North Carolina Gov. Pat McCroryNational Journal

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory is readying for one of the most competitive gubernatorial races of 2016, and two years into his first term, McCrory is still trying to smooth over his greatest vulnerability: not his Democratic opponent, but his rocky relationship with conservatives in the North Carolina legislature.

McCrory is a moderate Republican and former mayor of Charlotte, and when he took office in 2013, he was steamrolled by conservative leaders in the legislature eager to push their agenda after spending decades in the minority. While there's some evidence the relationship is better now, the headache hasn't totally gone away, and it could leave an opening for Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, his likely opponent.

Right now, a controversial abortion bill is currently working its way through the state Senate, and the fate of McCrory's big hope for the year—putting $3 billion worth of transportation and infrastructure bond measures on the statewide ballot—remains uncertain. Statewide bond measures must first be approved by the General Assembly before they can go to voters.

Just as conservative legislation and intra-Republican fights in Raleigh threatened Republican Thom Tillis's Senate run in 2014, they could hamper McCrory next year. The Raleigh News & Observer recently predicted: "How well McCrory navigates the General Assembly will dictate how much of his agenda he can accomplish—and position himself for reelection in 2016."

This is not a new issue for the governor. In 2013, before McCrory had time to fully lay out his agenda or even staff up the governor's office, Republican legislators passed a series of restrictions on voting rights and abortion, and they made cuts to education and unemployment benefits that sparked passionate protests and attracted national attention. More than 40 percent of Democratic TV ads in last year's Senate race focused on education after those cuts; for a time, it looked like they would cost Tillis the race. McCrory's approval rating has fallen toward the legislature's low rating in that time, too.

In a sense, the abortion measure pending in the state Senate "is kind of a microcosm of what's been going on during [McCrory's] time as governor," according to Cooper adviser Morgan Jackson.

The abortion measure would triple the required wait period for women seeking abortions from 24 to 72 hours. Wait periods are not uncommon, but the length of this one would be unusual. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 26 states have wait period requirements, but only three states enforce a 72-hour wait period. The bill already passed through the state House and is expected to come up for a vote in the Senate in the coming days or weeks.

McCrory won't say whether he plans to veto the bill. He has generally proven unwilling to veto legislation he disagrees with, instead opting to let items become law without his signature.

During his time as governor, McCrory has often been forced to fall in line behind the agenda of Republican legislators (instead of the other way around) or risk alienating himself from more conservative members of his own party. But there have been noticeable changes for McCrory during this year's legislative session relative to years past, which could offer evidence that he's exerting more influence as he's gained experience—and the 2016 election draws closer.

The McCrory administration was able to strip out a more controversial section of the abortion bill that would have barred medical schools associated with the state university system from providing abortion services. The governor also voiced his opposition to a religious freedom bill introduced this year that was similar to the one passed in Indiana, and the bill was subsequently tabled.

Some see this as a change in strategy on McCrory's part. He's been voicing his opinion on controversial measures earlier in the legislative process, and has been more active in trying to shape outcomes by attending committee hearings and inviting lawmakers to meet with him.

McCrory supporters are eager to give the governor credit for these less tumultuous times. Even if the abortion bill becomes law, it appears to be one of few controversial measures that might make it out of session, relative to the cascade of controversy that reigned down two years ago. "He's working the political side of this job as good as I've seen him work it since he got in office," former McCrory strategist Chris Sinclair said. "He's found his sea legs."

Others, however, don't necessarily see it that way, including other Republicans. One prominent North Carolina GOP operative, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, thinks McCrory's relationship with the legislature actually has deteriorated: "I think if anything it's gotten worse, in his dealing with the legislature, and there's just more bad blood. I think it's partially ideology, but it's more personality."

That particular operative pointed to a lawsuit that McCrory filed against the legislature last year seeking more constitutional authority to make appointments as evidence that the power struggle is real, and ongoing.

The operative also noted that some elements of the governor's differences with legislative leaders are likely intractable. As a former big-city mayor, McCrory assumed office with the interests of the state's urban areas in mind, while most Republican leaders hail from rural areas. Their priorities perennially clash, particularly during debates over economic incentives and how to allocate the state's tax dollars.

Democratic consultant Thomas Mills thinks legislative Republicans deserve more credit than McCrory for the relatively cooperative image they've been able to project recently. "Everybody in the legislature understands he's running for reelection and they're not going to stick their thumb in his eye like they did in 2013," Mills said.

If McCrory continues to get bogged down in controversial items pushed by the legislature, his reelection prospects could be in serious danger. Cooper is expected to present a credible challenge, and most public polls have shown the pair running neck-and-neck. But it's what happens during the legislative session, before Cooper even announces his campaign, that could pose the biggest threat to McCrory's reelection hopes.

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

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