North Carolina shows GOP split extends to states, too

Republican factionalism is now playing out in states where LGBT rights vs. religious liberty is the new flashpoint.

(AP Photos/Skip Foreman)
Demonstrators protesting passage of legislation limiting bathroom access for transgender people stand in front of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, March 31, 2016. Approximately 100 people gathered for the rally, many chanting and carrying signs.

In North Carolina, a bakery, a Christian bookstore, and a packaging company have put their names on a letter of support for a new law that bars transgender people from any bathroom where the stick figure sign doesn’t match their birth gender.

Threatening to boycott the state over the same law? Google, Apple, and Fox.

For many socially conservative Americans, it’s a little like David vs. Goliath, pitting the giants of commerce against the will of the regular people – or at least their representatives.

Yet after signing the bill late last month, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory faces mounting pressure to tweak or repeal the law – or face a blow to the state’s economy. Proponents say a majority of North Carolinians don’t care; they say allowing transgender people to choose which bathroom they want to use “defies common sense,” as Governor McCrory put it.

The new law stands as a major victory for Evangelicals and social conservatives in the wake of the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage last summer. It shows how, in the words of Jane Robbins of the American Principles Project, matters of faith can thwart “corporate bullies” demanding that Christians set aside fundamental values in the name of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights.

But longer-term, political scientists say, the pressure cooker in North Carolina suggests that national fractures within the GOP are not limited to the presidential race or within Congress. They are increasingly playing out in states, too, where the party seems at war with itself over matters of faith and business, of trade and entitlements. The quandary for Republicans is to what degree such fundamental disagreements are irreconcilable.

“The factionalism within the Republican party that we are seeing in national politics is beginning to play out within some states,” says Richard Fording, chair of the political science department at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa.

The state flash points are quickly mounting: 

  • On Monday, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R), who is not facing reelection, vetoed a religious liberty bill, saying his state did not need to “discriminate” against anyone. While the veto reassured those sensitive to LGBT rights, it alienated much of Governor Deal’s evangelical base, shaking his working relationship with Republican lawmakers.
  • South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, also a Republican, recently vetoed a bill requiring schools to enforce a “gender-at-birth-only” bathroom rule.
  • Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has slowed the movement of a bill very similar to the one in North Carolina. Governor Haslam is a firmly pro-business Republican.
  • This coming week, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant will decide whether to sign a new religious liberty bill. It's been described as the most radical religious freedom bill in the country, protecting from government sanctions anyone who refuses to serve LGBT people on the basis of religious beliefs. Gov. Bryant has said he sees no discriminatory intent.

In these cases, last year’s Supreme Court decision is playing a role, unleashing deeply held passions.

But the internecine statehouse battles also highlight other divides exposed by the candidacy of Donald Trump, whose attacks on banks and trade deals run contrary to long time pro-business, low-tax orthodoxy within the Republican Party.

Citing factional warfare on issues ranging from trade, foreign policy, entitlements and social issues, “the legislative battles … in state capitals across the country underscore the unusual level of disarray in a party that traditionally strives for order,” writes James Hohmann in The Washington Post.

North Carolina has emerged as a key battleground of ideas. After a list of boycott threats have grown and states and cities have begun issuing travel bans to North Carolina, McCrory faces a fundamental decision. He faces reelection this year and his opponent, Roy Cooper, is a Democrat who has called the law a “national embarrassment.” As another sign of how sensitive the issue is, the usually loquacious state Chamber of Commerce has remained mum.

The stakes are high. Google's investment chief has asked his employees to flag any venture capital ideas out of North Carolina. The state may even lose federal highway funding since the law contradicts federal guidelines.

On the other side, the success in passing a transgender bathroom bill in North Carolina has if anything emboldened social conservatives, including important voters that McCrory needs to win reelection. 

It also comes as a group called First Liberty documented what it says are a spike in attacks on religious liberty at schools, in courts, in the public square, and in churches themselves.

Moves by social conservatives mainly in the South to push back against LGBT rights "is what the LGBT political machine has wrought ... they have to own up to that reality," William Perkins, editor of the Baptist Record in Mississippi, told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger this week. 

Part of the looming problem for the party is that conservatives may be running out of room for compromise between the factions that Ronald Reagan famously called a “three-legged stool”: religious conservatives, national security conservatives, and economic conservatives.

In Georgia, lawmakers agreed to water down a more strongly-worded bill to exclude businesses from being allowed to reject gay people. But Deal vetoed it anyway, saying that there is no place in Georgia for discrimination.

That language, wrote conservative commentator Erick Erickson, essentially suggested that compromise on that issue is now off the table.

From the other angle, the focus by statehouse conservatives on curbing LGBT rights runs counter to a major partywide post mortem by Republicans after Mitt Romney lost to a vulnerable President Obama in 2012. One conclusion: Steer the party away from polarizing social issues.

What’s more, corporations, which have grown increasingly willing to take stands on social issues in order to attract values-conscious shoppers, have also been emboldened by the Citizens United ruling, which gave moneyed interests new levers to influence popular opinion.

Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, told The Washington Post that probusiness and social conservatives are talking past each other on the fundamentals at hand, only compounding the disconnect.

His message to Republicans: Stop shouting so you can hear each other talk. The choice between money and morality is a myth. “The faith community needs to be clearer about what its objectives are, and some in the business community need to stop mischaracterizing what the legislation actually does,” he said.

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