NC's five big political questions for 2014

The U.S. Senate race will dominate the headlines, but behind the scenes the money chase, lingering lawsuits and internal party struggles may dominate the outcomes.

Posted Updated

Mark Binker
Cullen Browder
RALEIGH, N.C. — Lawmakers had long left town, and official Raleigh was winding down for the Christmas-to-New Year's stupor that annually settles over the city, but the Rev. William Barber's voice boomed over loud speakers Monday on the Halifax Mall behind the General Assembly building. 

"If you thought we fought in 2013, you ought to see how we fight in an election year," intoned the minister-turned-leader of North Carolina's most vocal liberal political movement.

Hundreds of people had turned out in the rain and cooling temperatures to show their displeasure with Republicans who control bot the legislature and the governor's mansion. 

The so-called "Moral Monday" events had captured headlines throughout much of 2013, as Barber and others challenged lawmakers' on issues such as curtailing unemployment benefits and refusing to expand Medicaid. The number and makeup of those arrested at the Legislative Building every week became fodder for talkers on both ends of the political spectrum.

Even as Barber, state NAACP president, pledged to send a "shock wave" through the state, political observers question whether a network that has been very good at grabbing headlines and voicing displeasure can do something more practical but much harder: turn out votes. 

"Right now, the whole potency of Rev. Barber's movement is in the press coverage that he gets, and it's gotten him a pretty long way," said Carter Wrenn, a longtime Republican strategist. "Ultimately, that isn't enough in an election. They have to build a political campaign."

As 2014 begins, political thinkers are making their list of political stories and government policies to watch in the new year. Truth be told, the items many people think will be critical in the coming months will be eclipsed by completely unexpected items by the time votes are counted from November's mid-term elections. With that said, the potential impact of the Moral Monday movement is among five big themes that appear to loom large on the North Carolina political horizon at New Year's turn. 

1) Will the Moral Monday movement coalesce into a political force? 

For all the headlines and air time Barber's group has gotten, it cannot point to a policy victory. Republicans at the legislature stayed doggedly on track with a legislative program that included changes to the tax code, eliminating "career status" for public school teachers and pushing through a package of changes to how elections are conducted, including requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls, starting in 2016.

A spokesman for Republican Gov. Pat McCrory dismissed the pre-Christmas crowd outside the Legislative Building as "left-wing political groups that are wanting to keep the failed policies of the past," the prevailing view of Moral Monday activities among Republicans inside and outside of government. State Republican Party Chairman Claude Pope questioned why reporters paid Barber any mind at all, describing his rally as a "stunt."

Even among Democrats, Moral Monday has yet to prove it can be put to practical use.

"Here's where I think, from an electoral standpoint, Moral Monday has value: they keep people fired up," said Thomas Mills, a Democratic consultant and writer based in Raleigh.

North Carolina Democrats in 2010 were hurt as much by their base voters staying home as they were by a surging conservative movement. That year, the GOP took control of the General Assembly. As that tide continued in North Carolina, 2012 saw McCrory's election.

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. That's all the more important when the state Democratic Party is struggling to rebuild from scandals involving two past chairmen and the perception the organization has eroded since former lions like former state Sen. Marc Basnight have retired. 

"I think the Moral Monday movement and Rev. Barber have established themselves, for all practical purposes, as the organization of loyal opposition," said Joe Stewart of the political research group North Carolina FreeEnterprise Foundation.

But Wrenn calls Barber a "double-edged sword" for the Democrats. His heated rhetoric fires up the base but may be off-putting to swing voters.

That could make Republicans like Pope eager to make Barber the straw man against whom all Republicans will run. In a pre-Christmas missive, Pope labeled Barber "the de-facto leader of the North Carolina Democrat Party" and questioned how much he would want to raise taxes to support a more liberal-leaning government agenda.

For his part, Barber pledged the "Moral Monday - Forward Together" movement would continue to organize rallies as well as pursue legal strategies that would challenge Republican leaders. 

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

About $4 million worth of ads aired in North Carolina's 2014 U.S. Senate campaign before Thanksgiving 2013, none of them by the candidates themselves.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a first-term incumbent, will face the winner of a Republican primary in which state House Speaker Thom Tillis holds a fundraising and organizational lead over his closest rivals, Cary obstetrician Greg Brannon and Charlotte minister Mark Harris.

"That's going to be one tough primary," said veteran North Carolina political analyst John Davis. "Look for your TV to be full of ads in 2014 in that U.S. Senate race."

Along with a handful of congressional contests – the Republican primary scramble to succeed retiring Congressman Howard Coble in the Greensboro-based 6th District, the Democratic special election to replace outgoing Congressman Rep. Mel Watt in the 12th District, the potential for a rematch between Democratic Congressman Mike McIntyre and former Republican state Sen. David Rouzer in the 7th District among them – the U.S. Senate campaign will lead the ballot throughout North Carolina.

"The 7th Congressional District really is undoubtedly going to be one of the hottest congressional races in the country in 2014," Stewart said.

Stewart said Republicans have the clear advantage to replace Coble. The question is with whom since so many people are lining up to run.

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. 

In legislative elections, Republicans held an advantage on the independent expenditure front during the last two campaign cycles. Independent groups like Real Jobs NC, financed by discount store magnate and McCrory budget director Art Pope, battered Democrats in 2010 and 2012. 

A big question for 2014 is whether Democrats will be able to answer in kind. 

For months, rumors of top-tier Democrats, including former Gov. Jim Hunt, and some business executives meeting in various configurations to put together a "big money" group to counter the Republican independent expenditure groups have sloshed around Raleigh. 

