The race for North Carolina governor appeared headed into overtime with Democrat Roy Cooper clinging to a paper-thin lead over Republican Gov. Pat McCrory early Wednesday morning.
After all precincts reported, Cooper led by fewer than 4,500 votes out of 4.7 million cast. The race could hinge on so-called provisional ballots expected to be counted by the time of a canvass later this month.
“We’re going to fight for every vote between now and Nov. 18,” McCrory told supporters in Raleigh. “We’re going to check everything and we’re going to make sure that every vote counts… We plan to be governor in a second term right here in North Carolina.”
Speaking before cheering supporters early Wednesday morning, Cooper was introduced as the governor-elect and gave a victory speech that was a bright spot for Democrats in an otherwise grim night. At one point, the crowd broke out in chants of “Cooper, Cooper, Cooper.”
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“This has been a hard-fought race, but the people of North Carolina have spoken, and they want a change in leadership in Raleigh,” Cooper said. “We are confident that these results will be certified and they will confirm victory.”
Cooper’s strong showing in the Triangle and Mecklenburg County helped him overcome heavy suburban and rural support for McCrory, who lost his home county by 134,000 votes.
McCrory, who campaigned on economic gains he dubbed the “Carolina Comeback,” was trying for a comeback of his own. Cooper, North Carolina’s attorney general, had led both in campaign spending and in most polls. Libertarian Lon Cecil trailed far behind.
Exit polls showed that while each candidate won more than 90 percent of his own party, unaffiliated voters – the state’s fastest-growing group – broke for McCrory 54 percent to 45 percent. They also showed the gender gap cut both ways, with McCrory winning men by 10 points and Cooper winning women by the same margin.
Many voters saw the race as a referendum on HB2, the so-called “bathroom bill” that sparked a national backlash. Exit polls reported by ABC News showed that 66 percent of North Carolina voters oppose HB2 while only 29 percent support it.
Cooper was trying to make McCrory the state’s first governor to lose a re-election bid. Through Oct. 20, he’d spent $21.3 million to McCrory’s $13.6 million. It was the nation’s second costliest gubernatorial race and North Carolina’s most expensive ever.
But McCrory got a boost after leading recovery efforts following last month’s Hurricane Matthew.
Early in the count, Republicans were jubilant about their possible trifecta with Republican Donald Trump carrying the state and U.S. Sen. Richard Burr winning re-election.
Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state GOP, called it “a hell of a night.” He said he was cautiously optimistic about the governor’s race and other campaigns on the ballot.
“We feel very, very good,” Woodhouse said. “It’s close. It’s close.”
Democrats gathered in downtown Raleigh, in a county Cooper won by 114,000 votes. U.S. Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat, said Democrats worked hard on the ground game.
“I have felt optimistic for a long time about Cooper,” Price said. “I’ve seen the same polls everyone has, which are positive. But I’ve just had the feeling … that he has inspired people’s confidence and has a lot of enthusiasm going for him.”
McCrory was trying to replicate his 2012 performance, when he carried 77 of the state’s 100 counties. That included Wake and Mecklenburg, where he bucked a tidal wave of votes for Democrat Barack Obama.
But Tuesday he was losing most urban counties, often by big margins.
HB2 was the law McCrory signed in March, overturning a Charlotte ordinance that extended anti-discrimination protections to the LGBT community. The state law prevented local governments from passing similar ordinances and, among other things, requires transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender listed on their birth certificate in government buildings.
The NCAA and the Atlantic Coast Conference pulled championship games from the state in protest. Concerts were canceled and business expansions scrapped, including one that would have brought 400 jobs to Charlotte.
Cooper accused McCrory and the Republican-led General Assembly of writing discrimination into law and pledged to work toward its repeal.
Defending the bill, McCrory said the law was about safety and privacy, arguing that the city had over-reached. One ally, the N.C. Values Coalition, referred to the Charlotte ordinance as “Roy Cooper’s bathroom plan.”
McCrory touted an economic turnaround that has added more than 300,000 jobs, seen the unemployment rate fall from 8.8 percent to 4.7 percent and caused the state to be seen as one of the nation’s fastest growing economies.
The governor and his allies hammered Cooper’s handling of the State Crime Lab, which the attorney general oversaw. Last week McCrory ran an ad accusing his opponent of mishandling problems at the lab and defending a “broken system.”
The lab was once plagued by shoddy work and a years-long backlog of evidence testing. Most of the lab’s problems started long before Cooper took office in 2001 and he says he fixed many of them.
Charlotte Observer Staff writer Gavin Off contributed.
Lon Cecil, L 2.17%
Roy Cooper, D 48.96%
Pat McCrory, R (i) 48.87%
2,704 of 2,704 precincts reporting