How North Carolina Became the Wisconsin of 2013

With a Republican takeover of state government and weekly protests in Raleigh, the Tar Heel State is the front line in America's partisan battle.
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Nowhere is the battle between liberal and conservative visions of government fiercer than North Carolina. From the environment to guns, abortion to campaign finance, religion to taxes, Raleigh has become a battleground that resembles Madison, Wisconsin, in 2011.

Just as Wisconsinites seemed shocked that their state could become so polarized, North Carolina seems like an unlikely candidate for such fierce political clashes. North Carolinians like to boast that their state is "a vale of humility between two mountains of conceit." Until recently, it was certainly an oasis of political calm between Virginia -- a fast-changing purple state fighting battles over transvaginal ultrasounds -- and South Carolina, home of outspoken conservatives like Jim DeMint and Joe Wilson. The Tar Heel State was more moderate. For most of the last century, Democrats controlled the governorship, and they also tended to control the state legislature. Meanwhile, the state voted for a Republican in every presidential election from 1980 to 2004. In 2008, a major push by Barack Obama won him the state by a tiny margin, and it seemed that North Carolina, like Virginia, might be an emerging purple or even bluish state.

Then in the 2010 election, Republicans took control of both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time since 1870. Two years later, Republican Pat McCrory won the governorship (incumbent Governor Bev Perdue, a Democrat, opted not to run in the face of almost certain defeat). Obama, meanwhile, failed to hold the state in the 2012 presidential race, even after Democrats staged their nominating convention in Charlotte. 

That's where our story begins: when the Republicans took over Raleigh. McCrory seems like an unexpected man to oversee a dramatic rightward shift. He was the more centrist GOP contender for the gubernatorial nomination in 2008 (he lost to Perdue, barely) and had spent 14 years as mayor of Charlotte, earning a reputation as a moderate. But the combination of Republican control of both the governorship and the legislature has emboldened the GOP to take up a slew of conservative priorities. Central to the push is Art Pope, a wealthy businessman and political benefactor who is sometimes described as North Carolina's answer to the Koch brothers, and whom McCrory appointed as state budget director. Pope and his associates spent $2.2 million in state races in the 2010 cycle alone, Jane Mayer reported in 2011.

While much of North Carolina remains conservative -- as the 2012 election showed -- there is a strong concentration of much more left-leaning voters in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, and they've reacted angrily to the push. In a series of weekly demonstrations named "Moral Mondays," protestors have descended on the state legislature to show their displeasure and, often, be arrested: nearly 500 people have been arrested since the first such rally on April 29. (Last week on The Atlantic, Win Bassett followed the Rev. Tuck Taylor as she was arrested at the June 17 Moral Monday.)

Unlike the Madison contretemps, which centered around one major issue -- Gov. Scott Walker's drive to strip public employees of collective-bargaining rights, and protestors push to stop him -- the battle in North Carolina is more of a multifront war featuring a large number of skirmishes. Here's a quick primer on what they're fighting over:

1. UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS: Starting today, 70,000 North Carolinians will lose long-term unemployment benefits from the federal government, even though the state has the nation's fifth-worst jobless rate; that comes on top of the state slashing its own benefits. It's the only state in the nation to end federal benefits. How did it happen? Well, the state is more than $2 billion in debt to Washington, so it decided to redirect money it had been using for state unemployment benefits for repaying what it owes. But in the process, it violated the minimum it must provide to qualify for federal benefits. The maximum weekly benefit will decrease from $535 to $350, and the longest anyone can stay on the dole will drop from 26 weeks to between 12 and 20 weeks. There are an estimated 700,000 North Carolinians who are out of benefits but don't have a job. The move is estimated to cut some $475 million from the state economy.

2. TAX OVERHAUL: Unsurprisingly, changing the state's taxation system has been a key priority, and a key reason for liberal fury. Also unsurprisingly, it's been a difficult, contentious process. In this case, protestors' best hope isn't their actions -- it's their opponents. Both the House and Senate are Republican-controlled, but they've been unable to reach a consensus, and last week had to agree to short-term continuing resolution to fund the state. And they're quarreling with the governor. The basic outline is clear: Changes would reduce both personal and corporate taxes and reduce state revenue, though McCrory wants more revenue than either chamber. Any plan is likely to result in lower income taxes for almost all residents, but also a much flatter tax code, with wealthier residents bearing a smaller percentage of the tax burden.