"There are people in the business community who are not as ideological who would tend to lean with the Republicans but who are really disappointed in Pat McCrory, feeling like he never really stood up and exerted the power that he had to serve as a check on the legislature," said Mills, who emphasized he has not been involved in those money-raising conversations. 

Others who were more directly involved would not speak on the record but confirmed several different groups have been meeting, but not has yet fully organized. 

"Maps plus money equal majority," Davis said. "The Republicans drew the maps. They're going to have the financial advantage."

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

Nationally, Republicans have been dealing with what some describe as a rift within the party – others more dramatically call it a civil war – between the tea party and leaders backed by more traditional business constituencies. U.S. House Speaker John Boehner's efforts to pass a budget deal this winter, the subsequent backlash from groups like American's for Prosperity and Boehner's own push back against those groups aired a conversation that has been going on within Republican ranks for years. 

North Carolina is certainly not bereft of intra-party conflict. For example, McCrory vetoed a pair of bills this summer which the GOP-controlled General Assembly promptly overrode. But in the conflict over those bills – one dealing with drug testing for welfare recipients and the other dealing with immigration background checks for farm workers – had more to do with institutional prerogative than deep-seated difference. 

However, Tar Heels could see some of the national Republican split play out here.

The Republican primary for U.S. Senate pits Tillis, a business-backed conservative friendly with GOP establishment leaders like Karl Rove, against Brannon and Harris, both of whom are courting tea party support. 

"The fight inside the Republican Party is going to define Republican politics up through the presidential primaries," Wrenn said. "It will permeate the whole party, but it will especially permeate the primaries."

"As often as not in off-year elections, it’s about who’s mad at their own party, and the odds are as good that Republican will be mad at Republicans as Democrats are mad at Democrats," Davis said.

"I think the 2014 election comes down to this: How significant is the divide within the Republican Party, and how completely unenthusiastic will Democratic voters be?" Stewart said.

Tillis may also play a part in another likely place where Republican-on-Republican conflict could potentially play out. As House speaker, Tillis is the top leader in the chamber and traditionally would be seen as lead fundraiser for his party's caucus. But with his attention elsewhere, others have had to step up to lead the fundraising effort for state House candidates. 

In addition to replacing his fundraising functions, members are already lining up to take his place in the chamber's top spot. Reps. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, David Lewis, R-Harnett, John Blust, R-Guilford, Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, Tim Moffit, R-Buncombe, and Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell, are some of the most likely contenders for the job.

"It will play out after the session," said Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam, R-Wake, who said he is not interested in serving as speaker but would rather keep his post in the chamber's No. 2 spot as speaker pro tem. 

Stam downplayed the potential for the 2015 speaker's race to influence how legislation moves through the 2014 legislature. That's despite some differences among the leading candidates.

Starnes, for example, is more closely identified with social issues, while Blust, a longtime lawmaker, is ideologically at home among the tea party's push to adhere to a strict interpretation of state and federal constitutions. There are also different geographical divides among the seven men.

"All the ones running for speaker have pretty much generally the same views, with some exceptions on peripheral issues," Stam said. 

4) Will legal challenges blunt the GOP agenda? 

Some of the highest-profile elements of the Republican-led agenda face court challenges. 

A sweeping elections law and a piece of the state's abortion law face challenges in federal court, while education groups have filed two suits in state court against measures that eliminate "career status" for veteran teachers and provide tax-funded scholarships for certain students to attend private school.

Stam said he was confident the state would win cases defending the new laws.

"There's just so much bologna out there about what was passed," he said of the elections bill. 

But plaintiffs in the case, including the NAACP and Barber, say they are confident that the court will put the new law on hold before next year's elections. 

Other suits seek to derail legislative decisions regarding the town of Asheville's water system and Charlotte's airport. 

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

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

Just because battles are being fought out in courtrooms and on the campaign trail does not mean the work of governing stops in Raleigh. Among the big policy questions facing lawmakers and the governor this year are:

  • Teacher raises: Lawmakers allowed school districts to offer raises to 25 percent of their top performing teachers in 2013's budget, but policy makers agree that broader raises are needed to keep North Carolina teaching salaries competitive nationally. Top leaders have mentioned this as an agenda item for the 2014 budget, but with education making up more than half of the state's discretionary spending annually, making a big move in salaries is a decidedly big-ticket item for the state. Davis said it's no coincidence that the push for raises is coming during an election year.
  • Medicaid: McCrory has repeatedly promised to make big changes to the state's Medicaid program. Chief among the potential changes are using private managed care companies to provide health services to the poor and disabled. McCrory has also said federal rules could force the state to expand Medicaid coverage to more people. It's unclear if either of those potentially big changes could pass muster with a deeply conservative legislature.
  • Commerce privatization: The state's Commerce Department is in the midst of shifting some of its functions to a private nonprofit, whose leadership is appointed by the governor. This shift is being watched closely by both lawmakers and the business community.  
  • Environmental policy and regulation: Some employees in the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources have resigned with the flourish of a letter to the editor despairing about how changes made the agency more "customer friendly." Despite those episodes, the agency has largely avoided the negative media attention that has plagued the Department of Health and Human Services. A big question for regulatory agencies like DENR in the new year will be how they deal with a new law that requires they re-establish their existing regulations. This mass rewrite of the administrative code could become controversial.  
  • Constitutional amendments: Stam said he expects a constitutional amendment that would limit how the state and local governments use their power to take property to pass the legislature this summer and be on the 2014 ballot. That measure was inspired by a Connecticut case in which a city took property so it could be redeveloped. The North Carolina measure would say that governments could take property only for limited public purposes.


    Copyright 2023 by Capitol Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.