Editor’s note: This news analysis piece is by contributor Travis Fain, who has been covering the General Assembly and the state budget for Carolina Public Press. Read previous stories by Fain included in Carolina Public Press’ Special Report-State Budget Impact in WNC.
RALEIGH — In 2002, a party-switching state senator named Sonny Perdue blew up Georgia’s conventional political wisdom, becoming the state’s first Republican governor in more than a century, and none of the pollsters saw it coming.
From there a Republican tide washed across the state. Today, there’s not a single Democrat elected statewide in Georgia. It is one of the strongest expressions of a GOP rise that has come to dominate Southern politics.
As Gov. Bev Perdue (who is not related to Sonny Perdue) and other Democrats have said repeatedly, North Carolina is not the rest of the South. But following last year’s historic GOP takeover in the General Assembly, the Republican Party here has the momentum and the political advantages needed for a march to long-term political control.
They all but erased the Democratic Party’s long-standing fundraising advantage last year. They control redistricting. A number of leading indicators point toward economic recovery, even if it’s a slow one. Heading into 2012, the question isn’t whether voters will prefer the North Carolina that Democrats insist is slipping away after just a few months of Republican control and a single GOP budget. The question is whether they’re likely to notice any real difference.
Republicans are guessing they won’t and that they’ll appreciate slightly lower taxes.
North Carolina set for GOP dominance
Georgia offers plenty of proof the strategy works. The legislature there front-loaded budget cuts during the recent recession while North Carolina passed a couple of temporary taxes that cycle off the books July 1. Georgia teachers were laid off, and parents kept voting Republican.
North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue still will travel the state, bashing Republican positions, but the GOP has left her relatively limited and esoteric lines of attack. Environmental regulations are being stripped away, but will people notice? Medicaid funding was cut, but federal regulations force that program to evolve so slowly that major changes might not take hold for more than a year.
Immigration reforms were heavily moderated to protect farms. A provision allowing guns in locked cars on school campuses was stripped out of a larger reform bill. A major charter schools push was abandoned — for now — in favor of a bipartisan compromise.
The bottom-line difference between Perdue’s budget proposal and the Republican legislature’s is about $200 million — a small number in a $19.7 billion budget. That this difference depends on GOP accounting shifts and questionable Medicaid savings projections is a hard thing to explain in a campaign commercial.
The board is well set for the GOP, though there are pitfalls to avoid. Ironically, several of them were major reasons Georgia Democrats lost power in 2002.
Georgia’s political lessons
Back then, Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes seem destined for re-election. Even Sonny Perdue’s inner circle doubted the former state senator from rural, middle Georgia could pull out an upset.
But Barnes had moved to end tenure for kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers, enraging a large and influential voting block. North Carolina Republicans are heading down a similar path, cutting education budgets and engaging in an open war with the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state’s largest teachers’ group.
In redistricting, Georgia Democrats drew so many oddly shaped election lines after the 2000 Census that it became clear to many people they were hoping to gerrymander the districts. Voter ire over the maps was one of the things that fueled Sonny Perdue’s victory.
Race and politics
Initial looks at the maps North Carolina Republicans are generating here show an attempt to consolidate black voters in urban districts, cutting into the powerbase of relatively conservative white Democrats. It may be a winning strategy — rural white male Democrats hardly exist anymore in Georgia and could be on their way out in North Carolina, too. But, pushed too far, this strategy can backfire, particularly with the GOP also tinkering with voting laws, passing a bill to require photo identification at the polls and pushing another to shrink the number of days people can vote.
Those moves seem likely to suppress Democratic turnout, even if only slightly. But if there are long lines on election day, if voting becomes a hassle and the GOP gets the blame, watch out.
There are racial undertones to these issues. But then there’s the race issue outright, no undertone needed.
In 2001, Barnes pushed through a change to the state flag, removing the Confederate battle emblem. This generated anger among rural, white voters the Democratic Party once depended on, and they backed Sonny Perdue. Here in North Carolina, a reverse flare-up may hurt the GOP, particularly with the nation’s first black president already staking claim to a state he narrowly won in 2008.
Republicans have to ask, what political good can come of House Rules Chairman Stephen LaRoque of Kinston (R-Lenoir) repeatedly referring to the state NAACP as a racist organization run by cowards and thugs? How much is there to gain by pursuing the repeal of the state’s Racial Justice Act, which lets death row inmates appeal their sentence by showing that racism was a factor?
The RJA appeal passed the House this session and is awaiting action next year in the Senate.
Debating such a charged issue in an election year is a risk. Similarly, placing a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the 2012 ballot is also a risk.
A shift in the South
I recognize that Georgia and North Carolina are different places, and just because I lived in Georgia for 10 years before coming here doesn’t mean comparisons make sense necessarily.
But the states share a border. They have similar demographics, though Georgia has a higher population of black individuals while North Carolina has more medium-to-large cities.
Those cities along the arc of Interstate 85 pull people from outside the state and spread them out more than in Georgia, where there’s metro Atlanta, then everywhere else. It was the newcomers, a bit more liberal than long-time Tar Heels, who won North Carolina for Obama in 2008, according to Western Carolina University political science professor Chris Cooper.
“I think N.C. still qualifies as purple,” Cooper said. “A slight Democratic lean at the national level, a slight Republican lean at the state level and cut almost exactly down the middle at the local level.”
Perhaps. But the political momentum in North Carolina feels a lot like Georgia after that 2002 election. Once it started, Democrats couldn’t stop it. At one point, the Republican speaker of the house had an affair with a lobbyist and attempted suicide. Perdue’s replacement was under investigation when he resigned from Congress.
It didn’t matter. In most of Georgia, the most valuable asset a candidate can have each November is an “R” beside his or her name, and that’s true across much of the South.
“Only Mississippi and Arkansas have not yet become majority-Republican in both houses,” Wake Forest professor John Dinan said recently. “And in virtually all of these states the progression has been in one direction.”
North Carolina Democrats who say the GOP has over-reached its mandate and think the people won’t stand for all these changes may be proven right. But if the GOP is careful, if it continues to recognize the importance middle-of-the-road voters have in elections, then Republicans are primed for years of dominance.
Democrats still outnumber Republicans on North Carolina voter registration rolls. There are 2.7 million of them, compared to 1.9 million Republicans and 1.5 million unaffiliated voters. But registration figures don’t guarantee anything in November.
Georgia used to have a lot of Democrats, too.