It’s hard to reduce results of statewide elections to a single issue — but last fall’s North Carolina governor race comes pretty darn close.
Former Gov. Pat McCrory’s handling of House Bill 2 may have weakened his support statewide. But it was the toll lane project on I-77 that put the nail in the Republican’s political coffin.
In case you forgot, construction is already underway on new lanes on I-77 leading from Uptown Charlotte north to the Lake Norman towns of Huntersville, Cornelius and Mooresville. A private company, Cintra, will manage the lanes and charge a variable rate to use them.
When the last vote was counted, current Gov. Roy Cooper won the election by a mere 10,277 votes. For comparison, Donald Trump carried the state by more than 60,000 votes.
In the reliably red Lake Norman area — where the toll lanes will have the greatest impact — McCrory lost about three times as many votes as the final margin.
Anti-toll groups like I-77 Business Plan endorsed Cooper in the hopes that the Democrat would kill the toll project.
The anti-McCrory campaign worked. Lake Norman towns went heavily for McCrory in 2008 and 2012. They turned on him in 2016.
Fast forward eight months and not much has changed with the toll lane project.
Construction continues. And a major report that was expected to outline a menu of options for canceling or amending the I-77 toll lane contract fell a little flat.
The consultant report commissioned by the Cooper administration did not reveal many specific solutions other than canceling the entire project to the tune of nearly $300 million. No cost estimates were offered for intermediate measures, like making some of the new lanes free while leaving others tolled.
In response to a question from the Agenda last week, Cooper said, “What we’ve got to do is make sure we do the best solution for this area and for our state.” He alluded to the consultant report, which had not yet come out, and said his administration would review the report and “go from there.”
It’s unclear what that will mean. The report does not reveal much information that was not already known.
Do Lake Norman voters have buyer’s remorse?
The short answer is no.
The long answer is more nuanced and has substantial implications for Cooper’s re-election prospects.
It’s worth noting that Cooper’s impact is blunted by the supermajority of Republicans on the state legislature. Cooper has not been able to move the state in a direction that Lake Norman-area conservatives disagree with.
That simply leaves the toll issue.
For many people opposed to tolls, their 2016 votes were not so much cast in support of Cooper, but against McCrory.
“It was a vote for representative democracy,” said Kurt Naas, the leader of the anti-toll lane citizen’s group Widen I-77. “McCrory was not representing us. It was more a vote to fire him than in pinning our hopes on Cooper.”
Carole Gibbons, co-founder of Lake Norman Conservatives, agreed. She personally didn’t vote for McCrory or Cooper.
A Public Policy Polling report last week said 41 percent of North Carolina voters believe McCrory should run again. Gibbons said she believes McCrory has lost the area’s support permanently.
Who could benefit from the Lake Norman voting bloc going forward?
But Lake Norman area voters are nowhere close to loyal to Cooper.
“People in this area are mad,” Gibbons said.
Unless there is significant movement on the toll lane contract, the area’s Republican voters are likely to return their vote to the GOP. The most likely beneficiary? Dan Forest.
The lieutenant governor, who won handily in the lake towns, has already expressed opposition to the toll lane contract and laid the groundwork for a 2020 run. Gibbons said she is planning to work on his campaign.
“This is a coiled spring here,” Naas said. “Voters are ready to abandon Cooper if there’s no movement.”