Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina Republicans may have control of the Governor's Mansion and the state legislature, but a top GOP leader said Tuesday that the state's political rhetoric has gotten out of control.
State Republican Party Chairman Claude Pope said that recent "Moral Monday" protests, led by the NAACP and a network of liberal groups, have crossed rhetorical lines and unfairly attacked party leaders.
"Any time you get into a situation where you have inflammatory attacks, it's not good for either side," Pope said. "We want to bring the discussion back to the policies we're bringing forward. Incendiary attacks don't further that discussion."
At least once political scientist said the Republican response to the Moral Monday protests shows the GOP is worried the demonstrations have become an "effective Democratic brand" that needs to be checked.
"To give it attention means they're worried about it," said Steve Greene, a political science professor at North Carolina State University.
Pope said he wasn't worried from a political standpoint. Rather, he was trying to bring attention to behavior that newspaper and television reporters had given "a pass." He pointed to two recent occasions in which protesters had, in his view, crossed the line.
Protesters in Charlotte last month were "holding signs with Confederate flag images and Jim Crow language," Pope said. Those signs featured the faces of Gov. Pat McCrory, House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger against the backdrop of a Confederate battle flag to make a point about a recently passed elections law bill. Pope said those images were "outrageous and unacceptable."
He also pointed to Monday's protests in front of the Governor's Mansion.
"NAACP protesters carried around coffins in what was described bizarrely as a reference to tragic events in Birmingham 50 years ago," Pope said.
Four young girls were killed in a church bombing five decades ago, helping to spark civil rights protests.
"How in the world does one stretch from the tragic event from the Birmingham bombings, an event likely perpetrated by a Democrat, to an open vitriolic attack on our new Republican governor?" Pope asked.
Asked why the Republican Party, which holds most of the political cards in the state right now, would even take notice of the protests, Pope said the party and its leaders wanted to focus on policies but were being unfairly smeared.
"When you start to use inflammatory rhetoric and you try to fan the flame that brings up a history of racism or violence perpetrated by folks who are no longer here, no longer around – to try to bring that kind of inflammatory rhetoric back and justify what they feel today – is totally off base. And one of the issues is the press seems to be buying into it."
Pope said reporters had been slow to call out what Republicans see as "incendiary" remarks.
"I think what you need to understand is Republicans feel like the media has not been as responsible in highlighting the inflammatory nature of some of those attacks," he said.
Asked for a response, the Rev. William Barber, president of the state conference of the NAACP, said he was praying for Pope and other Republican leaders.
"We must be reminded of history and, in the light of history, what is inflammatory is for the governor and legislature to pass laws that take us backwards, not forward. What is inflammatory is for the governor and the legislature to engage the kind of bullying politics that violates our deepest constitutional values and our deepest moral values," Barber wrote in an email.
Speaking specifically about the coffin images, Barber said, "When we lift up the memory of the martyrs to those who love truth and justice, it is not inflammatory – it is informative. It informs us about where we have been and inspires us to fight against going backwards as a society."
Both sides of the political spectrum, especially those fighting against large odds, could be accused of engaging in political hyperbole from time to time.
Pope spoke from the same podium that former state Republican Party Chairwoman Linda Daves used in 2008 to introduce a commercial attacking Barack Obama. Then-GOP presidential candidate John McCain said the commercial "degrades our civics" and called on the state party to pull the commercial. At the time, Republicans were out of power and facing losing the state to a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in decades.
During his news conference, Pope was asked whether some of the rhetoric used at tea party rallies might have been seen as at least equivalently extreme to the props used by the Moral Monday protesters.
"I think you're going to find some nuts on both sides," Pope said.
So, was he calling the people in the pictures "nuts?" What about leaders of the Moral Monday movement, including Barber?
"I am saying that we have a range of political ideology on a lot of different sides, and you have extremes on both sides," Pope said.
Recent opinion polls have shown the popularity of both the Republican-controlled legislature and McCrory flagging from one-time highs.
"If Moral Monday wasn't doing anything, they would brush it off and not give it any attention," said N.C. State's Green.
Those leading the Moral Monday protests, Greene said, want to show themselves as a cross-section of the state, albeit a liberal-minded one. Republicans, he said, are speaking both to their base as well as moderate voters when they express outrage about the symbolism used by the protests.
"This is the Republican's chance to say 'No, look, they are a bunch of radicals,'" he said.