In an election season that was fairly brutal to Democrats, leaving them with no control over any level of government, there was one bright spot for the party: Democrat Roy Cooper beat Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in the gubernatorial race in North Carolina.
Cooper’s margin of victory was razor thin, coming down to just a few thousand votes in the state. But one thing that’s notable is how Cooper appeared to overperform compared with other Democrats across North Carolina. After all, this is a state in which Hillary Clinton and Democratic Senate candidate Deborah Ross lost — by more than 100,000 votes in Clinton’s case and more than 200,000 in Ross’s.
One (but of course not the only) reason Cooper managed to overperform: McCrory’s disastrous anti-LGBTQ law.
Earlier this year, McCrory and state Republicans passed a law that overturned and banned local nondiscrimination protections that legally protect LGBTQ people from discrimination and prohibited transgender people from using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity in schools and government buildings. Sarah McBride of the Human Rights Campaign called it “one of the most extreme, anti-LGBT bills we've seen yet.”
The backlash was swift, costing the state jobs and, ultimately, McCrory his reelection.
North Carolina’s anti-LGBTQ law has been an economic disaster for the state
More than 200 major CEOs and business leaders signed an open letter calling for the law’s repeal. PayPal, the NBA, the NCAA, and Bruce Springsteen, among others, pulled business out of the state. By Wired’s estimate, North Carolina has so far lost $395 million — “more than the GDP of Micronesia” — as a result of the law.
This was an intentional strategy from LGBTQ groups. The thinking was simple: If the governor and other Republicans don’t care about LGBTQ rights, maybe they’ll care about the law’s economic impact. At the very least, voters will care about the economic impact. It’s a way of transforming an identity politics issue into an economics one.
“Whether you’re a Democratic governor or a Republican governor, virtually without exception, goal No. 1 is to keep jobs in your state and to attract new jobs that you don’t currently have. That is one thing that is shared between conservative governors, liberal governors, moderate governors,” Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin previously told me. “So the increase in business [engagement and lobbying against these laws] has been key to our success, and I think it will be key to our success as we engage in these battles in the future.”
The strategy seemed to work. Public Policy Polling’s surveys on HB2, the anti-LGBTQ law, found that only 30 percent of North Carolina voters supported the law and 42 percent opposed it. About 58 percent of voters said the law is hurting the state, compared with 22 percent who said it’s helping — with even a majority of Republican voters by a 24-point margin agreeing that it’s doing more harm than good to the state economy. And 43 percent of voters said that the way McCrory handled the law made them less likely to vote for him, compared with 31 percent who said the way he handled the law made them more likely to vote for him.
As Public Policy Polling concluded in August, “There's a good chance that if not for HB2 McCrory would be favored for reelection at this point.”
McCrory’s loss may signal to other Republican governors that this is not a good battle to pick
The impact from McCrory’s loss, however, won’t be felt just in North Carolina. In other states, Republican governors may look at what happened in North Carolina and reconsider whether LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws and transgender people’s access to bathrooms are good political battles to pick.
We have already seen some Republicans back off from this battle since North Carolina’s law sparked a national uproar and business boycotts. In Georgia, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal announced — shortly after the backlash to North Carolina’s law began — that he would not sign into law a religious freedom measure that critics described as a thinly veiled attack on LGBTQ rights.
Deal was responding to the same kind of business pressures that McCrory had dealt with: Disney and Marvel threatened to stop film production in Georgia if Deal signed the bill into law. The NFL and NCAA leveled similar threats. Various other companies — including Apple, Dell, Time Warner, Comcast, Sony Pictures, Lionsgate, and Starz — urged the governor to veto the bill.
And before North Carolina, there was Indiana. In that state, Vice President–elect and Gov. Mike Pence signed a religious freedom bill into law that was also widely criticized as anti-LGBTQ. That also led to a national uproar and business backlash, with Angie’s List in particular withdrawing a $40 million expansion in Indianapolis. And Pence’s approval ratings began to drop from the 60s to the 40s and below, giving way to the possibility that Pence could have faced a tight reelection bid had he not been named Trump’s running mate.
So for governors looking to keep jobs in their state and get reelected, it’s going to be really hard to ignore the backlash against both McCrory and Pence.