Political Turmoil in North Carolina Continues to Roil State Republican Party

April 23, 2019 by Sean Trambley
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper during a debate at WRAL studios in Raleigh, N.C., on Oct. 18, 2016. Cooper vetoed an abortion bill Thursday that would create new criminal and civil penalties for infanticide. (Chris Seward/Charlotte Observer/TNS)

Seven years ago, Republicans took over nearly every lever of power in North Carolina in a political takeover that seemed destined to transform the state into a conservative stronghold. North Carolina, once considered a moderate state, was now in Republican hands for the first time since Reconstruction.

But now, with a resurgent Democratic party and after a string of scandals, the Republican grip on power seems to be waning.

Last year’s 2018 midterm election initially seemed to be a mixed bag. Although the Democrats elected Roy Cooper as governor, a closely-watched congressional race appeared to be won by Republican Mark Harris by a razor-thin 905-vote margin over Democrat Dan McCready.

The first sign of trouble was the state election board refusing to certify the results of that race. Scandal was in the air as it was determined that Harris’ campaign consultant, Leslie Dowless Jr., had implemented an illegal scheme to taint absentee ballots through a practice known as “harvesting.”

For years, complaints of election fraud in North Carolina elections surfaced. It turns out, there may have been some truth to the claims.

Following a thorough investigation, the North Carolina State Board of Elections nullified the results of last year’s midterm election and called for a new special election this fall. Dowless has been charged with fraud and ballot tampering, along with some of his colleagues who participated in the illegal scheme.

Harris, embarrassed by the scandal and citing health issues, has declared he won’t run again for the seat. Dan McCready has launched his campaign do-over in earnest.

Many state Republicans hoped they could leave this scandal in the rearview mirror and push forward with a conservative agenda, as the state house was still in their control and deadlocked with Governor Cooper after Democrats broke the supermajority last fall.

But new scandals emerged and the state party is once again mired in controversy. Earlier this month, the chairman of the state’s Republican Party, Robin Hayes, was indicted on charges of bribery. Additional charges related to a scheme with a major donor, who also was charged, have left the party rudderless in the state.

According to federal prosecutors, Hayes, insurance magnate Greg Lindberg, and two of his associates planned to give state Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey hefty donations “in exchange for specific official action favorable to” Lindberg’s business.

The contributions were to be funneled through the state GOP and an independent committee the conspirators allegedly created just for that purpose.

These scandals have cut deeply into the Republicans’ platform, who were elected seven long years ago by railing against Democratic corruption. The subsequent years were bitterly fought by both sides over climate change, voting rights, gerrymandering, and business regulation.

And the fraught political tension is bound to spill over again, as Senator Thom Tillis runs for reelection and redistricting comes up again after the 2020 Census that will redraw both state and congressional districts.

Senator Tillis’ delicate political situation is best understood by his opposition to, and eventual support of, President Trump’s border wall declaration. The political climate in the state will make it hard to carve an independent path.

With Democrats on the upswing, they have brought fresh faces and ideas into state. And they have a voice at the top, Governor Cooper, who can offer a new vision for the state. Eyes watching North Carolina.

The special election this fall could serve as a bellwether for the state and give a sense of what to expect electorally in the years to come.

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