The gubernatorial race in North Carolina was close, though not quite as close as originally thought. After weeks of challenges, Gov. Pat McCrory (R) conceded Monday, making him the only incumbent governor who was not reelected in 2016.
McCrory’s unique loss can only be attributed to his opposition to LGBT equality. He lost to Attorney General Roy Cooper (D) by just over 10,000 votes in a year when North Carolina otherwise voted more heavily Republican. Donald Trump (R), who McCrory openly campaigned with, bested Hillary Clinton (D) by about 173,000 votes. Sen. Richard Burr (R) held his seat with 267,000 more votes than challenger Deborah Ross (D). The major thing that differentiated McCrory from the candidates in these other races is that HB2 defined his campaign.
HB2 was the law the North Carolina legislature forced through in just one day back in March that banned cities from protecting LGBT people from discrimination and that specifically bans transgender people from using public facilities that match their gender identities. There was massive outcry and significant economic backlash against the state for passing HB2, with opponents adopting the slogan “#WeAreNotThis” to express their objections.
McCrory adamantly stood by the law all year, doubling down on it during the gubernatorial debates in the weeks before the election. His polling mirrored opposition to the law. After Hurricane Matthew passed through in early October, he got a small bump for his leadership through that crisis, but it immediately disappeared as he resumed defending HB2 and as more businesses abandoned plans to bring jobs and investments to North Carolina.
In the past few weeks, many columnists have argued that the Democrats lost significantly in 2016 because they focused on “identity politics.” Columbia University professor Mark Lilla, perhaps most notoriously, has called for “the end of identity liberalism.” In a recent interview with NPR, he cited “the whole issue of bathrooms and gender” as one that “frightened people.” He accused liberals of “shortsightedness” for prioritizing that issue — i.e. the politics of transgender equality — over others.
As Kerry Eleveld pointed out this weekend at the Daily Kos, that didn’t really happen. One of the only times Clinton mentioned bathrooms, for example, was when she was campaigning in North Carolina and decrying McCrory and the legislature for passing HB2. Though trans equality has certainly been a prominent topic throughout the year, it wasn’t one that permeated the election — except in North Carolina.
And there really is no other explanation for McCrory’s loss. HB2 has defined North Carolina since its passage, with even some countries warning against LGBT people traveling there because of it. Those decrying identity politics can’t simply make an exception for it; it blatantly contradicts their narrative.
For that reason, it offers some important lessons about how identity politics can be more successful. One distinct component of the HB2 debate has been the level of solidarity against it. The fact that massive companies and sports organizations punished the state for passing it created an opportunity for people to rally together to protect their state. Discriminating against transgender people became synonymous with negative outcomes for all of North Carolina; if transgender people are forced to suffer, the entire state would be forced to suffer.
What this meant was that the narrative largely avoided an “us vs. them” mentality. It couldn’t be argued that Cooper or anyone else opposing HB2 was trying to prioritize transgender people over other groups. Opposing HB2 was about standing up for transgender people and the welfare of the state; the two were linked.
Cooper’s win doesn’t automatically overturn HB2, nor would overturning HB2 automatically solve all the forms of discrimination transgender people experience. But this one progressive victory lends significant credence to the kind of Jesse Jackson-inspired Rainbow Coalition that people like Slate’s Jamelle Bouie have proposed in the wake of columns like Lilla’s.
Focusing on the experiences of minorities might be off-putting if doing so is framed as prioritizing one group’s needs to the exclusion of others, but that’s not the only way identity politics can function. Indeed, there is a legitimate argument to be made that helping each individual group overcome specific problems helps everyone as a whole improve their standing as well. That could still certainly turn out to be the case in North Carolina.