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By Chris Opfer
Aug. 4 — The debate over gender-assigned bathrooms is dominating races up and down the ballot in North Carolina, but Democrats are also expected to focus on the minimum wage in contests that could help determine control of the White House, Senate and governor's mansion.
“I think North Carolina really is the most competitive state in the country this year, and the minimum wage issue is really a microcosm of the national race,” Public Policy Polling's director, Tom Jensen, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 4. “It’s a good issue for Democrats because almost everybody is on board with some sort of increase.”
North Carolina has become an increasingly purple state, with the presidential race and governor and Senate contests likely to be decided by narrow margins. GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has taken a variety of positions on where to set the federal pay floor, while Republican incumbents Gov. Pat McCrory and Sen. Richard Burr generally oppose an increase.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, as well as gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper and Senate hopeful Deborah Ross, both also Democrats, support some sort of wage hike. They're expected to try to use the issue to highlight differences with their opponents.
Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of North Carolina voters said in a June PPP poll that they support raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour from $7.25.
The North Carolina races are likely to feature many of the same issues in play across the country, including debates over national security, economics, education, tax policy and criminal justice.
Voters in the Tar Heel State also find themselves embroiled in an ongoing dispute over the public bathroom law ( H.B. 2). The controversial measure requiring people in public buildings to use restrooms associated with their gender at birth has become a cultural flashpoint.
Republican state legislators have defended the law in part as a way to protect both children and traditional family values. But North Carolina State University politics professor Steven Greene told Bloomberg BNA that the fallout from the measure is likely to hurt McCrory’s appeal as a pro-business moderate.
“North Carolina Republicans have created a very conservative brand for themselves, one that’s likely to turn off moderates and independents,” Greene said Aug. 4. “If Democrats are smart, they’re just going to hammer home the consequences of this law and how it’s going to affect business activity.”
The law has drawn criticism from businesses such as PayPal, which said it would scrap plans to build an operations center in Charlotte. The National Basketball Association also said it would move next year's all-star game out of Charlotte over opposition to the law.
McCrory, who signed the measure into law in March, has called the bathroom restriction a “common sense” move.
Cooper, the state attorney general, has said he won't defend North Carolina against a Justice Department lawsuit over the bathroom law. The DOJ and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have also issued guidance indicating that schools and employers that block transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice violate federal law.
“The issue of gender identity and expression in regards to access to bathrooms, locker rooms and changing facilities is a national issue that will be settled in the courts, in response to North Carolina and 21 other states challenging the federal overreach by the Obama administration,” McCrory said July 18, shortly after signing a measure to amend a part of the law involving wrongful discharge lawsuits by public workers.
Green and the PPP’s Jensen said they both expect the bathroom law to play a big role in the outcome in North Carolina in the races for president, governor and the Senate. Those contests are already expected to be decided by a razor-thin margin.
North Carolina was home to the second-closest presidential decision in 2008, when voters favored then-Sen. Barack Obama over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by about 2 percentage points. It featured the second-closest race again four years later, when challenger Mitt Romney bested Obama by about the same margin.
This time around, Trump and Clinton each had 43 percent of the vote in the June PPP poll. McCrory and Cooper are also deadlocked, according to the PPP.
Burr holds a slim 3-point lead over challenger Ross in the Senate race, but is considered one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents nationwide. The race is one of a handful of contests that could determine control of the chamber.
Democrats need to pick up five seats to win a majority in the Senate. They're only defending 10 seats in the chamber, while 24 seats currently held by Republicans are in play.
When they're not hitting their opponents hard over the bathroom law, the Democratic candidates are expected to focus on minimum wage proposals to draw a distinction for voters.
“Folks in North Carolina work hard and they need to be able to earn more and keep more of what they make,” Ross spokesman Cole Leiter told Bloomberg BNA via e-mail Aug. 4. “That's why Deborah worked to raise the minimum wage when she was in the State House and that's why as a U.S. Senator she will work to incrementally raise it again.”
North Carolina is one of 15 states whose minimum wage rate mirrors the federal pay floor. Another eight states have set minimum pay requirements below that level or don’t have minimum wage laws on the books at all.
The Tar Heel State also recently joined a wave of states to bar cities and other localities from enacting workplace protections that go beyond those already in place. The bathroom law includes a separate provision prohibiting municipalities from establishing a minimum wage higher than the state level.
Leiter said Ross would like to see the federal minimum wage increased to $12 an hour, while a spokesperson for Cooper said the gubernatorial candidate backs an increase generally. Clinton has said the federal wage floor should be set at $12 and that she supports state and local efforts to go even higher.
Trump, meanwhile, has taken a variety of seemingly inconsistent positions on the issue during his run for the White House. That includes saying at separate times that the minimum wage rate should be frozen, increased or abolished altogether.
Republicans opposing wage hikes often say that federal proposals don't account for regional cost-of-living differences. They also fear that too much of an increase will drive up payroll costs, especially for small businesses, and force employers to cut jobs.
Spokespeople for McCrory and Burr didn't immediately respond to Bloomberg BNA's request for comment. Eileen Braden, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's vice president for political affairs, told Bloomberg BNA the Chamber is backing Burr because he supports policies that are good for business.
“We appreciate his record of fighting to get government out of the way and support of economic freedom,” Braden told Bloomberg BNA via e-mail Aug. 4.
McCrory signed the bill barring municipalities from setting higher wage floors. Burr in 2014 voted against legislation that would have raised the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.
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