Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina's House Bill 2 captured headlines across the country over the past three months, but interviews with voters and analysis by election experts indicates it's unlikely to help many candidates capture public office this fall.
"Ridiculous," said Tim Covel with a wave of his hand when asked about House Bill 2.
As the retired operations manager form Holly Springs took a break from July 4 festivities in downtown Raleigh, he said keeping income and sales taxes low were his top priority. As for the controversial measure dealing with transgender use of public bathrooms, Covel said he didn't see why it was needed, but that fact that lawmakers passed it doesn't bother him.
"It's not worth my time to worry about one way or the other," he said.
That attitude was not uncommon among voters interviewed on a humid July 4 afternoon, none of who named House Bill 2 as an issue foremost on their mind as the state looks toward a busy election season.
Complete coverage: House Bill 2 Transformed North Carolina showed off its status as a national swing state earlier this week when both presumptive major-party presidential nominees, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, visited on the same day. Races for governor and U.S. Senate will round out the top of the ballot, along with battles over seats in Congress and the state legislature.
In the mean time, attention to House Bill 2 has tapered since the legislative session ended a week ago. Members of the General Assembly approved the measure in March as a response to action by the Charlotte City Council, which passed a local ordinance requiring businesses to allow transgender individuals to use the bathroom of their choice.
The North Carolina law reversed the Charlotte ordinance but went further. It established a statewide nondiscrimination standard that excludes LGBT people and prohibited local governments from using any broader nondiscrimination policy in contracting or local ordinances. Local governments can still have more inclusive rules for their own workers. However, House Bill 2 does require that people use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with the sex on their birth certificate, even if they live as a different gender today.
Since March, the law has brought North Carolina unfavorable national attention. Businesses and business groups have expressed concern about the law, and entertainers have either refused to perform here or used their concerts as platforms to protest the law, often donating proceeds to LGBT causes. Convention and visitors bureaus across the state have reported lost bookings. The NBA has intimated that it may pull its 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte as a result of the law.
"The only way for change to happen and make this storm go away is to repeal HB2," said Marty Rouse, national field director for the Human Right Campaign, during a news conference last week as the General Assembly worked to close down its session.
However, lawmakers declined to repeal the law and made only one minor modification, rolling back a section that curbed people's ability to pursue wrongful termination claims. That was a change sought by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory but involved one of the least well-known sections of the measure.
A price to be paid?
"In addition to the obvious hurt we are doing to our LGBT community, I think there's a price to be paid in November," Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, said last week.
Van Duyn and representatives of LGBT advocacy groups repeatedly told reporters last week that furor over the law would translate to Republican losses at the polls. Others say there is reason to doubt that scenario.
"The thing right now that will drive voter turnout will be the intensity level around the presidential race," said Paul Shumaker, a consultant who works for Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, among others.
During a news event this spring, Shumaker showed off data about what happened when voters were asked about their biggest frustration with government. House Bill 2 ranked low, garnering only a few mentions in the Raleigh and Charlotte markets.
Based on that and other surveys, Shumaker said, people who either passionately supported or opposed the law were likely already voters and had already a well-formed political allegiance. For example, it's unlikely that someone opposed to House Bill 2 was going to support conservative Republicans in any case.
The law also could be a double-edged sword for some Democrats, including Attorney General Roy Cooper who is running to unseat McCrory.
Octavia Rainey, a community activist who advocates on behalf of lower-income people, said the law she is most concerned about is a recent measure requiring voter identification and making other changes to election rules – an equally controversial measure that did not draw opprobrium from movie stars and large businesses in the same way House Bill 2 did.
"One of my concerns with Roy Cooper is he did not fight the voter ID bill," Rainey said, noting that Cooper refused to defend House Bill 2 in court on principle but dispatched attorneys to defend the election law. "He went to court for that, and then, when HB2 came along, it wasn't his job anymore."
Ford Porter, a Cooper spokesman, pointed out that Cooper did urge lawmakers not to pass the voter ID bill and other voting measures. Explaining the difference in approaches, he said, "HB2 directly contradicted employment protections in both the Department of Justice and Department of the Treasurer. In this unique situation, Attorney General Cooper pledged to defend these state employees, arguing that HB 2 is unconstitutional."
Rainey said she doesn't like House Bill 2 but said the controversial law had a different resonance in her downtown Raleigh community, where she says businesses often deny people access to bathrooms because they look homeless or for other reasons.
"I don't have the opportunity to get asked about my gender because I'm black," she said.
Baked into attitudes
Simply put, House Bill 2 won't be the biggest driver of her vote, and that is likely to be the case for many voters, said Steve Greene, a professor of political science at North Carolina State University.
"I think the impact of HB2 is already baked into the cake, so to speak," Greene said.
Rather than being an issue that people say will drive their vote, it has reinforced existing attitudes about candidates, he said.
"Even if you're not overtly thinking about HB2, you might have an overall perception of (Gov. Pat) McCrory or the legislature, and HB2 may have affected that," he said.
Greene speculated that Democrats could use the law as a political cudgel, especially if the state loses opportunities for business recruitment or high-profile events such as the NBA All-Star Game as a result.
"I think that's one of many issues we're going to highlight," said Dave Miranda, communications director for the North Carolina Democratic Party.
Miranda insisted the state had already taken a hit to its reputation and lost jobs when PayPal canceled plans to build a business hub in Charlotte. While he said coverage of the issue had been drowned out by the end of the legislative session and an uptick in presidential activity, Democrats plan to emphasize the downsides of House Bill 2 this fall.
North Carolina Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said he doesn't see House Bill 2 as becoming a major campaign issue.
"People's views on this are complicated," Woodhouse said, saying that people were just as upset with the federal government's efforts to fight the law, including a suit against the state, as they were with the original measure.
Republicans would rather talk about the state's economic successes than the controversial bill on the campaign trail, he said.
Woodhouse and Miranda did agree on one point – both men said that the issue has become less salient as media coverage has tailed off. If there is a resurgence in coverage of the issue, they said, candidates would be forced to respond.