Not since Larry Craig widened his stance has a bathroom caused so much trouble for a politician.
North Carolina’s Republican governor, Pat McCrory, was a good bet for re-election earlier this year. But then he signed HB2 into law in March, eliminating municipal nondiscrimination ordinances and requiring transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender listed on their birth certificates.
Since then, McCrory’s fortunes have been, well, in the toilet.
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Last fall, the conservative group North Carolina Civitas had a poll showing the governor with a favorable rating of 54 percent. But in late April, a month after McCrory signed the bathroom bill, the same group found his favorable rating had dropped to 39 percent. Polling shows McCrory trailing his Democratic opponent, Roy Cooper, by 4 percentage points. And there’s little doubt HB2 is a major cause. A plurality of North Carolinians disapprove of McCrory’s handling of the issue and say it makes them less likely to support him.
The backlash is less about support for transgender rights than an understanding that the controversy has hurt the state’s reputation and finances. High Point University polling in late September found that 6 in 10 describe the bill’s economic impact as “large,” the same proportion who would like the law changed. An Elon University poll last week, confirming other, earlier surveys, found that 56 percent of likely voters want HB2 repealed, vs. 34 percent who would keep it.
Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights organization, puts the law’s cost for North Carolina at nearly half a billion dollars. Whatever the figure, the reaction has been severe: The NBA moved its 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte, while the NCAA and the Atlantic Coast Conference took their championships from the state. PayPal – one of about 200 corporations calling for repeal – canceled plans to bring 400 jobs to Charlotte. Bruce Springsteen, Maroon 5 and others have canceled performances in the state. On Oct. 4, the James Beard Foundation canceled its meeting in the state because of HB2.
Nearly half a century after the Stonewall riots, a defeat of McCrory because of the bathroom bill would be a watershed (or, if you will, a water closet) moment for gay rights. Stigmatizing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans has already lost its potency as a political weapon. But this would be the first case of a prominent official being voted out of office because his anti-gay actions backfired.
Maggie Gallagher, founder of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage, wrote in National Review in August that “the future of religious liberty for traditional religious believers hangs on” McCrory’s re-election. If he loses, she wrote, “the GOP will concede whatever the Left demands on gay rights.”
In a rare convergence, HRC President Chad Griffin agrees. He says the McCrory election “holds the possibility of being a turning point in the political history of our fight for equality.”
The issues of gay marriage and gay rights have been quiet in the 2016 presidential campaign, in large part because Republicans have backed away. Mike Pence, as Indiana governor, signed a “religious freedom” law, and the ensuing outcry over its discriminatory potential caused a backlash similar to North Carolina’s. But there was a crucial difference: Pence quickly retreated, signing legislation to temper the law.
Pence, whose own presidential hopes were dashed by the episode, recovered enough to be chosen as Donald Trump’s running mate. Trump, for his part, has created enough fuzz on the issue to neutralize much of the GOP disadvantage. Though his formal positions are in line with social conservatives’, Trump gave a shout-out to “LGBTQ citizens” in his acceptance speech, and he has said transgender people should use “whatever bathroom they feel is appropriate.”
There’s no realistic prospect of reversing the legalization of same-sex marriage, so opponents are instead pursuing scores of state initiatives restricting gay rights in the name of “religious freedom,” bathroom bills and more.
But while 202 such bills were introduced in 2016, only five were enacted, according to HRC. Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, in a tight re-election race, distanced himself from HB2. Half a dozen Republican state legislators who voted for the bill have said they want a do-over.
Confident that public opinion continues to shift in their favor, gay-rights advocates, with Hillary Clinton’s backing, are aiming for a federal “Equality Act,” which would bar anti-LGBT discrimination in employment.
The legislation faces long odds in Congress. But that could change – if North Carolinians flush Pat McCrory next month.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.