3. FRACKING: You may have heard about, and laughed at, the case of the Democratic legislator who accidentally cast the deciding vote on a bill to end a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing last year -- she mistakenly pressed the wrong button, giving an override of then-Gov. Bev Perdue's veto a crucial 60 percent margin. Now the legislature is moving forward with the next step in opening the state up to exploration, with a bill to start issuing permits. A Senate version of the bill would also allow drillers to keep the contents of their fracking fluid secret.

4. RACIAL JUSTICE ACT REPEAL: Like many southern states, North Carolina has a troubled history with race -- and Jesse Helms' infamous race-baiting ad against Harvey Gantt was just 23 years ago. As the News and Observer reported, "a study found murder defendants were 2 1/2 times more likely to be sentenced to death if at least one of the victims was white, and raised questions about how frequently blacks are excluded from serving on juries," leading the legislature to pass a law in 2009 that allowed for appeals to commute death sentences to life sentences on the basis of statistical evidence of racial bias. The law was hailed as a landmark, but almost immediately became a target. In 2011, legislators repealed it, only to have Perdue veto the repeal. This term, they tried again, and McCrory signed the repeal on June 19. A secondary effect of the repeal is that a de facto moratorium on executions, in place since 2006, is likely to end.

5. MEDICAID EXPANSION: North Carolina is one of 13 states that have announced they will reject an expansion of Medicaid that's part of the Affordable Care Act. Originally a mandatory component, the expansion was made optional by the Supreme Court's ruling last June. It's become a litmus test for Republican states, which have rejected the expansion even though the federal government would pay the entire cost through 2019 and at least 90 percent afterward. The expansion would have provided insurance to 500,000 North Carolinians.

6. VOTING LAWS: As in many Republican-controlled states, legislators have proposed requiring a photo ID to vote. Other bills would reduce early voting time from two weeks to one and end same-day registration; one lawmaker wants to ban early voting on Sundays because, he implied, the day should be kept sacred. Early voting laws and same-day registration are generally thought to benefit young, itinerant, and minority voters who lean Democratic, and early voting was credited with helping Obama win the state in 2008.

7. GUN LAWS: The legislature is working on a large bill that would relax a variety of gun laws. Among other changes, residents would no longer have to get pistol permits from their local sheriff; would no longer be barred from locking guns in cars at schools and universities; allow concealed carry in bars; and revoke public access to the names of concealed-carry permit holders. Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, and campus police chiefs oppose the bill.

8. EDUCATION: Legislators have approved school-choice plans that will grant low-income children vouchers to attend private schools. As has been the case around the country, Republicans have offered the plans as a way to ensure all children get a good education, while Democrats have decried it as a way to bleed public schools dry. The state's preschool program is in for cuts -- the question is just how large. McCrory's budget reduces the family income threshold to qualify from 200 percent of federal poverty level to 130 percent. A House bill approved a cut to 100 percent of poverty level, which would reduce eligibility by 30,000 children.

9. STATE RELIGION: What's impressive is the sheer variety of bills. For every very viable push, there's one totally wacky one. For example: an attempt to create a state religion. In April, GOP lawmakers filed a bill that would do just that, though the body hasn't moved on it since.

10. JUDICIAL PUBLIC FINANCING: In 2002, the state instituted public financing for judicial elections. Once candidates raised $39,450 in small donations, they were eligible for public financing if they agreed to stop private fundraising. Opponents -- including Pope's John Locke Foundation and Civitas Institute -- have argued that the laws are a muzzle on free speech. Boosters say it's a good way to maintain impartiality; a report this year found that where corporations are able to contribute to judicial races, they are more likely to receive favorable rulings. The law's supporters also argue that Pope, as a major businessman and political donor, stands to benefit greatly if the law is removed. A 2011 try at ending the program, failed, but McCrory reintroduced it in his budget this year. The budget hasn't yet passed, but the measure seems likely to succeed.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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