The state is also extremely polarized, with its urban centers strongholds of liberalism and rural parts of the state much more conservative. For decades, Democrats mostly controlled the legislature and governorship, while the state voted Republican in national elections. But Republicans were able to take over the state legislature in the 2010 Tea Party wave and the governorship two years later. They promptly set to work harnessing a groundswell of voter anger to pass a series of conservative measures.
One major engine of the charge was Art Pope, a wealthy Tar Heel businessman and philanthropist. Pope donated to campaigns, funded conservative think-tanks, and served as budget director to Governor Pat McCrory, who was elected in 2012. Pope is essentially a classic pro-business conservative—he’s most interested in removing regulatory barriers. As Jane Mayer wrote in The New Yorker in 2011, Pope had once run for office as a single-shot pro-business libertarian; he later added some more socially conservative arrows to his quiver. But pro-business conservatism isn’t typically wildly popular on its own with average citizens, so Republican legislators pursued a wide range of conservative causes.
They passed one of the nation’s strictest voter-ID laws, which is going into effect for the first time on Tuesday. They repealed the state’s Racial Justice Act, which provided for challenges to convictions. They relaxed gun laws. They cut pre-school program and encouraged the use of vouchers for students. Some of them pushed to make Christianity the official state religion. They passed a law banning cities from designating themselves “sanctuaries” for illegal immigrants, in a state with a fast-growing Hispanic population. In other words, they tapped into populist, nationalist, and ethnic resentment as a tool for passing their business agenda: Lower taxes, fracking, opening up campaign-finance laws for judicial elections.
But McCrory, who had been a moderate during his tenure as mayor of Charlotte, found that he wasn’t able to contain the legislature. Lawmakers passed an anti-sharia-law bill, which the governor didn’t sign but allowed to enter law. They overrode his vetoes on bills ranging from “ag-gag” provisions to so-called religious-liberty measures.
This arc—Republicans tap into simmering resentments, gain political traction, then find themselves unable to control the forces they’ve unleashed—is very similar to the one that many analysts have seen at a national level, first in the rise of a Tea Party faction in Congress that Speaker John Boehner could not corral, and now in the rise of Trump at the presidential level, which threatens to splinter the Republican Party.
North Carolina, in its dramatic turn rightward and the current lean toward Trump, is a microcosm of that. McCrory has not endorsed any candidate in the presidential race. State Senate leader Phil Berger endorsed Ted Cruz on Monday, though he also praised Trump. But Pope and Senator Thom Tillis—speaker of the state house before vaulting to the U.S. Senate—both endorsed Rubio, who has been a non-entity in North Carolina (and nationally, for that matter). Senator Richard Burr, who is up for reelection, was reported to have said privately in January that he would vote for Bernie Sanders over Ted Cruz, a claim Burr hotly denied. While many of these Republicans have been restrained in their comments about Trump, John Hood, who has worked for several Pope-related organizations, has not. He wrote a scathing broadside against Trump for National Review earlier this month:
Donald Trump is a dangerous charlatan, a bully who deftly uses false promises, egregious lies, and malicious attacks to manipulate people to his advantage. His marks include media figures desperate for ratings, political has-beens desperate for relevance, and voters desperate for someone to restore American greatness after two unpopular presidencies, two costly wars, and nearly two decades of economic stagnation. It’s a swindle. It’s a world-class con. And for conservatives in North Carolina and around the country, it’s one of the greatest challenges we will ever face.
Trump’s toxic brew of insult comedy, rank dishonesty, ethnic grievance, and hostility to basic principles of free enterprise, free speech, and limited government cannot be reconciled with the modern conservative movement. If Donald Trump is the answer, you have asked a very wrong and very stupid question.
But who asked the question? It’s easy to conclude that North Carolina’s Republican establishment asked it, not realizing that it wouldn’t be able to control the answer.