If Attorney General Roy Cooper’s election day lead over incumbent Republican Gov. Pat McCrory eventually becomes a victory, the incoming Democrat will face an incredibly difficult challenge in pushing any of his agenda through a GOP-dominated General Assembly, election analysts say.
“I think he will be one of the highest paid ribbon-cutters in America,” said Chris Cooper, head of the political science department at Western Carolina University, and no relation to Roy Cooper. “I think he’s going to be among the least powerful governors in the country.”
Conversely, with fewer than 5,000 votes separating the gubernatorial candidates, if McCrory gets embroiled in a lengthy legal challenge over contested election results in an attempt to save his governorship, that could backfire, Cooper said.
McCrory has not conceded the race to his Democratic opponent, saying the outstanding 110,000 absentee and provisional ballots should be counted before a winner is declared (or a recount demanded if Cooper leads by fewer than 10,000 votes when the election is certified). An attorney and Durham County resident who represents the N.C. Republican Party has alleged irregularities, and is challenging 90,000 ballots in his county. Both McCrory and Cooper are girding for a possible court fight by creating legal defense funds.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘Hey, I want to get the official count,’ but I think if this drags on too long he risks damaging the party brand a little bit,” Cooper said. That also would contrast with the resolution of the presidential race.
“At least nationally the Democrats have accepted defeat,” Cooper said. Republican President-elect Donald Trump is “putting on a good face,” and unsuccessful Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton isn’t challenging the results.
“North Carolinians, like any Americans, want to think that their processes work, and want to see government officials get to work. I think if [McCrory] challenges this too much it’s going to continue to erode faith in the system,” Cooper said.
The reason for Cooper’s gloomy forecast on Roy Cooper’s prospects for success as a Democratic governor squaring off against the Republican legislature is that North Carolina’s governor holds a comparatively weak position among the states in the governing structure. On top of that, Republicans maintained their veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate.
“Facing a supermajority essentially takes away the veto” because Republicans hold the power to override a gubernatorial rejection of legislation, Cooper said.
“Cooper, assuming he’s going to pull it out, is going to have the bully pulpit. He’s going to have the power to persuade. But at the same time, legislatively I just don’t see any way he’s going to get much of an agenda through with facing a supermajority,” Cooper said.
That dynamic is likely to produce tension, even acrimony.
“The only way Cooper is going to be able to get much of anything done is through his informal power, which, if you’re the governor, is the bully pulpit, going directly to the people, and trying to activate public opinion,” Cooper said. “That is an inherently contentious process,” but the most powerful tool the Democratic governor would have in shaping opinion and votes.
Having a majority Democratic state Supreme Court “will clearly help him, but I don’t think that is enough to tip the scales in his favor” in blocking GOP legislation, Cooper said.
Another piece in sorting out this election’s dynamics is the win by Democrat Josh Stein over Republican Buck Newton for the attorney general seat being vacated by Cooper. That could benefit Cooper politically if his successor follows his practice of not defending some GOP-passed bills against lawsuits, or refusing to oppose federal overreach.
“If the last year and a half has taught us anything it is that the attorney general is an important position in North Carolina, and probably a more important position than most voters think,” Cooper said.
Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, has as many questions as answers about how the election results might play out in practical application.
When sticky legislative issues arise, “Do the parties stick together?” he asked. “If they do, which is unlikely on every vote, can the Republicans override a Cooper veto?” Moreover, if there are defections within the GOP caucus, Taylor wondered those independent Republicans affect future votes.
“What does Cooper do, because even if he is governor he’s going to bring an incredibly small mandate. Does that affect him?” Taylor asked.
“Some of the Republicans who survived in suburban districts, are they chastened by the experience? Some of them lost, some of them won very narrowly,” and they might have to take the changing demographics and party registrations in their districts into account when casting votes that could impact their re-election prospects, Taylor said.