With the nation split down the middle on myriad issues, political parties are operating — or not — in a toxic atmosphere.
“Congress needs to return to regular order,” Meredith College political science professor David McLennan said. “It would be nice for the General Assembly to return to some sense of normalcy, too.”
He believes the 2018 legislative elections could help to thaw icy relations between minority Democrats, and Republicans, who hold veto-proof majorities of 35-15 in the Senate and 75-45 in the House. To do that, he said, Democrats would have to take enough Republican-held seats to trim that margin.
“If the Democrats do pick up just a few seats to [eliminate] one of the safe majorities in the chambers, that may be what ends up forcing them into more cooperation, as opposed to conflict,” McLennan said.
In typical midterm elections, the party controlling the White House loses seats in the General Assembly — since 1950, an average of 11 seats. This year, both Republican President Trump and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper may drive turnout in each party.
“I think there’s some energy on the Democratic side,” McLennan said. “But we’ve discounted the energy on the Republican side.”
He cited a recent Meredith College poll of registered voters that found no enthusiasm gap among Republican, Democratic, and unaffiliated voters, and a plurality of North Carolinians believe the state is headed in the right direction. The economy was the top satisfaction item among voters of all affiliations, among all age groups, between whites and blacks, and men and women.
“I think both sides have reason to come out in 2018, and although the Democrats want to replace Republicans in the legislature, there’s also equal energy on the Republican side to keep the status quo going,” McLennan said.
But he doesn’t think the current imbroglio over the $57.8 million Atlantic Coast Pipeline escrow fund Gov. Roy Cooper’s office negotiated outside of normal constitutional requirements will spur turnout on either side.
“The bottom line as we get close to election day in 2018 and 2020, the sort of sausage making that’s going on is not particularly paid attention to,” McLennan said. Republican gerrymandering, and the lawsuits it spawned, could be an exception because that issue has gotten so much attention.
The redistricting power struggles between Cooper and the General Assembly, and the legal battle over Republicans trying to merge the state elections and ethics board, might just be background noise for voters, McLennan said.
State Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, believes Cooper’s pipeline deal is a symptom of the 2018 election season, and just the beginning of an all-out Democratic effort to re-elect Cooper in 2020 and give Democrats confidence they can end GOP control of the General Assembly.
“I can tell you, the tones that I hear coming in, there will be great national attention placed on North Carolina,” Dixon said. That attention is raising the political temperature preceding this year’s elections.
“I think that controls the dialogue 100 percent” in legislative debate and votes, Dixon said. “That rises above all other reasons, and that’s the reason it becomes so partisan.”
For those following the combative politics in Raleigh, it’s likely no surprise Dixon responds with equal resolve to the Democrats’ political efforts.
“I believe that Mr. Cooper will be a one-term governor,” Dixon said, “and that is one of my objectives.”
He’s not the only elected official suspicious of the other side.
Senate leader Phil Berger R-Rockingham, and other legislative Republicans say the deal Cooper worked out with the energy company coalition building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was a slush fund intended to reward the governor’s supporters, including friendly business owners.
Cooper said he had to shut Republican lawmakers out of the negotiations over the pipeline fund and keep the deal secret because Republicans were untrustworthy. He said they would convene in back rooms to figure out how to use the money to their benefit.