Gov. Pat McCrory’s move Monday to take on the Obama administration holds potential benefits and risks for the Republican as he runs for a second term against Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper.
Among the possible upsides, political observers said: Firing up and turning out conservative voters, especially in a year when many of them might be tempted to stay home on Election Day because they don’t like the man at the top of the GOP ticket – Donald Trump.
And the risk? McCrory’s move could make it easier for opponents to portray him as a 21st-century George Wallace whose defiance is costing North Carolina jobs and possibly federal money for everything from schools to highways.
This much is clear: The governor’s decision to escalate a legal battle over the controversial law into a political brawl could turn North Carolina into an election-year combat zone for out-of-state interest groups.
In announcing a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice, McCrory cast it as push-back against another over-reaching power grab by the Democratic president in Washington.
“The Obama administration is bypassing Congress by attempting to rewrite the law and set restroom policies for public and private employers across the country, not just North Carolina,” McCrory said in a statement. “This is now a national issue that applies to every state and it needs to be resolved at the federal level.”
The governor’s move led the Justice Department to file its own lawsuit later Monday against North Carolina, charging that HB2 violates federal civil rights laws by fostering discrimination.
Whatever happens with the dueling lawsuits, McCrory’s high-profile gambit “is certainly good election-year politics,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in Salisbury. “For Republicans, anything that Obama advances brings immediate opposition.”
But if the backlash against HB2 threatens federal funding – on top of the concerts canceled and the jobs lost – McCrory could get the blame. Artists such as Bruce Springsteen have canceled concerts in the state, and PayPal called off a Charlotte expansion that would have added 400 jobs.
“People read the headlines about jobs going and they may worry McCrory is not being the kind of good-economy governor he promised,” said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University in Raleigh.
Hero or villain
By Monday afternoon, after McCrory’s lawsuit had become national news, politicians and their interest group allies had emptied their respective benches to join in the fray, casting McCrory as either hero or villain.
The Traditional Values Coalition in Washington lauded the governor for bravery in standing tall for “privacy rights,” while the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT civil rights group, castigated McCrory for not consulting with state lawmakers “to fix the mess he created.”
U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., offered his full support for McCrory’s “act of courage,” while U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., said the governor had decided to “take our state backwards.”
The fiercest fire came from the Cooper and McCrory campaigns, who are engaged in what is widely considered the most competitive gubernatorial race in the country this year.
“Pat McCrory’s disastrous discrimination law was conceived as an election-year ploy to get the governor re-elected,” said Cooper’s senior political adviser, Morgan Jackson. “The reality is: North Carolinians are better than this. And this law is costing thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in economic development.”
McCrory’s team, meanwhile, charged that Cooper was siding with Washington and against North Carolina.
“Instead of doing his job to defend the state against unprecedented threats from the federal government,” said Russell Peck, McCrory’s campaign manager, “Roy Cooper decided to team up with Washington, D.C., and out-of-state special interests seeking to do harm to North Carolina rather than standing up for our families and businesses.”
Initially, said Jennifer Duffy of the Washington-based Cook Political Report, the HB2 controversy amounted to “a great fund raising boon” for Democrat Cooper. “But now it could be as helpful for McCrory.”
McCrory ran for governor as a longtime member of what’s been called the Chamber of Commerce wing of the GOP. But as he gears up for his re-election bid, McCrory finds himself the public face of HB2 – a law opposed by much of corporate America but embraced by conservative Christians and other veterans of the culture wars.
Duffy and others say McCrory is playing the political hand he’s been dealt in 2016.
“I cannot imagine he’s enjoying any of this; it’s not why he ran,” Duffy said. “He can’t do much about it without alienating the (GOP) base. And he can’t win without the base.”
By Monday evening, McCrory’s re-election campaign was citing the governor’s battle with the Obama administration in an emailed fund-raising appeal. “Click here to donate to our campaign to help us fight back,” it read.