With Gov. Pat McCrory’s announcement last week that he is officially seeking reelection, here are five pairs of words that could shape how his bid for a second term plays out:
1 Donald Trump.
Or: Presidential politics. Is McCrory sharing the ballot with Trump? If not, which Republican is taking on Democrat Hillary Clinton, and how is that race playing out? If that Republican wins the presidential race in North Carolina, McCrory is nearly a lock. If Republicans nominate a fringe candidate and Clinton gets hot, McCrory will be in the fight of his life against the most likely Democratic nominee, Attorney General Roy Cooper. It’s hard to imagine either gubernatorial candidate overcoming an opponent riding strong coattails.
2 Prison contracts.
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Will ethical questions surrounding McCrory scare away enough voters to swing the race? The FBI is asking questions about the McCrory administration’s extension of prison maintenance contracts to the Keith Corp., a firm belonging to longtime McCrory friend and Charlotte businessman Graeme Keith. And a federal grand jury is exploring a series of contracts awarded by McCrory’s Department of Health and Human Services.
Those controversies could be old news by November 2016, though, and the state Ethics Commission cleared McCrory in a separate complaint.
“Those are clouds on the horizon. You can’t know if it blows away and dissipates or drops a hurricane on your head,” longtime Republican strategist Carter Wrenn said.
3 Swing voters.
About 35 percent of voters, mostly in urban areas, will vote Democrat regardless. About 30 percent of voters will vote Republican. That leaves two groups of swing voters, Wrenn says, to decide the outcome: Jessecrats, or conservative Democrats, mostly in eastern North Carolina, who frequently vote Republican; and suburban independents who could truly go either way.
In 2012, McCrory could run on promises and polished television ads. Now he has a record. And like Bev Perdue after her first term, McCrory is not as popular with three years of controversy in voters’ minds. Will his performance, his marked turn to the right and his ineffectiveness with the conservative legislature dampen his support from vital independents?
“People are looking at him and saying, ‘We’re not sure he’s up to the job’,” Wrenn said. “His numbers have turned upside down with independent voters. He doesn’t have the popularity he once had.”
Hailing from Rocky Mount, Cooper seems destined to fare better with Jessecrats than Democrat Walter Dalton did in 2012.
4 Coal ash.
Wrenn thinks this could be a wildcard that hurts McCrory. A coal ash spill at Duke’s Eden plant dumped 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in February 2014. Besides his long ties to Duke Energy, McCrory could face questions about why he hasn’t called for Duke shareholders, rather than customers, to pay for the cleanup. Cooper quickly called for that, and the issue could resonate as a TV ad. “That’s one of those issues that could catch fire,” Wrenn says.
5 Who cares?
Republicans are going to maintain control of the state House and Senate. Whether McCrory or Cooper wins, the legislature calls the shots in Raleigh these days. Still, an effective governor has some power through the bully pulpit and the veto. And if the Democrats pick up four House seats, they could sustain a Gov. Cooper veto.