Wake Forest, N.C. — Two different storms, one all too real and the other a man-made political maelstrom, will help determine the outcome of North Carolina's gubernatorial election.
At a campaign stop in Wake Forest Tuesday night, Gov. Pat McCrory talked comfortably about the state's response to one of them. Hurricane Matthew left flooded homes and businesses across a wide swath of eastern North Carolina and is blamed for at least 27 deaths. McCrory efficiently related anecdotes of meeting those who had lost homes, encouraged people to donate to a special fund that will help pay for temporary housing and talked up efforts to rebuild small businesses swamped by flood waters.
"These are the main streets of some towns and cities you've never heard of, but we care a great deal for them," McCrory said.
While Matthew is clearly a tragedy that will impact the state for years to come, poll tracking data suggests that McCrory's political fortunes clearly changed for the better as the response to the emergency landed him in the spotlight to deliver updates, warnings and comfort.
McCrory, a Republican, faces Democrat Roy Cooper, the state's attorney general, in his bid for re-election. The two men are in a virtual dead heat in the run-up to Election Day. Lon Cecil, a Libertarian, is also on the ballot but realistically far out of the contest.
Outside the Wake Forest event, some of those unhappy with McCrory wanted to talk about the political firestorm of House Bill 2, a controversial law best known for prescribing which public bathrooms transgender individuals can use.
"HB2 is a disaster," Doug Purtee told a small crowd outside the event. "It's the elephant in the room he refuses to speak about."
Purtee works in radio and said the bill has driven away entertainers and cost businesses money. Others outside the event decried McCrory's efforts to manage the cleanup of coal ash, toxic residue from power generation stored in open pits across the state.
That, in a nutshell, sums up the final weeks of the gubernatorial stump. McCrory has played up his administration's response to crisis and an improving economy as reasons to give him four more years in office. Cooper and his allies have argued that McCrory's stance on House Bill 2 has hurt the state and raised questions about his relationship with Duke Energy, his former employer and the company responsible for generating the coal ash now at issue.
"Throw in teacher pay arguments from both sides, and that's where we are," said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College.
Polls and fundraising
McCrory and Cooper began slowly posturing themselves to run against one another in 2013. That cold war became an open conflict in May 2015 when Cooper declared he would seek to unseat the governor. Through the past two years, the two have traded barbs over a wide range of policies. Cooper has criticized McCrory as unwilling or unable to stand up to a too-conservative General Assembly. McCrory has shot back that Cooper hasn't done his job as attorney general, frequently turning to outside law firms to defend policies such as a 2013 election law that is still in the courts.
Despite what amounts to years of campaigning, voters in 2016 are closely divided. This week's }WRAL News poll gave Cooper a statistically insignificant 1 percentage point lead, which is consistent with other polls that show the race in a dead heat heading to Tuesday.
Cooper does enjoy a fundraising advantage. He reports having raised $9 million in the past three months and $21.7 million over the course of the campaign. That compares to McCrory's $5.2 million for the past quarter and $13.9 million for the campaign.
While fundraising doesn't directly translate into votes, it's an indication of support and does give the campaign more options in terms of buying ads.
"I don't ever recall losing a race where I outspent the other guy," said Carter Wrenn, a longtime Republican strategist who worked for former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. He called Cooper's fundraising edge "huge."
While outside spenders such as the Republican Governors Association and other national political groups have helped even the score, data provided to WRAL News on broadcast television ad spending by Kantar Media show McCrory and his allies aired fewer spots through Oct. 31 – 30,565 compared to 35,962 Cooper-friendly ads – and have poured more money overall into the contest. While campaigns spend on many different things, broadcast television is the most expensive item on their ledgers.
In the closing days of the campaign, the focus of those ads has narrowed along with the candidates' own pitches.
"As governor, I'll put partisan politics aside so we can turn around our economy and fix our schools. No more social legislation that divides our state and hurts our reputation," Cooper says in his final ad push.
Cooper has argued that McCrory neglected education spending in favor of tax cuts. Like Purtee, he also says House Bill 2 and other legislation designed to appeal to social conservatives have been harmful to the economy.
McCrory argues the state's economy is already on the right track, pointing to more than 300,000 new jobs and a dipping unemployment rate. In Wake Forest Tuesday, he bragged about the state's growing economy and rankings showing that North Carolina is a favored place to do businesses. The major economic goal for the state, he said, should be to turn out more skilled workers for companies to hire.
"If we're unsuccessful recruiting a company, the No. 1 reason is the lack of talent," McCrory insisted.
