RALEIGH — Gov. Pat McCrory just got both good news and bad news about his prospects of defeating his likely Democratic challenger, Attorney General Roy Cooper, in the fall election.
Let’s start with the bad news. While Donald Trump’s delegate harvest over the early March primaries and caucuses fell short of media expectations — because Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mitt Romney, and other Republicans and conservatives finally got their act together and began focusing attention on the frontrunner’s manifest shortcomings on policy issues, general-election prospects, and personal character — Trump still won a plurality of the delegates. He still got closer to the GOP nomination.
If Trump gets that nomination, the most likely outcome in the fall is a disastrous loss to Hillary Clinton and a significant drag on the Republican Party’s ability to elect or re-elect other candidates down the ballot, including McCrory and Sen. Richard Burr.
On the other hand, news events in early March also presented the governor with significant opportunities to make his case to voters. One was the release of gross domestic product data for the most recent period available, the third quarter of 2015. North Carolina ranked first in the Southeast, and 14th in the nation, with an annualized growth rate in inflation-adjusted GDP of 2.8 percent for the quarter, markedly higher than the 1.9 percent rate for the nation as a whole.
That’s just a snapshot of a single quarter, admittedly. But the longer-term trend is also impressive for North Carolina. If you start the analysis in mid-2013, when McCrory’s first budget, tax reform, and other signature programs were enacted into law, the state’s economy has grown by a compounded annual rate of 3.2 percent — the 12th highest rate in the nation and the second highest in our region, only slightly behind Florida’s 3.3 percent.
I’ll offer some cautions here. It is conceivable that the conservative tax, spending, and regulatory policies McCrory and the General Assembly have pursued since 2013 are not the reason why North Carolina is outperforming most of its economic competitors. Furthermore, to say the state is beating the regional and national averages on measures such as GDP, job creation, and income growth, which it is, is not to say that all our economic problems are over.
Nevertheless, liberal predictions back in 2013 that the enactment of McCrory’s economic policies would produce gloom and doom have proven to be mistaken. You can be sure that if North Carolina were lagging behind, we’d be hearing about it all the time from the usual liberal suspects. Before reading this column, had you heard about North Carolina’s latest good news on economic growth?
I thought not. Still, the news blackout isn’t going to work. North Carolinians can see for themselves that the state’s economy is on the upswing. High Point University’s recent polls document the trend. Its Index of Consumer Sentiment reached 89.7 in February, up from 70.4 in September 2013. Rising optimism about North Carolina’s economic prospects helps to explain why McCrory’s approval rating is now 48 percent in the HPU poll, up from 43 percent this time last year and 38 percent in 2014.
Good economic performance isn’t the only piece of good news McCrory has enjoyed of late. The state budget is running a surplus. His administration has announced the initial outlines of a Medicaid reform strategy that all sides seem willing to live with and implement. And after the city of Charlotte enacted a poorly drafted anti-discrimination ordinance that seems to make its bathrooms functionally unisex, Cooper appears more interested in playing Democratic-primary politics than in helping to address the problem.
It’s far too early to predict the governor’s re-election in November. I expect the gubernatorial race to be highly competitive. If McCrory is on the ticket with Donald Trump, it will be like trying to win a footrace with a ball and chain dragging along behind him. It’s doable, particularly if Cooper continues to stumble. But it may well turn out to be an exhausting photo finish.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation.