Republican Gov. Pat McCrory has finally conceded defeat to Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper. Cooper led by 4,480 votes on election night and now leads by just over 10,000, or 0.22 percent. After a recount in heavily Democratic Durham County proved fruitless for McCrory, he finally threw in the towel. The governor’s concession brings to a close one of the utmost contentious races in the country in 2016.
Under McCrory’s leadership, North Carolina had seen a radical experimentation in ultra-conservative policies. After he assumed office in 2013, Republicans slashed taxes for the wealthy while raising them for the middle class, decimated public education, mishandled environmental disasters, and dealt a crushing blow to North Carolina’s then-burgeoning film industry. These policies had left McCrory unpopular with the electorate ever since the 2013 legislative session.
Most infamously of all, McCrory passed the so-called “bathrooms bill” that forced transgender people to use public restrooms that correspond with the sex on their birth certificate, regardless of their gender identity. Combined with other provisions that discriminated against LGBT people, women, and workers, the law sparked national outrage and boycotts of North Carolina that saw the state lose thousands of jobs and landmark sporting events that were a staple of the local economy, turning McCrory into an embarrassment to the state.
The governor also put North Carolina on the front lines of the battle over voting rights. Almost immediately after the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, McCrory signed America’s most sweeping voter suppression law in half a century, which included a strict voter ID requirement, the end of same-day registration, and other restrictions. Republicans literally ordered data on which voting methods African Americans used more and eliminated them. This law was so extreme that a federal court said it “targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision” when it struck it down in July.
Although Cooper’s election night lead always looked like it would be difficult to overcome, McCrory had nonetheless filed countless protests with various state and county elections boards challenging the validity of hundreds of votes and alleging fraud, particularly in heavily Democratic Durham County. However, these challenges were without evidence, and county boards of election had repeatedly ruled against McCrory, even though by law they are comprised of two members of the governor’s party and just one from the opposition. Those protests were simply never enough to come close to overturning Cooper’s lead, but were instead focused squarely on delegitimizing the results.
There were fears McCrory might use the specter of bogus voter fraud to claim the election was rigged and legally contest it, which could have allowed the Republican-dominated legislature to declare McCrory the winner. Fortunately, that ugly scenario didn’t come to fruition, but Republicans will likely use McCrory’s recent bout of crying wolf to justify an upcoming voter suppression law. Now that President-elect Donald Trump will soon pick a replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, North Carolina Republicans could even potentially try to re-pass the very same sweeping voting restrictions that a federal appeals court had struck down earlier in 2016.
Unfortunately, McCrory might not even done inflicting damage upon his state, since he recently called a December lame-duck special legislative session where Republicans might pack the North Carolina Supreme Court with two additional justices after Democrats won a 4-3 majority in the 2016 elections. North Carolina’s state Supreme Court is critical for 2020s legislative redistricting since the governor cannot veto redistricting laws, and Republicans know they can’t afford to lose it. If McCrory signs this court-packing scheme, he would get to appoint two additional justices who would then face nonpartisan elections for a full eight-year term in 2018.
Even though McCrory lost, one of the nation’s most aggressive gerrymanders helped Republicans maintain veto-proof state legislative majorities that are steadfastly opposed to Gov.-elect Cooper. Fortunately, a federal court recently invalidated a slew of legislative districts and called for new maps and special elections by November, 2017. Although the Republican legislature will pass replacement gerrymanders, they will likely be less extreme. That’s crucial because Republicans’ 74-46 majority in the state House is just two seats above the three-fifths minimum for overriding vetoes, meaning Democrats could soon gain the net three seats they need to make Cooper’s vetoes stick.
Cooper’s victory is also significant because the governor’s party controls the state and county boards of elections, presuming Republicans don’t also try to remove this power while they’re busy considering court-packing. McCrory’s appointees had used their authority to try to limit early voting availability to create long lines and to relocate polling places to make it difficult for minorities and college students with limited access to transportation to get to the polls. Cooper would thus hopefully be able appoint board members who will help expand voting access in upcoming elections.
The conclusion of the North Carolina governor’s race brings the 2016 gubernatorial elections to a close. Republicans now control 33 governor’s offices across the nation, and Democrats just 16, while an independent holds one, giving Republicans their largest number in generations.