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Crystal ball for the year ahead

Given the turbulence of the politics in 2017 in North Carolina, The Sylva Herald thought it would be appropriate to turn to Chris Cooper, professor and head of the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University, for his thoughts on what lies ahead here in 2018, a year that will see all the state’s congressional seats, in addition to all its state legislative seats, up for grabs. Cooper graciously broke out his crystal ball to answer 10 questions from Herald staff.

What are the moving targets in 2018 in North Carolina that voters should pay attention to in 2018?

Two words: Constitutional amendments. The rumor mill around the state indicates that the Republican General Assembly may take some of the more controversial issues directly to the people, in the form of Constitutional Amendments. While they could propose any number of amendments, the most likely seem to be voter ID and judicial elections. And, if the past is any guide, these amendments would have a good chance of passage (about 85 percent of previous amendments have passed). Bringing controversial ideas to the people allows the Republican supermajority to move their agenda forward without facing intense backlash from likely opponents. Simply put, it’s a smart political move.

Pending the outcomes of the previous question, what are the areas of the state that could see a swing to the right or left?

There are 12 counties in North Carolina that I view as bellwether counties—counties that have shown recent trends towards supporting both Republican and Democratic candidates for high office. All but one of these counties are rural (New Hanover being the exception). The battleground in 2018, therefore is much more likely to be in Jackson and Watauga than Mecklenburg or Wake.

November is a long way off, but current conventional wisdom says the Democratic Party has the momentum. Is that true in North Carolina to any degree?

Absolutely. There is clearly a national swing towards the Democrats—we can see that in poll results and in special election results where Democrats have fared very well. Some of that is simply the cyclical nature of politics (the President’s party always takes some hits), but some of it is due to Trump’s anemic approval. And there’s no reason to think that all of this doesn’t apply to the Tar Heel State.

What are the prospects of Democrats retaking the state House or Senate?

Taking back the state House or Senate would be extremely difficult (and that’s probably an understatement). Even if we see some movement in the courts on partisan gerrymandering, I haven’t seen any scenario that gives the Democrats a legitimate chance of taking back the majority. If they somehow pull it off, it would be the political equivalent of a #15 seed making it to the Final Four.

What are the prospects of Democrats breaking the filibuster-proof hold on either chamber?

The goal of the Democrats should be to run a candidate in every election (or darn close), and to break the super-majority. The former strategy is important in the long-run as the Democratic party needs to reassert itself as a viable alternative in all types of districts. The latter goal is important as it will allow Roy Cooper to move his agenda forward—right now his power is almost completely symbolic. The bar in the Senate is extremely high (the Democrats currently just control 15 of 50 seats), but the potential for beneficial redistricting combined with a national Democratic wave may give some hope in the House to break the supermajority.

The economy is generally the top issue for voters. Does that appear to be holding true this year?

Bill Clinton liked to quip, “it’s the economy, stupid.” And that remains true today, although the mechanism may be slightly different than it used to be. Rather than the key being raw economic numbers, it tends to be people’s perceptions of the economy—and in today’s information environment, those two do not always jibe.

Is the relative decimation of the state’s Raleigh press corps having any impact on this year’s election?

It will have an impact in important ways — and in ways that I don’t think necessarily benefit either party. Whether voters like to admit it or not, we all depend on journalists in Raleigh to translate state news for us. Information is the currency of politics and there are fewer people proving this currency than in any time in our state’s history. While this is a national problem, the effects may be greatest in a state like North Carolina—a state that is growing rapidly and undergoing some serious growing pains. The two trends in American politics that give me the gravest concern for the future are the staggering levels of political polarization, and the decline of a robust press corps covering state politics.

What are the “Black Swan’’ issues that could impact the election, either to the left or right?

The potential resolution of the redistricting decisions clearly provides one such issue. If the Court sides with the plaintiffs in the Wisconsin redistricting case, it will have ramifications across the country, including in North Carolina, where the standard being litigated would immediately deem our districts unconstitutional. We can’t know what the resulting districts would look like, but they would have to change—and any change would almost certainly benefit the Democrats. I also think that the national conversation about sexual harassment and sexual discrimination has not moved to the state legislative level yet—and when it does (and I do think it’s a when, not an if), there’s no telling who will have to reckon with their behavior and who might quickly become a political liability.

As Governor, Roy Cooper is the state’s most recognizable Democratic leader. Who in your view is the face of the GOP in North Carolina?

The Republicans are fortunate that they have built a strong enough party that they don’t rely on one leader. Speaker Tim Moore and president pro-tem Phil Berger certainly hold the formal leadership positions in the legislature, but neither has cultivated a statewide presence in the way that former speaker (and current U.S. Senator) Thom Tillis did. Western North Carolina’s Tom Apodoca certainly yields tremendous power for the Republicans in the lobbying corps, and Dallas Woodhouse draws a great deal of attention (and some ire) as head of the party in the state. As powerful as these men are, however, none singlehandedly drives the state’s attention. Regardless of your opinion of the Republican party’s policy stances, this sort of distribution of power is a sign of a healthy party.

How tightly are Republican fortunes in North Carolina tied to Donald Trump?

There is no doubt that any president—particularly this one—leaves a wide wake. When the president is popular, he helps his down ballot candidates with his coattails, and when he’s not, the reverse happens. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Donald Trump is a singularly unpopular president, and this lack of popularity extends to the Tar Heel State. The Republicans in North Carolina are in an awkward position—they certainly can’t attack the president as the vast majority of their voters voted for Trump, but at the same time, they may not want to jump on his coattails for fear they get tossed off. The best chance for Republican candidates is for Trump’s approval to improve slightly and him not to take too active a role in the campaign.

Chris Cooper, professor and head of the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University, provides expert commentary on matters involving politics and political science in (and beyond) North Carolina. Cooper’s research focuses on state politics and policy, political communication, political psychology and Southern politics. He was named the 2013 “Professor of the Year” in North Carolina by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. That year, he also was honored as one of the top professors in the University of North Carolina system by its Board of Governors.

Originally published in The Sylva Herald

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