Former N.C. Governor Pat McCrory threw his hat in the ring on Wednesday to represent North Carolina in the United States Senate. It’s a coveted seat being vacated by the retirement of Republican Senator Richard Burr. Since 2000, twenty former governors have run for U.S. Senate as first-time candidates, compiling a 13-7 record, for a 65% win percentage. It’s a record any team would take, but could McCrory be on the winning side of those statistics? There is a lot of history working for and against him.
Governors in the Senate: By the numbers
According to Governing: The Future of States and Localities, two notable metrics influenced the failed Senate campaigns. One was the amount of time that had elapsed between the candidate’s departure from the governorship and their Senate bid. The second factor was whether the candidate was running in a state that, at the time of their Senate run, was generally favorable to their party in statewide races.
Of the 13 winners, only two had been out of office for more than six years. Mostly the winners ran for Senate while still in the governor’s mansion or had been out of office between two and six years when they won their Senate seat.
On Election day 2022, Gov. McCrory would have been out of office just shy of six years, having exited the Governor’s Mansion at the end of 2016. Among the seven governors who lost, four had been out of office seven or more years.
While time away from the office was a key factor in former governors who were defeated in their bid for Senate, the partisan leanings of their states are a major factor. Of the seven losing candidates, 6 were running in states where partisan leanings had shifted significantly toward the other party since they left office.
However, in North Carolina Republicans have won four consecutive U.S. Senate races and 6 out of 7 dating back to 2002.
Former governors approach the U.S. Senate differently
According to The Hewlett Foundation’s Madison Initiative, which aims to strengthen Congress’s ability to solve problems, they examined the effectiveness of former governors as members of Congress.
“Former governors are more likely to work aggressively on a fewer number of bills, but the ones they focus on tend to have more substance, more bipartisan support, and more success,” their report concluded.
The Madison Initiative found former governors have unique attributes including:
They’re less ideologically extreme as are their campaign donors. According to political scientists Misty Knight-Finley and Alex Keena, from Rowan University and Virginia Commonwealth University, former governors rarely voted with the other party, but still did so more than other senators.
Knight-Finley and Keena say, “Former governors may not single-handedly cure legislative gridlock or hyper-partisanship in the Senate, but their common experiences and proclivity toward working across the aisle may set an example about what a culture of bipartisanship can look like.”
Former governors also tend to introduce and co-sponsor more bipartisan legislation, focusing on fewer bills that go further.
“It appears these former governors are pursuing a tighter but more aggressive agenda,” says Craig Volden with the Center for Effective Lawmaking (CEL) at the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University. “In other words, governors appear to put great effort into a focused set of legislative priorities.”
The statistics may work in favor of a former governor in the Senate, but the big question remains:
Can McCrory move past his 2016 loss?
On December 5, 2016, Gov. Crory conceded defeat to Roy Cooper in North Carolina’s closest-ever race for governor. Cooper, a Democrat and the state’s attorney general, defeated McCrory by 10,000 votes, or 0.2% of the total votes cast.
McCrory’s loss to Cooper came in an otherwise favorable year for Republican statewide candidates in North Carolina. Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Richard Burr both won the state, and the GOP picked up three Council of State positions held by Democrats: Insurance commissioner, state treasurer, and superintendent of public instruction.
Analysts look at four major factors that led to McCrory’s defeat. Whether those factors are still relevant is the gamble for the McCrory campaign.
“McCrory lost votes in urban areas because of his strong support for House Bill 2, the controversial law that among other provisions requires transgender people in government facilities to use the bathroom that corresponds to their birth certificates,” wrote the News and Observer. “HB2 has prompted numerous sporting events to be moved outside North Carolina, as well as conferences and some corporate expansions – resulting in millions of dollars in economic losses.”
Voters’ views on the issue shifted as the perceived economic pain associated with HB2 grew in the summer of 2016.
