How do you reconcile a four-point Hillary Clinton loss in North Carolina with an apparent four-thousand-vote win by Roy Cooper? And who, exactly, is the Donald Trump, Richard Burr, Roy Cooper, Josh Stein, and Mike Morgan voter?
These are questions that Democrats on the national, state, and local level will have to figure out, and quick; in the meantime, we're left with the most mixed of signals from North Carolina voters, but also a glimmer of hope in the most trying of times in recent American history. But how much hope, exactly, should progressives have in stopping a right-wing Republican agenda that's now emboldened by its brand of austerity and odium of the poor going national?
First, we have to understand that Cooper's apparent gubernatorial victory was not a victory for LGBTQ rights. All campaign long, Cooper rolled with the message that Pat McCrory had destroyed North Carolina's economy; his sharpest critiques of HB 2 came in economic, rather than moral, terms. It appears to have been an effective strategy, especially in McCrory's backyard of Mecklenburg County, which McCrory won last time by a point and Cooper won last week by 148,000 votes. Whether this switch was due to the HB 2-related loss of the NBA All-Star Game, PayPal, and Apple declining to expand, the controversial I-77 toll, changing demographics, or some combination of all of those is anyone's guess.
Second, it's important to remember that Cooper's power will be extremely limited. Throughout this election cycle, Democrats privately expressed confidence that no matter what happened, the Republicans' legislative supermajority would fall. That didn't happen; Republicans actually picked up a seat. So now Republicans have legislative supermajorities in both chambers and a Democratic governor they can blame when the inevitable Trump recession hits. It goes without saying that legislative leaders will block most parts of the Cooper agenda, which will focus on education and jobs. HB 2 will not be repealed, and the Trump Department of Justice will likely drop its HB 2-related lawsuit against North Carolina. (Even if that doesn't happen, the next U.S. Supreme Court justice will likely be a gremlin of the Antonin Scalia variety, which should kill any hope for civil rights progress from the courts.)
In the attorney general's race, Democrat Josh Stein defeated Republican Buck Newton, a public face of HB 2. Stein is a Democrat in the moderate Cooper mold, though he's very good on consumer-protection and environmental issues. Given that the Trump transition team has already indicated that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—the brainchild of Elizabeth Warren—and the Environmental Protection Agency will be gutted or eliminated, having an attorney general who is willing to challenge Trump will be all the more important.
But even more so than Stein or Cooper, the unlikely win in the N.C. Supreme Court race on Tuesday night was an incredibly important result. Over the past couple of years, Justice Robert Edmunds served as the fourth conservative vote on issues including school vouchers and McCrory's Coal Ash Committee. Mike Morgan swings control of the Supreme Court to the Democrats, which might serve as a check on the Republicans' agenda in a way that even Cooper—who has no real veto power since he will quickly be overridden—won't be.
But last week, in the days after the election, we learned, via a legislative staffer, that Republicans might be planning on packing the N.C. Supreme Court with two extra seats during a special session to address Hurricane Matthew next month, before Cooper takes office. If that happened, McCrory would appoint the new justices.
"If they do this, they clearly don't like the result the voters gave them," the staffer told the INDY. "It's just ridiculous that they would even contemplate doing this. It shows they are absolutely power-hungry. It's a pattern to how they're operating."
Aside from Hillary Clinton's crushing defeat, there was more to mourn. Democratic Senate candidate Deborah Ross, who might have been the most progressive senator from North Carolina ever, lost by six points to career grifter Richard Burr. Religious zealot Dan Forest easily won reelection, putting himself second in line to the governorship should the legislature impeach Cooper for jaywalking. And, amid the shuffle last week, three-term superintendent of public instruction June Atkinson and insurance commissioner Wayne Goodwin, who helped drive auto insurance rates down to the lowest in the country, lost.
Mark Johnson, the new superintendent, ran on opposition to Common Core; Mike Causey, who will be the first Republican insurance commissioner in state history, wants to "reform" the N.C. Rate Bureau, which he says has "stifled free enterprise." The NCRB, mind you, is what has helped keep North Carolina's homeowners' insurance rates low.
What does it say about us that we (knock on wood) got rid of McCrory and Newton, but we kept the legislature solid red, elected an insurance commissioner who essentially promises to hike rates, and reelected a labor commissioner, Cherie Berry, who has a clear disregard for labor rights and workers? It's hard to say. But Democrats around the country are going to have to reckon with these things, and the small victories in North Carolina shouldn't be taken as a silver lining. We all, undoubtedly, have a lot of soul-searching to do.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Don't Call it a Silver Lining."