ASHEVILLE, NC — After one of the most raucous and ugliest campaign seasons in recent memory, voters on Tuesday may be tempted to stab holes in their paper ballots instead of calmly filling in the little ovals next to their preferred candidates’ names.
However you cast your ballot — it probably won’t count if you punch holes in it — here is a look at what the candidates in North Carolina’s gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races have been arguing about and what Tuesday’s results might mean for the rest of us.
See Also: North Carolina Voter’s Guide
The candidates had plenty of disagreements before HB2 came along. Then passage of the law in March to regulate who uses which restroom in public buildings and keep local governments from banning discrimination against LGBT people added still more intensity to what was already one of the nation’s most closely watched gubernatorial contests.
Attorney General Roy Cooper, the Democratic nominee, says he would make public schools a priority, stop tax changes he says have hurt middle class and low-income residents and keep reasonable environmental rules in place.
He has noted complaints about a lack of money for classroom supplies, the state’s low ranking for teacher pay and other moves seen as hostile to public schools during the tenure of his Republican opponent, Gov. Pat McCrory.
“I’ve never seen the morale this low among our teachers, principals, educators who serve the public across our state,” he said during an April speech here. Cooper said he wants to see teacher pay raised to the national average.
In 2014-15, average teacher pay in the state was $47,792, 42nd in the nation. A progressive group says preliminary state data indicate the average so far this school year is $49,744, a little less than the $50,000 McCrory had projected.
Changes in the state tax code that McCrory signed off on have mostly benefited the wealthy, Cooper says. He says growth in the state’s economy mostly reflects the improving economy nationwide and many people have yet to see a real change in their situation.
Under McCrory, the state shifted some of the tax burden from the income tax to sales taxes, adding services like auto repair to the list of things subject to taxation. Higher income tax rates for the wealthy were eliminated, but all taxpayers saw lower rates.
Cooper says McCrory has not been tough enough on Duke Energy after its 2014 Dan River coal ash spill and, when he visits the mountains, reminds audiences of the lawsuit his Department of Justice brought in 2006 to force Tennessee Valley Authority to reduce emissions from coal burning power plants that polluted air in Western North Carolina.
McCrory said he took over a state with an economy at low ebb and a state government that wasn’t working well.
He likes to tell the story of noticing fountains on the grounds of the state Capitol were not working around the time of his January 2013 inauguration. He had them fixed.
He also eliminated a $2.6 billion debt owed by the state’s unemployment insurance system, won passage of a $2 billion bond issue to improve state facilities and advanced an effort to reduce the impact of politics on decisions on road construction and other transportation issues.
Changes to the tax code, McCrory said in October, were “level-headed tax reform” that reduced North Carolina’s dependence on the income tax and made it more competitive with other southeastern states for new businesses. He says his policies played a big role in improvements in the state’s economy that saw the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate fall from 8.8 percent for the month McCrory took office to 4.7 percent in September.
McCrory notes significant pay raises for teachers approved in each of the past two state budgets. He says because his administration’s policies are helping grow the economy and producing budget surpluses, “We will be able to make the necessary investments in our education system to help our kids succeed.”
McCrory says coal ash issues were neglected when Democrats were in power and laws passed since the Duke spill are forcing cleanups where needed. He says Cooper has failed to fix problems with the state crime lab. Cooper disagrees.
Then there’s HB2.
The law “writes discrimination into our law and it is wrong, period,” Cooper says, adding that it is a significant handicap when the state is recruiting businesses or events like NCAA basketball tournament games.
McCrory says he and the General Assembly were only responding to a Charlotte ordinance when they passed the law and the courts will ultimately sort out the issue.
“The left brought this issue up, not the right,” he said in a recent debate.
Impact: The race’s outcome will be seen nationally as a referendum on HB2 and will affect government officials’ decisions on similar issues around the country. It will also affect how the rest of the nation views North Carolina.
But a governor has a lot more to do than defend or attack HB2. State government has taken a more conservative tack on a number of issues since Republicans gained control of Raleigh in 2013. Most prognosticators think the GOP will keep majorities in the state House and Senate regardless of who wins the gubernatorial race.
A McCrory victory would allow the move to the right to continue and would be seen as a vote of confidence in the direction already taken. It would also keep state government in Republican hands for another four years.
