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    North Carolina, in Political Flux, Battles for Its Identity

    North Carolina, in Political Flux, Battles for Its Identity

    SEPT. 23, 2014

    North Carolina, a state long defined by the tension between Southern tradition and progressive ideals, seems like it is moving in two directions at once, with both major parties exhibiting gains and their members coexisting as neighbors.

    Worshippers at Evans Metropolitan A.M.E. Zion Church in Fayetteville, N.C.; protesters at the state Capitol in Raleigh, N.C.; and Kenny Clark, an owner of a tire repair shop in Siler City, N.C. Photographs by Luke Sharrett for The New York Times

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    SILER CITY, N.C. — In Raleigh, conservative Republicans may be running North Carolina like they own it, but go almost anyplace in the state, even to this former textile town that looks like a movie-set re-creation of an older, more traditional South, and the political picture quickly blurs.

    At Chatham Industrial Supply, a hardware store here, its owner, Richard Kernodle, grumbled recently about what he called the “liberal artists” who have moved to this city of 8,100 — opening galleries, throwing pottery and generally bringing the kind of lifestyle and politics one might expect 45 minutes away in the progressive college town of Chapel Hill.

    Mr. Kernodle, 56, said that some of the newcomers wanted to paint murals on downtown buildings without securing the proper permits. They want gay rights taught in the schools. And he has heard a rumor that some of them tend their gardens in the nude.

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    Articles in this series will examine the voters and issues in seven states with the most competitive Senate races.

    So with liberals making inroads even in towns like Siler City, was it them or the conservatives who had the upper hand in North Carolina? Mr. Kernodle, a lifelong Republican, did not know: “I’ll tell you,” he said, “It’s a 50-50 thing here.”

    Unlike other Southern states, which have shifted decidedly rightward in recent years, North Carolina often seems like it is moving in both directions at once. Barack Obama shocked the political world by winning the state in 2008. Two years later, Republicans wrested control of both legislative houses for the first time in more than a century.

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    PLAY VIDEO 0:59
    Richard Kernodle, Hardware Store Owner

    In Siler City, N.C., Richard Kernodle says his hardware store, Chatham Industrial Supply, has weathered many changes since he began the business in 2000.
    Video Credit By Luke Sharrett on Publish Date September 22, 2014.

    Last year, aided by a new Republican governor, Pat McCrory, the legislature enacted one of the most far-reaching conservative agendas in the country, passing a “flattened” income tax that gives big breaks to the wealthy as well as new rules that limit access to voting, expand rights for gun owners and add restrictions for abortion providers.

    And yet, in a tight race that could decide control of the United States Senate, it is Democrats who hold the advantage here in registered voters. Senator Kay Hagan, a Democrat, is preparing to face Thom Tillis, the state House speaker, a Republican, and Democrats have 2.7 million registered voters to the Republicans’ two million. About 1.8 million registered voters are not affiliated with a party.

    The North Carolina of 2014, it seems, is neither red nor blue, but a shade of deep Dixie purple. It is a state where Republicans could retain control of the legislature for years, thanks to an aggressive 2011 redistricting and also because of white conservatives’ abandonment of the Democratic Party after years of post-Civil War fealty.

    But it is also a state where a modern-day Democratic candidate like Ms. Hagan — or even like Hillary Rodham Clinton — may still dream of a statewide victory. African-Americans, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, make up 22 percent of the population. Add to that a streak of true moderates, and the state’s white liberals, who can be found not only in the big cities of Raleigh and Charlotte, but sprinkled around the state — in the New Age boutiques of Asheville, the vegetarian-friendly cafes of Boone, the tech-sector office parks of the Research Triangle and in retirement homes from the Atlantic coast to the Great Smoky Mountains.

    “It’s a place on the cusp,” said Marc Farinella, who was Mr. Obama’s state campaign director here in 2008. “There’s really a battle going on for the soul of North Carolina.”

    A Political Mix

    The presence here of so many liberal voters to compete with a robust core of conservatives may be because of North Carolina’s proximity to the more liberal Northeast.

    The state also has a long tradition of intellectual liberalism closely tied to its universities.

    And the development in the late 1950s of the Research Triangle Park — the corporate and technology research center near Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill — has been both a model for the government’s ability to foster development and a magnet for people and companies from outside the South.

    The newest arrivals may be bolstering the liberal ranks.North Carolina’s population was the sixth-fastest growing in the United States from 2000 to 2010. Exit polling conducted by Edison Research in the 2012 election showed that non-natives supported President Obama over Mitt Romney by a margin of 51 percent to 48 percent, with more recent newcomers even more likely than longtime non-natives to vote for Mr. Obama.

    But this is still the South. Conservative Democrats here limited the impact of the liberal New Deal policies in the 1930s, and today, Republican proponents of conservative values continue to find a broad, receptive audience.

