The Observer issues a challenge to McCrory, Cooper

The Observer editorial board

A new ad from Pat McCrory’s campaign blames all the state’s ills on Roy Cooper, who was attorney general for 16 years.
A new ad from Pat McCrory’s campaign blames all the state’s ills on Roy Cooper, who was attorney general for 16 years.

On May 24, 2012, the Observer editorial board challenged Republican Pat McCrory and his opponent, Democrat Walter Dalton, to take a pledge. Their race for North Carolina governor was already turning nasty, and we thought they should commit not to run ads that were clearly unfair, and to denounce sleazy ads from independent groups.

That day, McCrory agreed. Dalton ducked the question.

Now, given the tenor of the presidential campaign and the early tone of the McCrory-Roy Cooper campaign, we re-issue the challenge: Gov. McCrory and Attorney General Cooper should pledge right now not to run or accept any advertising that is false or misleading.

It’s a low bar, and one most voters would surely appreciate. What do you say, gentlemen?

Each has knocked the other on social media, but McCrory escalated things Tuesday when he launched his general election TV advertising with a misleading attack on Cooper.

The ad about Cooper begins: “30 years as a professional politician.” True enough, but McCrory has been the ultimate politician for 27 years himself.

The spot hits Cooper as a tax-hiker, citing a story from 25 years ago. It links him with sky-high unemployment, and points to statistics from 2008, in the depths of the recession, when Cooper was attorney general, not governor or a legislator. It cites 25-year-old stories to attack Cooper on his record on education spending. And it blames him for declining teacher pay, referring to a 10-year period when Cooper was attorney general and had nothing to do with teacher pay.

“Negative” ads can play a legitimate role in a campaign, educating voters about a candidate’s record. But as we said when we issued the 2012 challenge, there’s a line that’s easy to cross, when innuendo, fun with numbers, lack of context and other tricks of the trade take an ad beyond mere truth-telling. That’s what McCrory and Cooper – and Richard Burr and Deborah Ross and all other candidates – should avoid.

That’s probably hoping for too much. A Michigan State University study last year showed the percentage of persuadable voters in national elections has been shrinking – and may now be as low as 5 percent. That encourages campaigns to run attack ads to invigorate their partisan backers against the opposition.

Still, it’s disappointing, and perhaps revealing, that McCrory is going negative right out of the gate. It’s the kind of thing one is more accustomed to seeing from an underdog challenger than from a well-known incumbent. It suggests the McCrory camp is worried, and believes tearing down Cooper is as effective a strategy as building up McCrory.

McCrory looks similarly worried with his plea for frequent debates with Cooper. In 2012, Dalton, the underdog, wanted McCrory to debate eight times. McCrory, as the favorite, dismissed that and agreed to three.

Now? McCrory wants eight and Cooper has agreed to three.

Let’s hope there are several. If McCrory’s first ad is any indication, the candidates will need plenty of time to set the record straight.