Pat McCrory’s march to the middle begins

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory speaks at the Siemens Charlotte Energy Hub on  September 24, 2014 in Charlotte.
North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory speaks at the Siemens Charlotte Energy Hub on September 24, 2014 in Charlotte. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

After being elected as a moderate and signing a raft of high-profile conservative legislation into law, we’ve all figured Gov. Pat McCrory would be making an aggressive tack back toward the middle come election season.

Judging from his appearance this morning on WFAE-FM’s Charlotte Talks radio show, that march to the ideological center is well under way.

The former Charlotte mayor, who faces a likely 2016 Democratic Party challenge from N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, pulled off the always fun to watch politician’s trick of delivering a carefully calibrated political message while denying there was any calibration involved.

Whether host Mike Collins was asking him about tax reform or voter identification or gay rights issues, McCrory kept casting himself as the reasonable, pragmatic Eisenhower Republican who gets stuff done while wild-eyed activists on the left and the right foam at the mouth over their pet causes.

He seemed to relish pointing out his disagreements with the runaway N.C. Senate, where conservatives from safely gerrymandered districts are tacking so far right that even reliably Republican chamber of commerce-type business leaders are privately grumbling.

He said he wouldn’t sign one current religious freedom bill making its way through the Senate, which would allow magistrates to opt out of performing gay marriages if it violates their religious conscience. (If you’re sworn to uphold the state Constitution, he said, do it).

Asked by Collins if individual businesses should be allowed to reject service to people they disagree with – similar to Indiana’s controversial new law – McCrory suggested such measures are unncessary.

But while some aspects of such bills “make no sense,” McCrory said, neither did the proposal in Charlotte’s failed anti-discrimination ordinance that would have allowed transgender people to use the bathroom of their choosing.

That, he said, was a “totally ridiculous argument that should have never been brought up.”

Collins alluded to conservative laws he’s signed, which include cuts to employment benefits, a refusal to expand Medicaid and a requirement for voter identification at the polls.

Aren’t you tacking to the center now because of the election, the host asked.

Not at all, said the governor. “I haven’t moved to one direction or another.”

Voter identification isn’t liberal or conservative, he said, it’s just common sense, despite what “left (wing) editorial pages” such as the Observer’s might say.

He explained his approach to decision-making this way: “You’ve got to take it issue by issue. This blanket issue of who’s liberal and who’s conservative is I think way overblown.”

But as the governor well knows, those words mean a lot to voters. And in a state whose electorate seems evenly divided between those two ideological camps, tacking far left or right can spell doom in a statewide race.

The increasingly sharp-elbowed fights with Senate conservatives might let McCrory rebrand himself for a general election whose contours could be shaped by Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid.

That is, if those same fights don’t get him sunk in a Republican primary by a viable hard-right challenger.

--Eric Frazier