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Asking the wrong questions about NC politics

Posted December 20, 2014

NC Flag, Legislative Building, Raleigh

— Well, that didn't go quite as expected. 

In late December 2013, I penned, with help from an @NCCapitol colleague, a column purporting to look at North Carolina's "five big political questions for 2014." Such pieces tend to occupy that interstitial news space around the end of the year when political critters aren't doing much but we journalists are expected to have something intelligent to say about them anyway. 

As it turns out, we at times overestimate our intelligence. 

While last year's column wasn't a predictions piece per se, there was a certain amount of presumed prescience. While we could be chuffed about the stuff we got right, what we didn't see coming is much more instructive. Without further ado:

Question 1: Will the "Moral Monday" movement coalesce into a political force?

What we said: While the Moral Monday movement won't speak to conservatives or swing voters, it may help keep liberal activists fired up to turn out the vote for 2014.

As it turns out: Not so much. While more people turned out to vote than in any prior midterm, percentage turnout this year was 44 percent, about the same as it was in 2010.

There were certainly groups helping to get Democratic voters to the polls, from allied groups like environmental and women's rights activists. But there's no big indication that Moral Monday made a dent in the turnout numbers. Republican strategist Carter Wrenn called this right in our column last year when he said, "Right now, the whole potency of Rev. (William) Barber's movement is in the press coverage that he gets, and it's gotten him a pretty long way ... Ultimately, that isn't enough in an election. They have to build a political campaign."

Question 2: How will outside campaign spending wash through the U.S. Senate race, congressional campaigns and races lower down the ballot?

What we said: With Washington increasingly divided and eroding limits on corporate spending opening the door for more interest groups to play big roles in elections, most experts expect to see a flood of campaign cash into the state during 2014.

As it turns out: Got that right. Between the candidates, political parties, super PACs and nonprofit groups, more than $111 million was pumped into North Carolina's U.S. Senate campaign alone

Question 3: How will the rift in the Republican Party manifest itself in the state?

What we said: Tar Heels could see some of the national Republican split play out here. 

As it turns out: This was the wrong dang question. Yes, Gov. Pat McCrory is, essentially, suing the General Assembly, and Republican leaders still can't agree on a Medicaid reform plan. But winning smooths over a lot of problems, and the Republicans won big this go around. State House Speaker Thom Tillis bested his tea-party-championed competitors in the U.S. Senate primary on his way to ousting Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, Republicans maintained control of the legislature and picked up another U.S. House seat.

While there were grumbles and intramural tiffs within the GOP – Rep. Robert Brawley got kicked out of the House Republican caucus for talking out of school about Tillis –  we would have done better to watch out for the state Democratic Party's self-immolation. The February ouster of Executive Director Robert Dempsey and subsequent squabble over replacing him set the tone for the year. The party was roiled enough that Hagan's campaign formed a partnership with the Wake County Democratic Party rather than working closely with the state organ.

Question 4: Will legal challenges blunt the GOP agenda?

What we said: The outcome of those cases could temper or embolden GOP leaders and determine whether their agenda firmly takes hold.

As it turns out: Not really. There certainly are plenty of lawsuits in the mix, but state leaders don't really seem to have shifted their politically conservative policy direction. While liberal groups can point to some court victories, such as cases dealing with teacher tenure and school vouchers, many of the big questions are a still big question marks. For example, lawsuits over election laws have not forced Republicans to redraw legislative boundaries or reconsider policies such as requiring photo identification of voters.

Question 5: How will sitting leaders deal with big policy decisions, and their aftermath, in an election year?

What we said: We identified six big policy areas that lawmakers would tackle this year. 

As it turns out: We didn't do half bad but vastly underestimated the role of environmental policy. Here's our list: 

Teacher raises: We looked for a "big move" by policy makers, and the legislature obliged, although there are still considerable questions about how big that raise actually was and who benefited.

Medicaid: It was a big issue, but not one that got resolved. Look for reforms to the state's health insurance system for the poor and disabled to be back on the agenda in 2015. 

Commerce privatization: The state's new nonprofit job recruiter is up and running. 

Environmental policy: Yes, we were watching the "fracking" debate, but the Feb. 2 coal ash spill put environmental issues front and center on North Carolina's political stage. 

Constitutional amendments: We were on the lookout for an amendment dealing with eminent domain. As it turns out, the only constitutional measure at play this year was one allowing voters to waive their right to trial by jury. It passed by a wide margin on the November ballot.

Bonus Question: So after all that, will you be doing a look ahead to 2015? See this space next weekend. 

6 Comments

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  • turkeydance Dec 23, 2014

    agreed with RM. Hagan was the Big Money
    candidate. Tillis was the underdog. next time WRAL talks about Big Money, it should
    reflect this outcome.

  • randymadry Dec 22, 2014

    I respectfully submit that the national money issue did not have the impact you predicted. Hagan received the benefit of 3/4ths of the sum, and still lost the election.

  • Danny22 Dec 22, 2014

    spending for Kay Hagan was more than twice that of Thom Tillis.

  • Eq Videri Dec 22, 2014
    user avatar

    Well done, WRAL. Keep it coming.

    Gripers: Besides the press, name another societal institution -- a company, government agency, university, or politician -- that routinely publishes its self-critiques and then invites you to pile on.

    (I didn't think so.)

  • beaupeep Dec 22, 2014

    Blue colored glasses will do that to you.

  • kirtl Dec 20, 2014

    In order to ask the right questions, one has to be unbiased, or at least not let bias affect the questioning. Unfortunately for the voters, there isn't a media outlet that does that. We're forced to weed through the advertising and advocacy of today's media for some sliver of truth.