Last year, the state of North Carolina attracted the glare of the national media spotlight when sharks started biting swimmers. Now it’s back in that glare for a very different reason. The state finds itself right on the frontlines of the nation’s bitter political and culture wars.
Last week was Exhibit A. On April 25, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder made a crucial ruling by upholding the state’s controversial voting law that defenders say prevents fraud at the polls and critics call discriminatory against minorities. On the same day, state lawmakers returning to Raleigh were met by demonstrators on both sides of the raging debate over the HB2 “bathroom bill” that supporters say protects safety and privacy and critics call discriminatory against the LGBT community.
The next morning, New York Times readers were greeted by page-one stories headlined, “A Judge Backs North Carolina On Voter Rules” and “Turmoil Over Bias Law Shakes Up Elections in North Carolina.” And Governor Pat McCrory — a key figure in both issues — has become a national media figure, appearing on shows such as the Fox News Channel’s “The Kelly File” and NBC’s “Meet the Press” to defend the state’s actions.
As North Carolina’s political and policy battles keep headline writers and cable news producers busy, the question emerges: What impact is all this national attention having on the state’s image and reputation?
Seth Effron, a veteran North Carolina journalist who also served in the administrations of three North Carolina governors, said that in his 30 years of experience, “I can’t think of an issue that…has registered on the national meter” the way HB2 has.
“On top of it,” he added, there is “the voting rights issue. When you have a federal district court ruling this week, it is high profile. This is a case that people are paying attention to.”
While polls examining the popularity of HB2 among North Carolinians show somewhat different results depending on what is asked, some do reflect a significant concern about its impact on the public’s perception of the state.
An April 22-24 poll by the Democratically-aligned Public Policy Polling (PPP) firm found that 53 percent of the North Carolina registered voters surveyed thought HB2 was having a negative effect on the state’s reputation compared with 22 percent who thought it had a positive one.
A few weeks earlier, a Survey USA poll of state residents that was taken from April 8-11 found that 61 percent of the respondents said the law had hurt North Carolina’s national image, while only 18 percent said it had helped.
“Democrats and independents strongly feel like [HB2] is hurting the state,” said PPP policy analyst Jim Williams. “Republicans are split.”
Geoffrey Skelley, the associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said one reason North Carolina is making so much news is because it is bucking the prevailing trend. “In gender, gay marriage and on the culture wars issue, the country is moving to the left,” he said.
The Crystal Ball, which analyzes political races across the country, recently moved the North Carolina governor’s race between McCrory and Democratic challenger Roy Cooper from the category of “leans Republican” to a “toss-up.” HB2 was one of a number of factors that contributed to that shift, Skelley noted.
“It has clearly hurt the image of the state nationally and internationally,” Thomas Carsey, the Thomas J. Pearsall Distinguished Professor of Political Science at UNC Chapel Hill, wrote the Sentinel in an email. The recent controversies have “clearly hurt the image of the state nationally and internationally.”
“Since the Republican Party took control of both the legislature and the Governor’s office, North Carolina has moved very rapidly in a conservative direction,” he added. “That rapid movement helped attract attention.” Carsey also argued that HB2 and the voting law have become national news stories because they represent “extreme policy changes that appear politically motivated.”
North Carolina’s Civitas Institute, which bills itself as “North Carolina’s conservative voice,” has released a new poll showing that North Carolina likely voters — by a margin of 47 percent to 43 percent — agreed with the governor’s and legislature’s decision “to stop the Charlotte Bathroom Ordinance from taking effect.” (PPP and Survey USA polls HB2 opponents outnumbering supporters by nine and 12 percentage points respectively. But much of that depends on how the poll question is phrased.)
“There is national attention on our state. And I think the Charlotte City Council put us in that spotlight,” said Civitas Institute communications coordinator Demi Dowdy, stating that culpability for that scrutiny lies with the city that created the bathroom ordinance in the first place. She added that the state’s national reputation is one of effective conservative governance.
For all the intense national scrutiny at the moment, the news cycle is fickle and media attention inevitably moves on. Perhaps the most significant impact of these battles will be on the governor’s race in November, but that too depends on how long the issues stay front and center in the public consciousness.
“It’s a long way between now and November,” observed Seth Effron.
As far as the voting law and HB2 go, the “significant question is whether they are actually voting issues” by November, said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor of the Cook Political Report, which lists the McCrory-Cooper race as a toss-up. “For now, it’s safe to say that they probably won’t have the impact that their proponents believe and won’t be as inconsequential as their opponents think.”
(Reprinted with permission from The Outer Banks Sentinel. For more news from the Outer Banks, go to www.obsentinel.com.)