Opinion

North Carolina, Explained

After decisive primary, it's still a battleground, and the state likes it that way

Attendees watch a video before Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton takes the stage at a campaign event at Hillside High School in Durham, N.C., on March 10, before the March 15 North Carolina primary. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

New South and Old South. Cosmopolitan and rural. The coast, the mountains and the Research Triangle. Republican and Democratic.  

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.  

Yes, both candidates won North Carolina convincingly in Tuesday’s primary, leaving observers to wonder what exactly is going to happen in November? North Carolinians do this on purpose. They’ve gotten a taste of that spotlight, of candidate visits – at schools, polling places, maybe the front door – and they aren’t eager to give it up.  

North Carolina is a true battleground state. In the presidential race, it went by a hair for President Barack Obama in 2008 and backed Mitt Romney in 2012, but by a margin slim enough to give complacent Republicans heartburn. It may share a border and part of a name with South Carolina, but not the certainty of what to expect in a presidential election year.  

An overwhelmingly Republican state legislature that became entrenched in mid-terms is itself an election issue for an increasingly diverse electorate. It has enacted conservative laws on everything from voting limits to officials being able to opt out of conducting same-sex marriages based on religious beliefs. Several times lawmakers have overridden the veto of GOP Gov. Pat McCrory, who is more follower than leader -- though he correctly saw that passing the opt-out provision would land the state back in court.  

Motivated voters turned out though, despite being confronted with a confusing reality of redrawn district lines, new voting rules and deferred congressional primaries -- courtesy of a court taking issue with gerrymandering it said relied too heavily on race. A local elections official told The New York Times he wasn’t quite sure what to tell citizens except that he was doing his best.  

McCrory, who is both too conservative and not conservative enough for the state’s fickle voters, finds himself locked in a tough re-election race with Democratic state Attorney General Roy Cooper, who has been criticized as too liberal or not liberal enough by more progressive voters. It promises to be one of the most closely watched gubernatorial contests in the country, defying yet again those who have tried to paint North Carolina red or blue.  

The divisions often cross party lines, pitting cities against more rural areas, which may explain efforts to turn control of Charlotte’s airport over to a regional commission or why the state is meddling in the Greensboro City Council. When Charlotte’s city council, with the support of Democratic Mayor Jennifer Roberts, recently passed an LGBT non-discrimination ordinance with a provision that allows transgender residents to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify, the folks in the Raleigh vowed to intervene.  

Living much of the time in North Carolina, I see that, just like America, it’s changing. It’s not a mix of black-and-white, barbecue and NASCAR. (Indeed, NASCAR is complicated, as chairman and CEO Brian France discovered when his personal endorsement of Trump caused backlash from some sponsors and fans, and he had to explain.)  

When the spotlight turned to Charlotte during the 2012 Democratic National Convention, visitors who parachuted in from all over were often surprised at many things in a city led by a young African-American mayor, Anthony Foxx, now President Obama’s secretary of transportation, and an event coordinated by the police chief, also African-American. Museums and cultural centers dotted the city center.  

One of them, the Levine Museum of the New South , is now featuring ¡NUEVOlution! Latinos and the New South, a bilingual, interactive exhibit. Did you know that in North Carolina, “more than two dozen small and mid-sized municipalities are now over 20 percent Latino?"  

The candidates, in particular Donald Trump and his "wall," could learn other surprising facts about the state when they come back for a visit. And North Carolinians needn’t worry. Before November, the candidates left standing will be back to this battleground.  

Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK, who has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, Politics Daily and as a contributor to The Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for The OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter

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