When the news broke that Rep. Tim Moore would be the Republican nominee for speaker of the North Carolina House and Rep. Mike Hager would be majority leader, the usual suspects did the usual things.
Politicians seeking power, lobbyists seeking favors, and reporters seeking access rushed to offer words of praise for Moore, Hager, and the rest of the House GOP’s new leadership team, including Marilyn Avila (deputy majority leader), John Bell (majority whip), Charles Jeter (conference chairman), and Pat Hurley (joint caucus leader). One House leadership post won’t change: Speaker Pro Tem Skip Stam was nominated for a second term.
On the Left, where doleful columnists and embittered academics now form North Carolina’s Eeyore Caucus, Moore’s post-nomination remarks prompted another round of kicking and braying as he resolutely defended the Republicans’ fiscal and regulatory policies and voiced skepticism about Medicaid expansion.
When I heard the news, however, what came to my mind was geography. Tim Moore hails from Cleveland County and Mike Hager from Rutherford County, both western counties that until recently hosted highly competitive legislative races. Similarly, John Bell’s Wayne County in the east went from reliably Democratic a generation ago to competitive and, now, to Republican-leaning. Charles Jeter’s district includes areas of northern and western Mecklenburg County that for generations cast their presidential and congressional votes for Republicans while preferring Democrats for state and local offices. The same could be said for parts of Marilyn Avila’s district in Wake County.
In most cases, the Democrats that used to represent these areas in Raleigh were, relatively speaking, moderates. They won election and reelection thanks in part to favorable districts maps but also because they figured out ways to appeal to voters who liked Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms. During the 1990s and 2000s, however, the dynamics changed. State Republicans made a concerted effort to recruit stronger candidates, craft sharper messages, and run well-funded, professional campaigns. Meanwhile, North Carolina Democrats began to drift, both ethically and ideologically. They failed to update their old-school policy ideas to fit the needs of a state economy that started lagging behind the rest of the Southeast rather than leading it.
After the 2010 election, when the GOP took over the General Assembly, the emerging Eeyore Caucus predicted gloom and doom as Republicans implemented tax cuts, regulatory relief, and other conservative reforms. Since the enactment of that first conservative state budget in mid-2011, however, North Carolina has outperformed its competitors on most measures of economic growth. For example, North Carolina’s payroll employment is up 6.8 percent since June 2011, higher than average growth in the Southeast (5 percent) and the nation as a whole (6 percent). The U-5 unemployment measure, which includes not only the jobless actively looking for work but also those who have dropped out of the labor force, is down 4 percentage points in North Carolina since mid-2011, while both the regional and national averages have fallen 2.9 points.
It’s too early to draw final conclusions about the cause of these trends. But it’s not too early to point out that, when it comes to North Carolina’s economy, the Left has repeatedly forecast thunderstorms for what turned out to be sunny days.
Nor has the predicted groundswell of public opposition materialized. Democrats came into the 2014 election cycle with low expectations — and failed even to meet those. Kay Hagan lost. Democrats netted just two seats in the General Assembly, the worst performance in modern times for an opposition party in a governor’s first midterm. The GOP actually gained a seat on the Court of Appeals, winning a majority, while maintaining the 4-3 edge on the Supreme Court it had won in a previous election.
There is no question that the newly ascendant Republicans have made some mistakes over the past four years. Still, the fact is that their party has never been stronger in North Carolina than it is right now. The rise of Tim Moore and Mike Hager illustrates the breadth of the GOP’s gains. As for the Eeyore Caucus, you’ll find them out among the thistles, chasing their missing tails.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation.