Gov. Pat McCrory announced Monday that he’s conceded the election to Roy Cooper, assuring a new period of divided power in state government.
Four years after becoming the first Republican to win the North Carolina governor’s office in more than two decades, McCrory made the concession in a video message posted around noon Monday as a recount he requested in Durham County entered its final hours. Durham officials finished the recount later Monday with virtually no change in the vote tally there.
“I personally believe that the majority of our citizens have spoken, and we now should do everything we can to support the 75th governor of North Carolina, Roy Cooper,” McCrory said in the video. “The McCrory administration team will assist in every way to help the new administration make a smooth transition.
“It’s time to celebrate our democratic process and respect what I see to be the ultimate outcome of the closest North Carolina governor’s race in modern history.”
With the concession, McCrory becomes the state’s first governor to lose a re-election bid since a constitutional amendment in the 1970s gave governors the ability to seek more than one four-year term. His defeat followed the nation’s second-costliest gubernatorial race and North Carolina’s most expensive ever.
Cooper, a Democrat and the state’s attorney general, had a lead of 10,293 votes over McCrory in nearly final election tallies on the State Board of Elections website Monday evening – about 0.2 percent of votes cast.
Cooper issued a written statement shortly after McCrory’s concession Monday, saying he looks forward to serving as governor. His campaign is planning to hold a “victory rally” on Tuesday night at N.C. State’s McKimmon Center in Raleigh.
“I want to thank Gov. McCrory and our First Lady Ann McCrory for their service to our state,” Cooper wrote. “Kristin and I look forward to working with them and their staff in what I expect will be a smooth transition. I’m proud to have received the support from so many who believe that we can come together to make a North Carolina that works for everyone. ... While this was a divisive election season, I know still that there is more that unites us than divides us.”
N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore both congratulated Cooper on the win Monday, ending weeks of speculation that the Republican-dominated legislature might intervene and declare McCrory the winner. Berger warned that Cooper “won his new office with a razor-thin plurality” and shouldn’t propose any tax increases as governor.
Berger’s comment hints at what’s likely to be a contentious relationship between Cooper and the legislature.
Cooper’s power as governor will be limited by the state legislature, which has a Republican supermajority in both chambers. That means that the GOP has enough votes to override Cooper’s veto of bills that Democrats oppose. And he’ll need support from Republican legislators to accomplish his policy goals.
“He’s really going to be playing defense at least for the first year,” said David McLennan, a political scientist at Meredith College. “He’s going to have to compromise on things he can compromise on with the General Assembly.”
Republicans said Monday that they hope to find common ground with Cooper on bipartisan legislation, something they weren’t often able to do with the last Democratic governor, Bev Perdue.
“I have no bitterness whatsoever toward Governor-elect Cooper and hope that we can continue to move the state forward,” said Rep. Kelly Hastings, a Cherryville Republican.
McCrory’s concession came nearly a month after Election Day, following dozens of election complaints filed by Republicans with help from the governor’s campaign. The majority of them were dismissed by GOP-controlled county election boards.
McCrory referred to those concerns in his concession video, calling them “continued questions that should be answered regarding the voting process.” The governor called Saturday for a State Bureau of Investigation probe into absentee ballots in Bladen County, shortly after the State Board of Elections dismissed a protest calling for those ballots to be thrown out.
Legislators could revisit the state’s election laws when they return in January, and some have indicated that the McCrory campaign’s concerns could result in changes.
The timing of McCrory’s announcement came as a surprise to many because Durham County’s recount was still underway Monday.
But by the time McCrory’s video was released at noon, it was becoming increasingly clear that the recount process was not finding any vote-counting errors that could favor the governor.
McCrory’s campaign had requested the recount of 90,000 ballots in Durham, arguing that the late addition of the 90,000 votes to the statewide tally on election night constituted an “irregularity.” McCrory appeared to have a lead in incomplete election results for much of the night until Durham’s tally was updated around 11:30 p.m.
The state elections board will meet later this week to certify the election results, and while McCrory has conceded, another race appears headed for a statewide recount.
Incumbent State Auditor Beth Wood, a Democrat, has a 5,976-vote lead over Republican challenger Chuck Stuber in the latest results – well within the 10,000 vote margin required for a recount. Stuber has said he’ll still seek a recount even though there will be no statewide recount in the governor’s race.
Cooper transition under way
With McCrory’s concession, attention can now turn to Cooper’s transition efforts ahead of his Jan. 7 inauguration.
Cooper’s transition has been quietly under way for weeks since he declared himself governor-elect, and he recently named leaders for his transition team. A website encourages job seekers to submit resumes for administration positions.
The transition is being led by Ken Eudy – a former political reporter who founded strategic communications firm Capstrat – as well as Kristi Jones, Cooper’s longtime chief of staff in the justice department, and Jim W. Phillips Jr., an attorney who has known Cooper since their UNC-Chapel Hill days.
