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Perspective | Autumn sun rises above the two states of North Carolina

On the morning after all the votes had been cast, a bright sun shone through the trees onto a cool autumn landscape in North Carolina, a state that once again displayed its complex, confounding, and competitive politics. An outpouring of nearly 5.5 million voters had divided themselves into Republican red and Democratic blue coalitions in roughly equal measure.

Dawn broke with the national news media still listing North Carolina as too close to call in the presidential election, with Republican Donald Trump clinging to a 1.4 percentage point lead over Democrat Joe Biden. Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper won a second term with a 4.4 percentage point lead over Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest.

An extraordinary series of visits to North Carolina by the president — 14 in 2020 by one count — as well as by his family and Vice President Mike Pence paid off not only for Trump but also for several Republican candidates for Council of State and Supreme Court. Republicans retained control in the state House and Senate, but did not regain a veto-proof majority.

Thus, when the newly elected and re-elected officeholders begin their terms in early 2021, North Carolina will have anew a politically divided state government at a moment of immense challenges. The coronavirus has not subsided; fraught decisions await on assembling students into in-class schooling; economic travails portend revenue shortfalls even as the state faces a court order to remedy shortcomings in preK-12 education.

In public education governance, North Carolina has multi-layers of overlapping power centers: a governor looked to for leadership and agenda-setting; a legislature and its committees with lawmaking and budget writing authority; a State Board of Education for adopting guiding policies for local school districts with their own elected boards; an elected Superintendent of Public Instruction who leads the education department in implementing school laws and policies.

The election results have thrown an overlay of the state’s political polarization onto this governance structure. Once again, the Democratic governor will face the Republican legislative leadership whose budget he vetoed over such issues as Medicaid and teacher salaries. Catherine Truitt, the state superintendent-elect, previously served as the education adviser to former Gov. Pat McCrory, whom Cooper defeated four years ago. The superintendent will join the newly elected Republican lieutenant governor and incumbent Republican treasurer on the state board.

At the outset of a new cycle of government, there is always a yearning that responsible, mature politicians can work through their differences to find solutions to difficult problems. Hope springs eternal. And yet, a political reality check cautions against underestimating the potential for clashes over issues and stalemate ahead.

The two exit polls published on the websites of The New York Times and CNN, which also contains North Carolina findings, depict national and state electorates heavily weighted with straight-ticket voters. In North Carolina, Democrats ran stronger among voters under 40 years old; Republicans among older voters. Biden won 57% of the voters with college degrees; Trump won 77% of the white men and women with no college degree.

Cooper won 97% of the Democratic vote, Forest 92% of Republicans. Cooper’s 53-41 margin among independents and his winning an 8% sliver of Republicans help explain his ability to withstand the GOP’s statewide run.

Of the more than 4,000 North Carolina respondents to the exit poll, 21% identified racial inequality as an important issue, 14% coronavirus, 36% the economy, 11% crime and safety, and 12% health care. Among voters who cited crime and the economy, both Trump and Forest won roughly eight out of 10. Biden and Cooper won nine out of 10 voters concerned with racial inequality, eight out of 10 concerned with the virus and two-thirds of those who cited health care.

Such exit poll findings provide a reality check for North Carolina. Elected politicians have their ideas, ambitions, and rivalries, but they also act with their own constituencies in mind. In today’s North Carolina, voters arrayed into red and blue cohorts produced a divided state government in which slender majorities make a big difference.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.