Cooper might have limited ability to block significant Republican initiatives from the General Assembly if he’s elected, depending on whether Democrats pick up enough legislative seats to allow them to uphold a Cooper veto. Either way, the prominence of the governor’s job would allow him to give the legislature some resistance and possibly push through some of his plans.
For much of this year, the race between Republican incumbent Richard Burr and Democratic nominee Deborah Ross stayed in the background while spotlights focused on the governor’s race and the contest over North Carolina’s 15 Electoral College votes for president.
Burr, who is nearing the end of his second term in the Senate, has had a lower profile in office than some senators. Pundits initially gave Ross little chance of unseating him. Recent polls, however, say it’s a real contest and North Carolinians and others are paying attention.
The race has featured a heavy dose of accusations by the campaigns against the opposition and wandered into areas like the presidential contest and HB2.
Ross, an attorney and former state legislator from Raleigh, has criticized Burr for a large increase in his personal wealth since he was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1994 and for being one of only three senators to vote against a bill to make it illegal for senators and House members to make stock trades based on inside information they get through their jobs.
Burr responds that his wife’s successful real estate business is responsible for most of the increase and says the conduct the stock trading bill was aimed at was already illegal, making the bill redundant.
Burr says Ross opposed a bill in the General Assembly to establish a sex offender registry and her record as past head of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union shows she is too liberal for North Carolina.
Ross calls the accusation “politics” and said during a debate between the two she “voted 18 times to strengthen and update the sex offender registry.” The sponsor of the bill to set up the registry has recorded a TV ad rejecting Burr’s charges.
The candidates are divided on a high-profile issue likely to come before Congress next year, what to do about rising premiums for health insurance plans purchased through the Affordable Care Act.
Burr voted against the ACA and has since voted to repeal it. He has offered a plan that would do away with the requirement that individuals get health insurance and provide tax credits to some low-income people who do buy it.
“Government-run health care is already here and it’s called Obamacare,” he said during a debate.
Ross said she would have voted in favor of the ACA. “The Affordable Care Act clearly needs to be fixed, but it is much better than what we had before,” she said. “We simply can’t go backward.”
Comments Burr made about Hillary Clinton and the Supreme Court during a secretly recorded Oct. 29 meeting with supporters have been a big focus during the last few days of the campaign.
Burr said early this year that the next president should fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, not outgoing President Barack Obama. But he said in the meeting that, “If Hillary Clinton becomes president, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that four years from now we’ve still got an opening on the Supreme Court.”
Burr later softened his stance. His campaign released a statement Tuesday in which Burr said, “I will assess the record of any Supreme Court nominee, but clearly Hillary Clinton has a long history of backing liberal judges.”
He also joked Oct. 29 that when he saw a photo of Clinton on the cover of the National Rifle Association magazine, “I was a little bit shocked that it didn’t have a bull’s-eye on it.” He apologized Monday, calling the comment “inappropriate.”
Ross responded that Burr “is putting politics ahead of his duty and ahead of the Constitution,” which says presidents will appoint Supreme Court justices with the “advice and consent” of the Senate. “He’s applying for a job by saying he’s not going to do his job,” she said.
She also criticized Burr’s “bulls-eye” comment, saying, “We should be able to have a civil discussion, and a civil society, and a civil election without talking about violence.”
Impact: The Burr-Ross race is one of a handful that will determine which political party will control the Senate for 2017 and 2018. That will have repercussions on the process of filling vacancies on the Supreme Court — some of the sitting justices are getting a bit long in the tooth — and confirming the new president’s picks for other jobs.
Burr is one of three Republican senators to raise the possibility of blocking a Clinton nominee to the Supreme Court. Regardless of what happens to the party balance in the Senate, a Burr victory could encourage other Republican senators to dig in their heels on the issue. A Burr loss might make them more pliable.
Republicans are almost universally expected to retain control of the U.S. House. A Democrat-controlled Senate would give a President Clinton much more leverage in the legislative process even though she would not have a free hand. A Republican Senate would give the GOP considerably more power to block Clinton’s agenda.
A President Trump would be much more free to enact his proposals on trade, taxes, immigration and other issues if Republicans rule both houses of Congress. A Democratic Senate would be the biggest check on Trump’s power.