In 2016, Democrat Roy Cooper narrowly defeated incumbent Republican Gov. Pat McCrory on the heels of a debate over a controversial social issue.
Activists protested outside the Governor’s Mansion and major organizations pulled business from North Carolina after state lawmakers enacted HB2, a law regulating bathroom use among transgender people.
In 2020, Republicans hope to flip the script.
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, the likely Republican nominee in next year’s governor’s race, is already airing a radio ad attacking Cooper for vetoing the “Born Alive Abortion Survivors Act.” The proposal, filed as Senate Bill 359, would’ve imposed new penalties on medical professionals who allow an abortion survivor to die. But Democrats, after shrinking Republicans’ big majorities in the 2018 elections, were able to uphold Cooper’s veto and block the bill.
Democrats opposed the bill on grounds that it would thrust more bureaucracy into complicated medical situations and may discourage abortions that are medically necessary. Republicans, meanwhile, believe more should be done to prevent infant deaths and hold doctors accountable.
Political experts told The News & Observer that North Carolina’s “born alive” controversy could potentially energize the Republican base more than the Democratic base in next year’s election. However, the issue isn’t expected to become a deciding factor.
General elections are often most influenced by candidates at the top of the ballot. Over the next 16 months, voters could be galvanized by investigations into President Donald Trump or by issues elevated by presidential candidates. Trump campaigns on immigration and trade policy, and he leans on those issues even more when facing negative press, The Atlantic reported last week. Meanwhile, Democratic candidates are expected to push for greater access to health care and slam Trump’s economic policies as harmful to low and middle-class American workers.
“Voters have fairly short attention spans. Cooper’s veto is receiving attention now, but it’s likely that other salient issues will come along between now and the election,” said Kaye Usry, an assistant professor of political science at Elon University and assistant director of the Elon Poll.
“Unless an opponent or outside group chooses to highlight this issue and run a lot of advertisements criticizing him for it, it likely won’t be salient when Cooper is up for re-election in 2020,” Usry said.
Brad Crone, who has worked as a campaign consultant for both parties over 28 years, said both sides will try to use the issue to “rev up” their bases. But voters in the middle are mostly moved by what he called “kitchen table issues.”
“The partisan bases want to make it about hysterical issues that don’t make a difference to the average voter,” Crone said. “With your unaffiliated suburban voter, they’ll respond to issues about education, more educational opportunities, the stability of the economy and their sense of whether the state is moving in the right direction.”
McCrory is one of only two one-term governors in recent years. The other was Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, who was elected in 2008 but declined to seek a second term. While Perdue’s decline is largely attributed to her administration’s ethical scandals, HB2 played a major role in McCrory’s re-election.
But Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, said the “born alive” bill isn’t comparable with HB2.
“The reason HB2 had an impact is because it actually occurred in the election year, it was the biggest story in the state for weeks, and it had a huge negative impact on business,” Jensen said.
“The abortion bill happened 17 months away from the election, never really rose to being that big of a story, and won’t have any secondary impacts like the passage of HB2 did,” he added. “I don’t think much of anyone will still be talking about it in 2 weeks much less 17 months.”
But, if either party chooses to focus on abortion, it’ll be making a political gamble.
How it could help Republicans
Conservatives are more hopeful these days that the new right-leaning U.S. Supreme Court will revisit the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion ruling. Across the country, abortion opponents are pushing for tighter restrictions on the procedure at a time when abortion rates are at historic lows.
Several states in the South have recently enacted strict abortion laws that are expected to face legal challenges.
By contrast, North Carolina’s “born alive” bill wasn’t a ban on the procedure. Rather, it was “a play by the GOP to get something acceptable passed that would be pro-life without being as restrictive as the recent — and very controversial — legislation in Alabama and Georgia,” said Elizabeth Kusko, an assistant professor of political science at William Peace University.
Some NC Republicans have argued that the “born alive” bill isn’t about abortion. Despite the fact that experts say laws already protect infants born alive during an abortion, Republicans have argued that doctors could conceivably take advantage of legal loopholes to kill unwanted babies.
If bill supporters can make voters believe Democrats are OK with what they call “infanticide,” they could create discomfort among swing voters and even some Democrats.
“If you’re thinking about the black and Latino votes, they’re associated with the Democratic Party but they’re not necessarily pro-choice,” said Susan Roberts, a political science professor at Davidson College who’s working on a manuscript on politics and women’s’ reproductive issues.
And, though Democrats claim to fight for women’s rights, Roberts said women have varying opinions on abortion.
“Women don’t vote as a monolith,” she said.
How it could help Democrats
Democrats are likely to fare better than Republicans if the “born alive” debate becomes a referendum on abortion rights. And, try as they might to separate the “born alive” bill from the abortion debate, Republicans may have a tough time succeeding, Crone said.
“I think it’s an abortion bill,” he said.
Some of the strict new laws elsewhere — for example, in Alabama and Louisiana, where bans don’t allow exceptions for rape or incest — run afoul of national views on abortion. “Public opinion on abortion is remarkably stable. The (political) middle believes it should be legal under some circumstances,” Roberts said.
The Pew Research Center last year found support for legal abortion remained as high as it had been over two decades of polling. About 58 percent said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 37 percent said it should be illegal in all or most cases.
Republicans who focus too much on the issue will run the risk of being seen as extreme, said Sunshine Hillygus, a political science professor at Duke University. She co-authored, “The Persuadable Voter: Wedge Issues in Political Campaigns.”
State-specific polls from 2014 show a similar breakdown. Pew found that a majority of NC adults approve of legal abortion in all or most cases, while Elon found that more North Carolinians favored easier abortion access than harder abortion access.
The NC bill “actually draws connections to other states in which Republicans are making policy changes that very clearly cut into their own Republican coalition,” Hillygus said.
More to come?
It’s also possible that the “born alive” bill isn’t the last piece of abortion-related legislation NC lawmakers handle before the 2020 election.
In March, a federal court struck down North Carolina’s ban on women having abortions after their 20th week of pregnancy, the N&O previously reported.
While NC’s ban includes exceptions for certain emergencies, critics said it doesn’t comply with past court rulings. And District Judge William Osteen, who was appointed to the court by Republican President George W. Bush, agreed.
“North Carolina law criminalizes all non-emergency abortions performed after twenty weeks, without regard to the type of procedure or how the abortion is obtained,” he wrote.
The judge gave lawmakers the option to rewrite the law or appeal the court’s ruling. The case remains unresolved.