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October 23, 2021

Alexander Jones: Bob Orr, Pat McCrory and the strange death of moderate Republicanism

By Alexander Jones

When they entered the voting booth for the 2008 gubernatorial primary, Republicans had two moderate choices.

One, a longtime fixture of GOP circles, was former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr of Yancey County. Preceding him alphabetically was Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a champion of public transit and green space who had won seven terms in a city steadily moving left. These two men represented the historic geographical base of centrist conservatism – Orr from the Mountains, McCrory from Mecklenburg County – and provided two solid options for voters seeking a nominee from the center.

A decade and change has passed, and everything is different. Bob Orr has officially left the Republican Party. After a disastrous gubernatorial term stretching from 2013 to midnight vengeance against his Democratic successor, McCrory has left his moderation so far in the past that it is essentially irrelevant. In place of the modernizing New South executive whom the voters had thought they elected, McCrory’s new persona is that of an opportunist desperately trying to regain the favor of the Trump base.

McCrory together with Orr is indicative of a crucial trend in North Carolina politics: the eclipse of the moderate Republican by Tea Party-MAGA radicals. To borrow a phrase from British political letters, this decline in centrism on the Republican side could be called “the strange death of moderate Republicanism.” That’s because political science would predict that faced with stiffer competition, a party would move to the center in order to capture the median voter. North Carolina has become intensely competitive over the last 12 years, but the GOP has only moved right.

Numerous factors play into the decline of Republican centrism. Some are national, others particular to North Carolina. But wherever they originated, these forces have transformed a party that once offered North Carolinians the occasional moderate choice. Because politics is now nationalized, the rise of the Tea Party movement and, after them, the cult of Donald Trump, could only exert influence over Republicans in a purplish red state. Closer to home, Art Pope has spent decades exacting ideological rigor from the party he bankrolls. The right-wing media has created an atmosphere of apocalyptic hysteria on the political right, with North Carolina outposts like Carolina Journal and the Daily Haymaker contributing their share of doomsaying.

Strikingly, the very places where moderate Republicanism was once strongest now elect some of the most radical Republicans in the state. The mountains, long the sole redoubt of Republican politics in a Solid-South Democratic state, have sent Ralph Hise to Raleigh. Hise is perhaps the most aggressive ideologue and partisan in the entire General Assembly (and is followed by corruption allegations that never seem to get resolved). In Charlotte, Dan Bishop proudly holds down the bigot wing of the Republican Party, authoring transphobic legislation and investing in white supremacist social media companies. Radicalizing influences have left no part of the state untouched.

Meanwhile, Bob Orr finds himself alone. He fought heroically against the extreme elements of his party for years, but after Trump’s defeat he’d seen enough, and he bolted the GOP. It is not flattery to say that he represents the best of the old mountain conservatives. And it is not despair, but realism, that makes me doubt whether the Republican Party will ever produce another leader like Bob Orr again.

Alexander H. Jones is a policy analyst with Carolina Forward. He lives in Chapel Hill.

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