    The resulting mash-up is both cultural and political. North Carolina is home to voters like Mr. Kernodle, who, on a roasting August afternoon, explained that he had nothing against gay people, but was concerned, as a Christian, that the public school system appeared to be championing their cause. A few days later, Charlotte’s yearly gay pride parade rolled through its Uptown neighborhood, sponsored by the hometown economic behemoth, Bank of America.


    A former textile town of 8,100 whose residents are a mix of liberal newcomers and more conservative natives.CreditLuke Sharrett for The New York Times

    North Carolina is a state where the Cook Out, the popular Greensboro-based fast food chain, prints “THANK YOU GOD FOR AMERICA” on its soda cups, and where in Durham, Merge Records, an independent music label, nurtures a stable of vanguard rock ’n’ roll bands that help define the evolving aesthetic of global hipsterdom. It is a state that could elect a smooth-talking populist Democrat like John Edwards to the Senate, and also an ultraconservative Republican like Senator Jesse Helms, who died in 2008.

    More recently, it is a state that saw the rise of Art Pope, the multimillionaire Republican retail magnate whose financing of independent conservative political groups helped his party take control of the legislature in the 2010 elections. (Mr. Pope would later serve for 20 months as Mr. McCrory’s budget director.)

    But North Carolina also saw the rise of the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, an African-American pastor and the president of the state N.A.A.C.P. He has emerged from a series of weekly anti-Republican legislative protests known as “Moral Mondays” to become one of the most visible civil rights leaders in a generation.

    “We’re seeing the spirit of North Carolina rising up,” Mr. Barber said. The Republicans in power today, he said, have enacted tax breaks that favor the wealthy, loosened environmental regulations and declined to expand Medicaid benefits to 500,000 under the Affordable Care Act here, in a state where 16.8 percent of residents live below the poverty line. “This is extremism gone wild, really,” he said.

    No Clear Answers

    So far, the Senate race has done little to clarify who is winning the argument. Ms. Hagan appears to have a slight lead in polls, although her advantage is within the surveys’ margins of error. Also running is a libertarian candidate, Sean Haugh, who could siphon some votes away from Mr. Tillis.

    Public education has become a central issue, underlining the state's struggle to reconcile a tradition of robust public investment with the small-government ethos of modern-day conservatism.

    Ms. Hagan has criticized Mr. Tillis for his support of the two-year budget, passed in 2013, in which lawmakers provided funding $481 million short of what would have been needed to maintain educational services at then-current levels.

    Mr. Tillis’s backers have praised his support of a $282 million package to raise teachers’ salaries, which was approved by the legislature in July.

    Pope McCorkle III, an associate professor of public policy at Duke University and a former Democratic political consultant, said that politicians and business leaders here have long praised the idea that education was the best route to economic progress for what was once a mostly rural state of small textile manufacturers and tobacco farmers.

    The strategy was at the heart of what might be called North Carolina exceptionalism: a sense that the state, through wise public spending, could live up to the official state toast, enacted by lawmakers in 1957, which speaks of a place “where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great.”
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    How North Carolina Shifted Red

    Margin of victory in total votes

    Margin of victory in total seats

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    +12 seats

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    These days, however, North Carolina exceptionalism is on the ropes. Mr. McCorkle said that for decades state leaders, chief among them Jim Hunt, the four-term Democratic governor, were able to finance public education and other major public works by encouraging growth in the private sector, thus limiting the need to increase taxes.

    The formula was a political success in boom times, faltered after the dot-com bust of 2000, and was further hobbled by the most recent recession, when Mr. McCrory's Democratic predecessor, Beverly Perdue, struggled to find a politically palatable way to raise enough taxes to finance spending for education and public services.

    She declined to run in 2012, clearing the way for the election of Mr. McCrory, a former mayor of Charlotte.

    The recession, meanwhile, was particularly rough because the textile and tobacco industries here were already losing steam, and the state’s banking industry was directly tied to the fate of the calamitous national housing sector. The state unemployment rate remained above 10 percent from March 2009 to October 2011.

    Monitoring a Shift

    John Hood, the president and chairman of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative group, has said that the recession laid bare the “fanciful image” that some state leaders had painted over the years.

    Mr. Hood argues that North Carolina exceptionalism has not delivered “exceptional results.”

    “South Carolina doesn’t have a prestigious university like Chapel Hill,” he said, “but their growth has been about the same as ours.”

    He added, “The voters saw something wasn’t working.”

    In 2010 and again in 2012, many voters sided with Republican candidates who agreed with Mr. Hood’s contention that previous politicians had burdened the state with an uncompetitive tax structure, an excess of regulation and a flawed education plan. But devising a new education formula has proved particularly controversial, even among Republicans. Finding the money to fund the teacher raises after the passage of generous tax cuts kept lawmakers, including Mr. Tillis, stuck in the capital weeks beyond their deadline as they tried to compromise.

