on in those races. If there’s an impact, it’s more likely in the Senate race, and that’s hard to figure. There might be some Republicans and some independents who say, “Well, I’m not going to vote for Trump, but I don’t want to vote for both a Democrat for president and Democrat for Senate.” So it’s hard to say how that will quite play out.
Wrenn: It’s two different dynamics. Trump and the presidential race are on a plane of its own. The down-ballot races aren’t going to affect how people vote for president.
Now if Trump loses the state, McCrory can compound that problem down-ballot in Council of State and State House races.
Q. Will the explosion in New York and bombs found in New Jersey on Sunday have a real impact for voters in North Carolina?
Wrenn: I think it will. I saw a poll last week that asked “What issues concern you and your family the most?” Terrorism was No. 1 in this poll, and that’s a big change from a year ago. I think this will drive that up even more so that it will become bigger not just in New York, but in the whole country.
What people are going to do now is they’re going to watch Trump and Clinton and judge their reaction to the attack, and that’ll affect how people vote.
Pearce: You could see people liking Trump’s tough talk, or they might say Trump’s a loose cannon who could make everything worse and blow it all up. I think what it really shows is how much impact – Carter calls them “acts of God” – how much they have on a campaign. The classic example up to now was Hillary’s pneumonia.
I have developed a theory that the really important dynamic in the campaigns this year is that if you’re in the news, you lose. It’s such a negative environment, and the more you’re in the news and you lead the news, the more you lose in the polls.
Q. OK, prediction time. If the election were held today, what would happen?
Pearce: In North Carolina, I think Hillary will win because of her ground game, and I think after the debate she’s going to pick back up in the polls. Ross and Burr is too close to call, but as a good Democrat I’ll call it for Ross.
I think Cooper is going to win. I think that’s – I don’t want to ever say locked in, but he’s really a solid favorite. I think he’s at the point that you got a good lead in the last couple minutes of a game and now you just got to make your foul shots.
Wrenn: The presidential race has kind of been frozen in North Carolina for a couple of months. Nobody knows what the undecideds are going to do. There’s about 12 percent undecided. You don’t know if they’re going to break Hillary or break Trump or not vote.
(In the governor’s race), you have a different dynamic. McCrory’s very well known and Cooper’s not as well known, but as he becomes better known he’s tended to pick up votes.
The polls I’m seeing indicate Clinton would win the presidential race, Cooper will win the governor’s race, and Burr will win the Senate race.
Q. You think those will hold?
No telling. Would I want to predict that’s how it ends up? No.