The NCAA’s decision to pull seven championship events out of North Carolina over the state’s stand on anti-discrimination protections reignited a controversy that has divided the state with less than two months to go before the November elections.
For the governor running for re-election after signing House Bill 2 into law in March, it makes for uncertain terrain.
“I think it will hurt the Republican ticket,” said Rep. Leo Daughtry, a longtime Republican legislator from Smithfield who is not running for re-election. “That includes the governor. I think, unfortunately, it will hurt him.”
Rep. Mike Hager, a Republican from Rutherfordton who resigned from the General Assembly last month, said Gov. Pat McCrory’s stand on HB2 plays better in most rural parts of the state than it does in urban centers populated by newcomers. As a result, McCrory will do well in those areas, he said.
“We’re not willing to subjugate our moral values or philosophy just for the sake of getting another sporting event,” Hager said. “We all love the NCAA, the NBA, but we have priorities.”
HB2 precluded a number of protections for LGBT people, forbidding cities and counties from enacting local protections and preventing a Charlotte ordinance from going into effect that would have allowed people to use the bathrooms of the gender with which they identify.
In protest, numerous entertainment acts have canceled North Carolina appearances, and corporations have withdrawn projects. The U.S. Department of Justice has sued the state, whose reputation has been battered by comedians and commentators across the country.
The initial flurry of cancellations had slowed over the summer until Monday night’s announcement by the NCAA, which struck North Carolina’s love of basketball and other collegiate sports. The organization announced that the championships scheduled during this academic year, including men’s basketball tournament games in Greensboro, would be relocated.
McCrory has portrayed the backlash as a politically driven effort to unseat him and other Republican officeholders, funded by out-of-state liberal philanthropists and national and state LGBT advocacy groups. Over the past few months, polls have shown Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper stretching a lead over Republican McCrory; the average of polling gives Cooper a six-point lead.
On Monday, the governor said any further action on the issue should wait until the U.S. Supreme Court resolves several pending lawsuits on the matter.
“I strongly encourage all public and private institutions to both respect and allow our nation’s judicial system to proceed without economic threats or political retaliation toward the 22 states that are currently challenging government overreach,” McCrory said in his statement, referring to states challenging the Obama administration’s directive to school districts to expand transgender students’ access to bathrooms and locker rooms. “Sadly, the NCAA, a multi-billion dollar, tax-exempt monopoly, failed to show this respect at the expense of our student athletes and hard-working men and women.”
Mac McCorkle, a Duke University professor and former Democratic consultant, told The Associated Press the controversy doesn’t help McCrory.
“Put aside the liberal and conservative arguments about the pros and cons,” McCorkle said. “It’s a mess. It’s a continuing mess and governors are held responsible for messes.”
Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who has been a vocal advocate of HB2, told reporters on Tuesday the dispute is strictly political. He called the NCAA’s action “shameless extortion.”
“We have had Hollywood trying to influence North Carolina by pulling out of concerts. We’ve had the NBA make a move similar to the NCAA, and here we are on round three,” Forest said. “I would imagine before Election Day you’re going to have round four of some type. It’s just an ongoing drumbeat from the left – people who really either haven’t paid attention to what Charlotte did with their ordinance or just don’t care.”
Forest didn’t answer whether or not he thought it would have an effect on his re-election, the governor’s or down-ballot races, but state lawmakers and others interviewed Tuesday had conflicting opinions.
“Anybody who tries to tell you the political impact today is just spinning you,” said veteran state Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, a Republican from Apex.
Rep. Julia Howard, a Republican from Mocksville, said she regrets the losses the state has suffered as a result of HB2, but says voters should blame the Charlotte City Council, not the governor or legislature.
“I don’t know if he’s going to win or not,” she said of McCrory. “I don’t think if he loses he can point a finger to HB2.”
House and Senate Democrats on Tuesday called for a special legislative session to immediately repeal HB2. Sen. Terry Van Duyn, a Buncombe County Democrat, said HB2 has hurt many parts of the state’s economy, but now it’s hurting “North Carolina’s pride and joy – college sports.”
“Republicans thought they had an election-year issue, a club they could use to drive voters to the polls in November, but it has totally backfired,” Van Duyn said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon at the Legislative Building in Raleigh.
Facing a tight race against a Democratic challenger, Republican state Sen. Tamara Barringer on Tuesday became the first GOP legislator to call for HB2 to be repealed.
Barringer, who voted for the bill in March, told WRAL that “if we want to preserve the proud heritage of North Carolina, it is time for our leadership to consider a substantial and immediate repeal of HB2.” She said she still doesn’t want boys or men to be able to use women’s locker rooms or bathrooms.
Barringer represents Cary and southwestern Wake County, which was scheduled to host several NCAA sporting events that were canceled Monday in response to HB2.
Both sides have jumped on HB2 to raise money.
Rep. Susan Fisher, a Democrat from Asheville, emailed a fundraising request blasting Republicans over the issue on Tuesday. Last week, Charlotte Republican Rep. Dan Bishop sent out a fundraising letter warning conservatives that he was being targeted because he was the prime sponsor of HB2.
U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, released a statement on Tuesday that conveyed an optimism not expressed elsewhere.
“As I’ve said before, this law remains a problem for North Carolina,” Burr said. “This is one more reason why I hope state and local leaders will work together to fix it.”
But former Republican Gov. Jim Martin said at this point he doesn’t see a resolution to the controversy.
“The Democrats like where they are and the Republicans like where they are,” Martin said. “And until they’re willing to listen to each other and come to a compromise, I don’t think they’re going anywhere. And I don’t hear anybody on either side interested in a compromise.”
Patrick Gannon of The N.C. Insider contributed.