The team has been working out of homes and offices scattered around Raleigh, but McCrory’s concession could mean Cooper’s staff soon moves into state government office space. Four years ago, McCrory’s transition team used several floors of the Albemarle Building, located close to the state Capitol.
Cooper hasn’t yet named any of his Cabinet members, who will lead agencies ranging from the Department of Transportation to the Department of Health and Human Services. Those appointments are typically made in the weeks ahead of an inauguration.
Among his other appointment powers, Cooper will restructure the state and county elections boards with majority Democratic members, as required in state law. The state board appoints county board members.
“What I’ve been gratified by is the people who really understand Cooper’s vision about making a North Carolina that works for everybody, saying, ‘I want to be a part of it. What can I do to help?’ ” Eudy said last week.
Why McCrory lost
McCrory’s loss to Cooper came in an otherwise favorable year for Republican statewide candidates in North Carolina. Both presidential candidate Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Richard Burr easily won the state, and the GOP picked up three Council of State positions currently held by Democrats: Insurance commissioner, state treasurer and superintendent of public instruction.
McCrory lost votes in urban areas because of his strong support for House Bill 2, the controversial law that among other provisions requires transgender people in government facilities to use the bathroom that corresponds to their birth certificates.
HB2 has prompted numerous sporting events to be moved outside North Carolina, as well as conferences and some corporate expansions – resulting in millions of dollars in economic losses. Opponents of the law made McCrory their main target, and the national LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign was one of the first groups to celebrate the governor’s concession speech Monday.
“Pat McCrory’s reign of discrimination is finally over,” Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said in a news release. “McCrory’s stubborn and reckless support of HB2 cost him this election, and his defeat sends a powerful warning to lawmakers across the country that targeting LGBTQ people will not be tolerated.”
But HB2 wasn’t the only issue that prompted some of McCrory’s supporters in 2012 to vote against him this year.
McCrory also fared poorly in Charlotte’s Republican-leaning northern suburbs around Lake Norman. Much of the opposition to the governor there didn’t involve bathrooms: Voters were upset that McCrory wouldn’t stop a plan to build toll lanes on Interstate 77, the main commuter route in the area that has some of the region’s worst traffic jams.
McCrory, however, clearly hopes his legacy won’t revolve around tolls and bathrooms. In his concession video, he ticked off a number of accomplishments: Income tax cuts, pay raises for teachers, budget surpluses and 300,000 new jobs.
“While exhibiting the highest of ethical standards, I am proud that our team leaves the state a much better place than when we came into office,” the governor said in the video.
Fellow Republicans praised McCrory as he conceded defeat. “Four years ago, his leadership helped ignite North Carolina’s struggling economy, which is now the fastest growing in the entire nation,” U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis said in a news release Monday. “Our state’s elected officials would be wise to build on this momentum and ensure that North Carolina remains the best state to get a quality education, raise a family, run a business and retire.”
For those who didn’t follow much of the campaign, more about the political ideology and background of North Carolina's next governor.
Taxes: In recent years Gov. Pat McCrory and the Republican-led General Assembly have cut the state income tax rate, efforts which Cooper called “huge tax giveaways to big corporations and those at the top.” Cooper has said the focus should instead be on reforms to help lower-income taxpayers, like reinstating a tax credit for child care costs.
Education: Cooper attacked McCrory and the GOP over education funding, noting correctly that the state spends less per student now than before the recession. He has also said he wants to make community college tuition-free, that he opposes the voucher program that gives state money to private schools, and that he would reinstate the Teaching Fellows program. Cooper has a record on education, too: In the 1990s when he was a leader in the North Carolina Senate, the legislature and then-Gov. Jim Hunt brought teacher pay nearly to the national average, and its highest-ever ranking compared to other states.
Health care: McCrory did not expand Medicaid in North Carolina, even though nearly all of the cost would have been paid for by the federal government. Cooper criticized that decision and has spoken of the need to expand the health insurance program. He said expansion wouldn’t just help with health coverage but could also “create tens of thousands of good-paying jobs.”
Social issues: Most observers agree the controversy over House Bill 2 was a major factor in McCrory’s loss. Cooper has spoken frequently about his desire to repeal the law that became known internationally as North Carolina’s “bathroom bill.” Cooper also has advocated for gay rights, saying he would have vetoed a bill that allowed government magistrates to refuse to wed gay couples.
Background as attorney general: Cooper has served as North Carolina’s attorney general since 2001. He focused on consumer-protection cases, such as going after payday lenders. His work also inspired some controversy, mostly his refusal to defend some politically divisive laws that he said were unconstitutional – namely HB2 and an appeal in a challenge to the state’s voter ID law. He also received mixed reviews for his office’s management of the state crime lab, which had a history of withholding or distorting evidence in court that mostly occurred under Cooper’s predecessors. Cooper’s backers said he reformed the agency, but critics said he didn’t do enough or didn’t take action as quickly as he should have.
Staff writer Will Doran