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How the ‘most conservative governor in North Carolina history’ became a RINO

“It’s kind of a unique situation at this point,” McCrory said in an interview. “But to say I’m a liberal is ironic, because four years ago I was branded the exact opposite.”

He’s laughing. “I am the same person.”

McCrory points out he was heckled in public, called a fanatic, subjected to death threats and ‘avoided’ with his wife at social events in Charlotte as part of the fallout from the bill known as HB2 in 2016, which prohibited transgender people from using public bathrooms that matched their gender identity.

His first year in office as governor sparked the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, a series of Capitol Hill protests against him and the GOP-controlled legislature that resulted in hundreds of arrests in 2013 and 2014.

Far-left protesters were regularly seen outside the governor’s mansion and on Capitol Hill as McCrory signed legislation that ticked off key conservative priorities: banning sanctuary cities and stopping food stamp benefits for undocumented immigrants; reduce unemployment benefits; the increase in the waiting period to three days for an abortion; and, most notably, what has come to be known as the bathroom bill.

“Anyone who really knows Pat and pays attention, whether liberal or conservative, is not going to call him a liberal,” said Republican former Gov. Jim Martin, who backs McCrory in the primary.

As a former governor and former mayor of the state’s largest city, Charlotte, McCrory was well positioned to win the GOP nomination when Republican Sen. Richard Burr announced his retirement. And for much of the primary campaign, McCrory’s near-universal name recognition propelled him to a commanding lead — even after former President Donald Trump unexpectedly endorsed Rep. Ted Budd in June 2021.

Then the conservative Club for Growth announced that it was spending $5 million to support Budd. Then $10 million. Then $15 million. The organization’s super PAC bought ad time by describing McCrory as a “phony liberal,” a line of attack the group has backed for months as it seeks to build support for Budd. Other outside groups piled in with several more millions in spending against McCrory.

“I was probably the original person who got canceled, and now I’m being called a liberal,” McCrory said in an interview. “Someone came up to me the other day and said, ‘McCrory, you were DeSantis before DeSantis.’ I said, ‘It’s a unique perspective.’ I resisted some things that were contrary not only to liberals, but to the ruling elite of my party.

The bombardment took its toll on McCrory, who lost his first bid for governor in 2008, won the job in 2012 and was defeated for re-election in 2016. only two tenths of a percentage point. Budd’s lead has grown exponentially over the past month, a period that included a Trump rally in the state. Over the past two months, McCrory has fallen 9 percentage points to 20%, while Budd has jumped 30 points to 48%, according to a new poll released Monday.

Burr noted the power of the Club for Growth’s assault on McCrory, without mentioning the organization by name.

“It’s amazing what having an unlimited checkbook can do to public opinion,” Burr told POLITICO, adding that McCrory “has always been a conservative.”

McCrory’s cold relationship with Trump and his occasional criticism of the former president have facilitated continued attacks on his conservative bona fides. And there are those who argue that as state policies shifted to the right during his tenure as governor, McCrory was often a behind-the-scenes impediment to their agenda.

Former Republican Senator Bob Rucho specifically noted McCrory’s private resistance to cutting state unemployment benefits and enacting tax reform legislation — policies McCrory now takes credit for during The electoral campaign.

“He’s already lost two statewide elections,” said Rucho, who, like McCrory, is from the Charlotte area. “In the past, that was the case if you lost a statewide election, your political career was probably over. After losing two, it’s very rare that he comes back, to be honest.

With far fewer financial resources, McCrory attempted to combat not-conservative-enough characterization by reminding voters of the days when he was hailed by conservative groups. He pleaded with reporters for coverage and appealed directly to voters on social media, in addition to running a television ad on the subject.

“You all know I was the most conservative governor in North Carolina history,” McCrory says in ad. “I am the one who banned shrine cities. Do you remember.”

Last month, he used his Facebook and Twitter channels, desperate to push back against a story with millions of dollars behind it. On April 14, he contented himself tweeted a link and the headline of a 2015 news story: “McCrory Signs Bill Banning Sanctuary Cities in North Carolina.”

Prior to this, Conservative Outsiders PAC, a super PAC associated with the Club for Growth, aired a television ad slamming McCrory on immigration.

McCrory also posted a video on Facebook trying to set the record straight on another negative ad, posted by another group that works with the Club – the School Freedom Foundation.

“Look, you know me,” McCrory said, explaining that he was definitely against teaching critical race theory in schools. “Let’s stop the shit.”

Martin, the former governor and McCrory supporter, pointed to a recent Club for Growth ad featuring Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who endorsed Budd last month at Trump’s rally. In the ad, Robinson said McCrory was a nice guy, but “not conservative.”

“To say that he is not conservative, the lieutenant-governor does not know what he is talking about. He just said what they told him to say,” Martin said. “It’s a weird thing. But, you know, politics is like that.

John Lassiter, a close friend and informal adviser to McCrory who began working with him in Charlotte government in the mid-1980s, remains hopeful about McCrory’s chances on Tuesday. He said he expected voters to “wake up” at the end of the campaign and decide to vote for the person they previously supported.

“It’s really unfair,” Lassiter said. “He is very conservative, especially on tax issues and the role of government. Basically, his policy is fairly tried and true, and he stuck to it despite the trade winds that come with each cycle.

Lassiter, whom McCrory tapped to oversee and privatize the state’s economic development efforts, said McCrory was “pretty aligned with people like Thom Tillis,” the U.S. senator who was speaker of the North Carolina House when McCrory was governor.

Tillis, for his part, called McCrory a “business conservative.” Having his Republican credentials questioned is normal, he added.

“Primaries do that,” Tillis said. “They present me as a liberal. The two things they do are present you as a RINO or too liberal and corrupt. Neither are true for him.

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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