In March of 2016, Civitas Institute polling showed that 69% of voters disapproved of the original Charlotte ordinance that allowed “biological men and biological women, who identify as the opposite sex, to use the bathroom or locker room of their choosing.” With nearly 7 of 10 voters finding the Charlotte measure “unreasonable and unsafe.”
In May of 2016, Civitas polling showed that 56% of voters responded that HB 2 offers protection of individual privacy and safety in public restrooms and locker rooms and protects the rights of business owners to make workplace decisions without government interference” while 34% of respondents said, “House Bill 2 unjustly discriminates against individuals based on their self-perceived gender and prevents cities from enacting ordinances that would provide open access to public restrooms and locker rooms.”
But through the summer of 2016, stories of HB2 related economic losses dominated the news. The NCAA and the Atlantic Coast Conference pulled championship games from the state in protest. Concerts and other events were pulled.
Asked for reasons for Cooper’s apparent win, his consultant Morgan Jackson told the News and Observer said, “There’s a ton of stuff (but) nothing bigger than HB2.”
However, the economic losses were key to the change of public opinion and the damage McCrory sustained, and those losses are in the past and will not be a focus of daily coverage,
Consultant Chris Sinclair who has worked on McCrory’s past campaigns and projects told CJ, “In 2016 HB2 was constantly in the news, but now things are different. People don’t get up in the morning and think about HB2 anymore, and it is not affecting their daily lives.
“By the time people get to the general election of 2022, folks are going to be like HB-what ?” said Sinclair.
But North Carolina Democrats wasted no time bringing HB2 back up. Tweeting moments after McCrory’s announcement:
BREAKING: Pat McCrory, failed politician and HB2 champion, just announced he’s running for our Senate seat in 2022. We know who he is and what he stands for. North Carolina — leave Pat in the past.
Tolls take a toll
After four years of construction and commuter complaints, the I-77 Express lanes meant to alleviate congestion in Charlotte’s booming suburbs, opened and began collecting tolls in 2019.
As noted by the Wall Street Journal, the 26-mile, $647 million project was once hailed as North Carolina’s first public-private partnership for roads, a novel way to pay for improvements the state couldn’t otherwise afford.
A business group in the heavily Republican Lake Norman area endorsed Cooper, saying McCrory had failed to cancel the controversial project when he had a chance.
While McCrory won all 15 north Mecklenburg precincts in 2012, in 2016 he lost five of them, a swing of 22,000 votes.
The group says 25,000 used the Express Lanes every day of the week. I-77 Mobility Partners say that means drivers gained back on average an extra eight minutes, or 23% of their mornings. Drivers gained 11 more minutes, or 31% of their evenings when driving the whole corridor.
Cooper has also failed to deliver a plan for the state to buy out the tolling company.
The question is with the road now open and having been a fact of life for several years in the area, is this issue still relevant?
New Hanover County was particularly difficult for McCrory in 2016.
Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 4,365 votes in New Hanover, but Roy Cooper defeated Pat McCrory by 5,265 votes, for a total swing from Trump to McCrory of 9,630 votes, almost the entire margin of defeat for McCrory.
McCrory took heat for the General Assembly’s decision to scale back taxpayer subsidies for film and TV production. HB2 also caused some productions to cancel shoots in North Carolina.
But the state has added back some film incentives over the last few years.
The Port City Daily reported that “2019 was one of the most successful years for film in North Carolina in about five or six years.”
This is another issue that may well be in the rear-view mirror for McCrory.
McCrory outraised and outspent in 2016
With no candidate filing against him for attorney general in 2012, Cooper started his challenge to Gov. McCrory in a strong position when it came to campaign cash. The HB2 issue was a fundraising boom for Roy Cooper from out-of-state donors. In total when combined with independent spending, McCrory was outspent by Cooper’s forces by nearly a 2-1 margin.
However, McCrory has significant fundraising ability. And U.S. Senate elections are a national affair. Should McCrory capture the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate in 2022, he can count on significant GOP support nationally to assist his efforts with control of the U.S. Senate on the line.