It is hardly surprising Republicans in Raleigh have been busy over the past few months. This is the first time in over a century the party has controlled the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the General Assembly. They are taking advantage of a palpable and widespread discontent with the way Democrats ran the state over the past decade or so.
There is a sense they should be given a chance to govern. Many of the most important early efforts to move policy in a conservative direction — on fiscal and regulatory policy — have not caught the headlines. Instead, the media have had a field day with a legislative agenda that facilitates the portrayal of Republicans as extremist.
This isn’t necessarily a liberal conspiracy. It may be that reporters, perhaps because it’s in their professional interests to stoke one, really like a fight. Many of the highlighted proposals are controversial because they antagonize core Democratic constituencies like the educational establishment and minorities — for example, the cuts to the UNC system, reform to teacher tenure, elimination of the Racial Justice Act, and the drivers’ license design to denote immigrant status.
Others alter process and have incurred wrath because they are believed to advantage Republicans unfairly in policymaking and elections — these include voter ID, Wake County school board elections, judicial selection, and the reconstitution of commissions like the Board of Elections.
Legislation in a final category is just plain kooky and the product of a few obstreperous rank-and-file lawmakers — I’m thinking here, particularly, of the “state religion” bill.
Regardless of its legitimacy, there is a nascent and broadening impression that Republicans in Raleigh may be overreaching; they are going too far too fast. As a result, they could face electoral consequences in what is, after all, a purplish state. Public Policy Polling, a partisan Democratic but reputable survey research firm, has recently reported 32 percent of residents are pleased with the way Republicans are running the state and only 20 percent approve of the performance of the GOP majorities in the General Assembly.
Republicans who fret about a negative reaction to their governance should be assuaged by several things. The state Democratic Party is in a shambles, and the 2014 election is a midterm; down-ballot candidates of the president’s party tend to fare poorly on such occasions. North Carolina Democrats lost 16 state House and 11 state Senate seats in the first Obama midterm in 2010, their Republican counterparts five in the House and two in the Senate under George W. Bush in 2006.
We should not overestimate the role redistricting has played in building the GOP majority in the General Assembly. After all, Republicans came to power in 2010 under a Democratic plan. But redistricting nevertheless provides additional comfort. Republican votes are being used efficiently, while Democratic voters are concentrated in a relatively small number of districts. GOP candidates will, over the decade the maps are in place, tend to win frequently but narrowly and lose sporadically but by a lot.
This strategy is not without its dangers, however. A fairly large number of Republican members are in the firing line if the opposition is lifted in a “tide” election. Although majorities in both the House and Senate are large by recent historical standards, a swing of 7 percent to the Democrats from the 2012 vote would deliver both bodies to them.
That is a very tall order and frankly not in the cards in 2014. But a swing that looks as though it might be half that amount would put quite a few Republican seats, particularly suburban ones, in play. This includes a number in Wake County. Their occupants cannot afford a highly unpopular state GOP.
Republicans in these more marginal seats face the added complication of pressure from within. The experiences of suburban and socially moderate Republicans over the next year or so will tell us a lot about the future of Republican government in the state. If several of them are defeated in 2014, GOP leaders would be wise to take stock, not least because these legislators represent districts that are the state’s future.
Scholars have demonstrated repeatedly that American public opinion is thermostatic. The median tends to think Democratic governance is too liberal, Republican rule too conservative. In many ways this is a conservative state, but Tar Heels care deeply about intelligent leadership and are innately suspicious of radical change.
Republicans should understand this and move ahead cautiously and strategically, meticulously building public support for ideas that might have significant opposition. This GOP majority is built to last, but it is not invincible.
Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of Public and International Affairs at N.C. State University.