Cooper, meanwhile, has argued that North Carolina's rebound from the recession is mainly on paper.
"Many people are angry because Gov. McCrory keeps talking about a 'Carolina Comeback,'" Cooper said during a wide-ranging interview with WRAL News a month ago. "But you go talk to everyday working people, and most of them will tell you they haven't seen one yet because they're working longer and harder for less money than they were before the recession. ... I measure success as more money in the pockets of working, everyday people."
McCrory declined WRAL News' repeated invitations to conduct a similar interview.
For sure, the two men disagree on any number of policy issues. Cooper, for example, says the state should expand Medicaid as allowed by the Affordable Care Act, what many call "Obamacare." Refusing to do so, he said, leaves millions of dollars of federal funding on the table that could help provide Medicaid care and boost hospitals and medical practices.
McCrory argues the state can't afford to expand, criticizing the ACA as unworkable and pointing out that the state's Medicaid program was responsible for numerous multimillion-dollar cost overruns when he came to office.
But health policy, unemployment insurance and the like have taken a backseat to House Bill 2, which has roiled North Carolina's political waters since it was passed in March.
Rep. Chris Malone, R-Wake, was in the audience this week in Wake Forest as McCrory spoke about economic issues and hurricane recovery. He was likely relieved that the conversation during the forum didn't turn to House Bill 2. Malone, like many other suburban Republicans in the legislature, has called for repeal of the measure despite initially supporting it.
McCrory, meanwhile, has been steadfast in his support since signing the measure the same day it was passed, despite facing political head winds because of it.
Source: Kantar Media
"Roy Cooper and Jennifer Roberts, the mayor of Charlotte, and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama believe that we ought to redefine gender, we ought to redefine how we define a boy and a girl in our schools," McCrory said in a recent interview with WNCT, a television station in the Greenville area. "That is not the values I learned in North Carolina growing up."
House Bill 2, however, goes beyond transgender bathroom use. It sets a statewide nondiscrimination law that leaves out LGBT people. When pressed on this point in the WNCT interview and others, McCrory has said he would welcome federal nondiscrimination law and points to an executive order that he signed to curb discrimination in the state workforce.
Cooper is critical of McCrory, saying that House Bill 2 is discriminatory and ought to be repealed.
"We need a leader who first recognizes there is a significant problem," Cooper argued in an interview, saying that he knew "instinctively" House Bill 2 was a bad piece of legislation when it was first passed.
While McCrory points to job expansions and data suggesting the law has not hurt North Carolina's economy, Cooper argues that the state is missing out on corporate expansion projects due to it.
"What we know about is just the tip of the iceberg. We are being taken off the list of so many Fortune 500 companies," he said.
Nearly 80 percent of voters told a recent WRAL News poll that House Bill 2 would either "strongly" or "somewhat" influence their vote for governor, and in prior polls, a majority of voters has said they believe the measure is hurting the state.
So, it's little wonder that Cooper plays up the issue, while McCrory emphasizes disaster response, both in person and on television.
"Gov. McCrory saw to it we were prepared," declares a campaign ad that shows pictures of McCrory surveying the hurricane damage.
"Had Roy Cooper been governor, that money would not have been there. In times of trouble, can you really trust Roy Cooper?" the ad asks.
The hurricane "let (McCrory) be the kind of commander-in-chief in crisis mode that helps display leadership, that helps display confidence," Bitzer said. That's helpful for a governor who was often criticized for following the General Assembly's lead, rather than the other way around.
"I don't really know what the impact of all the hurricane stuff has been," said Wrenn, who is more circumspect than Bitzer, saying there's a lack of definitive polling.
While only 45 percent of voters told WRAL News they approve of McCrory's overall job in office, 70 percent rated the governor's handling of Hurricane Matthew as "good" or "excellent." Digging deeper into the data, more than half of voters who say they'll back Cooper give McCrory good and excellent marks on the hurricane.
"You've got a hunk of Cooper's people saying, 'Yes, he's done a good job with it,'" Wrenn said. "But they're still Cooper's people."
The question, he said, is whether his performance will sway any undecided voters.
Bitzer argues that few voters remain on the fence.
If 2012 is any guide, he said, more than 60 percent of those who will vote in this election will do so before this weekend. Even those who plan to vote on Election Day have likely made up their minds. The remaining questions for the campaigns, he argued, boil down to making sure voters turn out and some unexpected event, like another gaffe or revelation in the presidential race, that could drive voter enthusiasm up or down in either camp.
"We're to the point where we're just waiting for the scores to come in," Bitzer said.