RALEIGH — The North Carolina GOP is in deep trouble — or so say the Democrats and left-of-center commentators who are rooting for the Republicans currently leading the state to bicker, fall out, and fail.
Gov. Pat McCrory has vetoed a bill allowing magistrates with religious objections to same-sex marriage to opt out of performing marriages. Hasan Harnett, an entrepreneur and GOP activist, has just won election as chairman of the state Republican Party over a candidate endorsed by McCrory and other top officeholders. The Senate is about to propose a state budget very different from the one the House passed a couple of weeks ago — a budget that will spend less, save more, and provide more broad-based tax relief. The resulting negotiations, plus other disagreements between the House under Tim Moore and Senate under Phil Berger, may delay the end of the 2015 session. Furthermore, both chambers are skeptical of McCrory’s plan for a $2.8 billion bond issue for roads, college buildings, and other infrastructure.
Looks pretty messy, doesn’t it? With another General Election just around the corner, how can a party so riven with strife hope to prevail?
But before liberal activists break out the bubbly and Roy Cooper starts comparing color swatches for repainting the governor’s office, I suggest everyone calm down. What I see is not a party in deep trouble. I see a party swimming in the deep end for the first time in its history.
When McCrory addressed the state Republican convention, he wasn’t booed. Many delegates may have disagreed with him on the magistrate bill but they otherwise support the governor’s policy decisions and fiscal stewardship. During the past three years, North Carolina has reduced its tax burden substantially, adopted a Flat Tax, embraced regulatory reform, instituted voter ID, and greatly expanded school choice. All are longtime conservative goals.
Within the various constituencies that make up the movement, the prevailing sentiments are still satisfaction and optimism. Although disappointed with recent developments regarding same-sex marriage, social conservatives have propelled important pro-life measures into law — with McCrory’s signature, no less. Tea Party activists are heartened at the state’s continued resistance to Obamacare and delighted at the contrast between budget deficits in Washington and the $840 million budget surplus in Raleigh. Foreign-policy hawks are pleased to see Richard Burr take a leadership role on national security issues in the Senate. Libertarian-leaning Republicans are critical of some policies coming out of Raleigh but favorable to others, such as the end of forced annexation and impending restrictions on eminent-domain abuse.
It’s true that most elected Republicans didn’t endorse Harnett for state GOP chairman. Certainly there was no small amount of anti-establishment fervor in his successful campaign. But as soon as Harnett clinched the job, he received plaudits and offers of cooperation from Moore and Berger, among others. My guess is that they will all try to work together to keep and expand Republican majorities in the General Assembly and to re-elect McCrory, Burr, Dan Forest, and other Republicans.
Political parties are always coalitions of groups who disagree on some things but agree on enough to work together. The North Carolina Republican Party is no exception to this rule, and never has been. Ask any longtime activist about past chairmanship fights, about personality conflicts, and about clashes between Jim Gardner and Jim Holshouser supporters in 1972, between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan supporters in 1976, between the Congressional Club and Gov. Jim Martin’s political organization in the late 1980s, and between supporters and opponents of former House Co-Speaker Richard Morgan in the mid-2000s.
You’ll get an earful. And you’ll come away thinking that the current stresses and strains within the GOP augur something far less catastrophic than the earthquake Democrats and liberals are desperately hoping for in 2016.
Why are they so desperate? Because they agree with their right-of-center counterparts that North Carolina has become a national symbol of conservative policy reform and Republican political success. The disagreement lies in the desirability of these trends, not whether they are evident in the Tar Heel State.