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North Carolina's Governor Tries to Ride Trump's Coattails

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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Immediately after the Sept. 26 presidential debate, Hillary Clinton headed to North Carolina to take a bow. It’s easy to see why. The lead in the presidential race has seesawed for months and Donald Trump has been ahead more often than not. 

In most swing states, candidates fear that Trump will be a drag on their campaigns. Witness the speed with which Republican senators up for re-election such as John McCain and Kelly Ayotte fled when asked whether they endorse their party's nominee.

But in North Carolina, Pat McCrory, the incumbent Republican governor, is hoping Trump will give him a lift. McCrory has run as much as nine points behind his Democratic competitor, former state legislator and now the attorney general, Roy Cooper, who is so popular he ran unopposed in 2012.

McCrory’s main problem has been HB2, the “bathroom bill,” which requires transgender people to use the public restroom of the gender listed on their birth certificates. The backlash has caused catastrophic damage to the state’s economy. Estimates are that $200 million to $400 million in revenue was lost when the NCAA, Bruce Springsteen and Paypal, among others, decided to take their business elsewhere. 

Although many down-ballot candidates in other states try to avoid appearing with Trump, the governor enthusiastically introduced the tycoon at a rally in North Carolina in July. The governor couldn’t resist leading off with a joke about the bathroom law.

"If any of you need to use the restrooms ..." McCrory told the crowd, before trailing off for a pause, according to the Washington Post. Not that Trump returns the favor. In April, he pointed out that transgender people could use the restroom of their choice in Trump Tower. In his speech later that night, Trump would paint a dark picture of North Carolina's economy, which could be seen as an implicit criticism of McCrory's stewardship as governor.

These days, the bill may not be the first thing on McCrory’s worried mind: Floating in there somewhere must be the thought that another crisis -- the shooting of a black man by the police and the ensuing riots in Charlotte -- might present a second chance to make a first impression. He could trade the image of a busybody telling folks where they could answer the call of nature for that of a law-and-order candidate declaring a state of emergency and calling in the National Guard to protect the city where he served as mayor for 14 years.  

The results were mixed. In a news conference carried live, McCrory talked for 10 minutes before mentioning the name of the shooting victim, Keith Scott. He congratulated law enforcement for all their hard work. He worried about the stress on the National Guard and got choked up about how little sleep they were getting. The governor who pushed a bill that makes it difficult for the public to see police videos couldn’t, or didn’t want to, find the middle ground between supporting the police and having sympathy for the victim and his family.

McCrory might not have been a Trump supporter back when he was the pragmatic mayor of the New South city of Charlotte. Campaigning at a Rotary Club lunch last week only hours before the city would be roiled by the shooting, McCrory went through a list of his accomplishments, revitalizing downtown, building a light rail system (called McCrory Rail derisively, he joked, until it became a success). He’s fond of crowing “the cranes are back.” He took care of what residents could see, polishing the city’s parks, streets, and fountains to a fare thee well, part of his philosophy that tend to the details and the big things will follow.

Upon arriving at the state house in Raleigh in 2012, McCrory worked on improving the economy but also pursued a conservative agenda with the help of an all-Republican legislature. Strict regulations on abortion were grafted onto a motorcycle safety law. To solve the non-existent problem of voter fraud (a rate perhaps of .00173 percent), the state passed a voter ID measure so restrictive the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned it, saying this “relic of Jim Crow,” targeted blacks “with almost surgical precision.” The state's attorney general, Cooper, who is now his opponent, refused to appeal the case and McCrory hired private lawyers to do so. The Supreme Court rejected the appeal.

HB2 wasn’t McCrory’s first foray into LGBT issues. He voted down a Charlotte anti-discrimination LGBT ordinance in 1991 as a city council member, arguing that no group should be given special status, and a similar one in 2004 as mayor, He excluded LGBT government workers from an executive order barring discrimination. According to the Huffington Post, McCrory defended a local YMCA for rejecting the application of Tom Landry and his partner, saying the gay man had many other options, including the Jewish Community Center.

Despite the police shooting and its aftermath of unrest, HB2 may remain the issue that dogs McCrory as he fights off a strong challenge. At a coffee shop last week, Cooper, says he warned McCrory sharply “don’t sign the bill” and now the governor blames everyone but himself for the trouble it’s caused: “the president, the mayor, the liberal media, me, and Springsteen.” When McCrory was told by the U.S. Department of Justice that his law violated the Civil Rights Act, McCrory filed a lawsuit and the Justice Department filed back.

Clinton is going to have to work hard to win North Carolina. McCrory shouldn’t have to when the state is largely a Republican bastion -- it went for Mitt Romney in 2012. He could be the only incumbent in the country who believes Trump has coattails. If they materialize, he’s bought a ticket to ride.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net