Taylor Batten

Amid whiffs, a McCrory attack that sticks?

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, left, shakes hands with North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper after a debate in Charlotte in June.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, left, shakes hands with North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper after a debate in Charlotte in June. AP

Gov. Pat McCrory keeps swinging and missing with his attacks on Roy Cooper. But now he has found one, and maybe two, charges that aren’t far-fetched and might actually resonate. Spiraling down in the polls in his reelection bid, he’d better hope so.

McCrory and his backers have thrown everything they can think of at the wall, hoping something against Democrat Cooper might stick. Most slide right off, or miss the wall entirely.

There’s the “career politician” angle. That doesn’t work well coming from a guy who is the consummate career politician.

There’s the “Roy Cooper’s ducking me and won’t debate” complaint. That just makes McCrory come across as worried rather than as a confident incumbent.

There’s the allegation of “Hollywood liberals” backing Cooper. That won’t sway too many voters who were considering voting for Cooper.

This week, McCrory latched on to a WRAL story about Cooper’s lack of email. McCrory’s folks portrayed Cooper as having a Hillary Clinton-like email problem. But that didn’t work because there’s no indication that Cooper has a secret trove of Justice Department-related emails on a personal server. His lack of email use is odd, but at worst it means he didn’t want to create a trail that the public could follow.

McCrory has attacked Cooper for the state’s abysmal ranking in recent years on teacher pay. The problem is that, as attorney general for the past 16 years, Cooper had precious little to do with teacher pay for good or ill.

McCrory went early with a “kitchen-sink” ad this month, accusing Cooper of raising taxes, swelling unemployment, cutting education spending, increasing college tuition and reducing teacher pay. All in 30 seconds. Yawn. The ad cites news stories from 25 years ago as its evidence and refers to unemployment statistics from 2008, in the depths of the recession, when, again, Cooper was AG, not a legislator.

Despite all those whiffs, McCrory has now found an accusation that feels legit to middle-of-the-road swing voters: Cooper is running for governor full-time and failing to do his job as attorney general.

Cooper’s first duty as AG is to defend the state in the appellate courts. But he refused to defend Amendment One, HB2 and now voter ID. While Cooper is correct that all three of those are putrid laws, he also opens himself to complaints that he is letting campaign considerations trump his day job.

Legal scholars have for years debated an attorney general’s obligation in this situation. The answer is not obvious, especially since the AG takes an oath of office swearing to uphold the U.S. Constitution.

Politically, though, the claim could be a winner. Taxpayers pay Cooper $125,676 a year to represent the state. Many are likely to dismiss the intricacies of an AG’s “duty to defend” and agree with McCrory that Cooper should resign.

The other recent McCrory tactic that should give Cooper pause reminds voters of what a disaster the SBI’s crime lab was for years. The Republican Governors Association released a TV ad last week about hundreds of botched cases at the SBI.

Cooper himself commissioned an audit in 2010 that found the SBI withheld or distorted evidence in 230 cases. Most of those cases were closed before Cooper became AG, but there were flawed policies and practices at the SBI for years after Cooper was first elected.

So there are legitimate questions about how quickly and forcefully Cooper acted to fix the SBI.

Still, it’s unlikely that such a distant and complex question could shape this race. Controversies over HB2 and coal ash are far more immediate in voters’ minds, and much easier to understand. If McCrory is to stop his slide in the polls – from up 5 in June to tied to down 7 in one poll last week – he’ll need something a little stickier for Cooper’s wall.