    Senator Kay Hagan, a Democrat, top, at a rally in Greensboro, N.C., is in a tight race that could decide control of the United States Senate. She will face Mr. Tillis, the state House speaker, a Republican, bottom, at Vick Family Farms in Wilson. Credit Travis Dove for The New York Times

    Ms. Hagan is hoping that the lingering anger over the legislature’s actions will carry her to victory in November. Lawmakers adjourned on Aug. 20, and Moral Monday leaders, after a “Week of Moral Action” protests in August, have pledged that their volunteers would be working to register voters statewide until Election Day.

    In the liberal havens of Durham and Chapel Hill, a number of voters said they were eager to support Ms. Hagan as a means of protesting the Republicans’ agenda.

    “It’s terrifying,” Nicole Cochran, 33, a speech therapist, said at the Whole Foods supermarket in Durham. “There’s a lot of anger. I think there’s disbelief, almost, over how radical it is.”

    Ms. Cochran said that many of her clients were autistic children whose therapy sessions were funded by Medicaid, the management of which Republicans plan to overhaul.

    She also hoped to send her 4-year-old through the public school system. “And they keep messing with the funding for that,” she said.

    African-American voter turnout will also be crucial to Ms. Hagan’s chances. No one is expecting the intense surge of black turnout that sealed Mr. Obama’s victory here in 2008. Before that election, more than 300,000 African-Americans registered, and turnout among registered blacks was 72 percent, surpassing white turnout, according to Democracy North Carolina, a Durham-based nonprofit.

    Some black voters may find it harder to get to the polls in November under the new voter law, which, among other things, cut back early voting by a week; eliminated a provision that allowed citizens to register and vote on the same day; and prevented the counting of ballots lodged by voters outside of their home precincts.

    The United States Justice Department, the state N.A.A.C.P. and other civil rights groups recently sought, and failed, to block the law in court. The case is currently on appeal.

    In Fayetteville, a city of 204,000 that is 41 percent black, the Democrats’ challenge is evident. A number of black voters said that state politics were not on their radar.

    Continue reading the main story Slide ShowSLIDE SHOW|7 Photos

    State in Play: North Carolina

    State in Play: North Carolina

    CreditLuke Sharrett for The New York Times

    The Rev. Corey Little, the pastor at the Evans Metropolitan A.M.E. Zion Church, said that his was an older flock with a number of teachers and civil rights veterans in its ranks. Many were motivated to vote for Ms. Hagan in protest of the Republican agenda, but he said the energy in this race was just not the same as in presidential election years. And the new voter law, he said, would probably cause a “slight deficit” in turnout in November.

    Both Ms. Hagan and Mr. Tillis are making their pitches not only to their bases, but to voters in the moderate middle as well. At a training session, Hagan campaign volunteers were instructed to tell potential voters that Ms. Hagan, 61, supported “common-sense bipartisan solutions.” That same week, Mr. Tillis’s wife, Susan, visited five cities to speak exclusively to women. Liz Capitano, the headquarters chairwoman of the Charlotte-based Mecklenburg County Republican Party, said that the tour was an effort to show that women care about “a lot more than babies, abortion and birth control.”

    Mr. Tillis, 54, a former management consultant, will have a considerable conservative base of supporters to rely on, and much of his message has been reminding them of Ms. Hagan’s support for the president and his health care law.

    The small-government message resonates in Siler City. Mr. Kernodle, the hardware store owner, said that the area was rife with able-bodied people living on government assistance, while he was struggling to pay taxes that still seemed too high, despite the recent tax cuts.

    The new North Carolina Republicans of 2014 are less likely to rely on the raw racial politics once exhibited by Mr. Helms. But race still reverberates. On recent afternoon at Gander Mountain Firearms Super Center, a sporting goods store in Mr. Helms’s hometown, Monroe, Greg Rushing said he was worried about the fallout after the shooting of a black teenager in Ferguson, Mo.

    “I believe you’re going to see some kind of civil revolution between the blacks and the whites,” said Mr. Rushing, 67.

    But Mr. Rushing, who works in the commercial construction business, and a number of other voters in the store said that their support for Republicans had much to do with keeping taxes low, and hoping that government could get out of the way of a frustratingly sluggish recovery.

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    PLAY VIDEO 0:42
    Jon Spoon, Potter

    Jon Spoon is a potter who runs an arts incubator in Siler City, N.C.

    Video CreditBy Luke Sharrett on Publish DateSeptember 22, 2014.

    Back in Siler City, Jon Spoon, a native North Carolina potter and supporter of Ms. Hagan, said that he hoped that demographics would eventually break in favor of the liberal camp.


    “The university infrastructure we have and the higher tech industries we’re courting are going to continue to pour in,” while the old-school attitudes were dying off, he said.

    In the meantime, he said, it was best, in a place like Siler City, to eschew talking politics and stick to small-town pleasantries.

    “You don’t want to burn bridges, because it’s a small town,” he said, “and you don’t have many bridges in the first place.”

    Last edited by imblest; 09-23-2014 at 03:26 AM.

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