50 State’s Colm O’Comartun Talks Fallout From ‘Religious Freedom’ Legislation

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Elena Schneider, Politico

March 29, 2016

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“Religious liberty” laws and bathroom bills were supposed to be conservatives’ counterattack to the growing codification of gay and transgender rights, including the Supreme Court’s approval of same-sex marriage.

Instead, social conservatives are losing battles over gay, lesbian and transgender policies in red states across the country, as GOP governors start to buckle under pressure from the business community and mainstream Republicans over laws that would allow discrimination against gay and transgender people.

In Georgia, under pressure from Disney and the NFL, GOP Gov. Nathan Deal on Monday vetoed a “religious liberty” bill that would have allowed faith-based organizations to deny service or jobs based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In South Dakota, Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard vetoed a bill that would have required students to use the bathroom or locker room that corresponded to their biological sex at birth, while a similar bill in Tennessee, to which GOP Gov. Bill Haslam objected, died in committee.

And a fierce firestorm is building in North Carolina, where Gov. Pat McCrory signed a new law banning cities from enacting local non-discrimination ordinances – and immediately faced massive pushback from liberal protesters and big businesses alike, including Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Dow Chemical, American Airlines, and sports leagues.

The controversy puts McCrory on the defensive ahead of a difficult reelection campaign against Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, which was already shaping up to be one of the closest governor’s races in the country this fall. And it makes North Carolina just one of several purple or red states, along with Indiana, Missouri and Montana, where Democrats hope to paint GOP candidates as outside the rapidly evolving mainstream on social issues, a reversal from a decade ago when Republicans eagerly ran alongside ballot measures banning same-sex marriage.

Democrats see opportunities in those states to force Republican candidates to pick a side between social and economic priorities, as Daugaard and Deal just did on one side, angering some conservatives in their states, and McCrory did on the other.

“Gov. Deal has made it very clear he thinks Georgia values are Hollywood values,” conservative commentator Erick Erickson said in an audio report posted on his website, The Resurgent. Erickson called for GOP legislators in Georgia to “hijack” Deal’s legislative agenda until an identical bill is enacted.

“Would I have thought conservative governors around the country would be moving this way? No,” said one Republican strategist with extensive experience in gubernatorial elections. “But I think there’s a larger shift that’s happening. Recognizing that these [social] issues are important and they’re important to employers, … when you want to attract new businesses to hire your citizens, you want to eliminate obstacles. If it’s a matter of growing jobs or appealing to a certain segment of the population, you’re going to have a governor go with jobs most of the time.”

“This is part of a trend that has tended to backfire for Republicans governors who are supportive of very radical legislation,” said Colm O’Comartun, the former executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. “There is no better independent arbiter for what’s reasonable than a big corporation. They don’t have a Democratic or Republican agenda, generally. They just want to do business.”

Those businesses have been extremely vocal in North Carolina, where the state legislature went into special session to pass a law banning local anti-discrimination ordinances. It was prompted by the Charlotte city council, which enacted a LGBT non-discrimination law that, among other things, allowed transgender people to use public bathrooms of their self-identified gender.

The repercussions reached as far as the state’s unofficial sport: As the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team was marching to the Final Four, the NBA suggested it could move the pro league’s 2017 all-star game from Charlotte, saying in a statement that it is “dedicated to creating an inclusive environment.” NCAA president Mark Emmert also expressed concern about the new law, saying “everybody in the membership is tracking very closely.”

“This speaks to a personality problem for McCrory,” said a national Republican operative with experience working in North Carolina. “North Carolina is a very informed state and if Fortune 500 companies are saying they don’t want to business to him, then voters are asking themselves, ‘Why do we want him as a governor?’”

But the McCrory campaign said its central concern is safety. “Roy Cooper is going to have to convince families, moms and dads, in North Carolina, why it’s in their best interest to allow men into women’s restrooms,” said Ricky Diaz, a McCrory campaign spokesman. “He’s going to have to explain why he thinks that is appropriate. You don’t hear him doing that. In fact, he’s running from this issue.”

But Cooper is not backing away from the issue: The state attorney general announced Tuesday that he will not defend the law in court.

“Four years ago, McCrory had success in claiming that he would be the jobs guy, but what he’s doing now is distracting from that and getting him in trouble with the swing and moderate voters who voted for him in 2012,” O’Comartun said. “I think the evidence is there to show that there is an obvious group of voters who are concerned about jobs and they’re the very voters he’s turning off right now.”

Opponents to the law protested throughout the state last week, gathering by the hundreds in Raleigh, Asheville and Winston-Salem, and reaching further online. One protestor outside Winston-Salem’s city hall Friday, Adam Plant, went viral on Facebook (1,500 shares and 6,000 likes, about equivalent to some recent Facebook posts by Hillary Clinton) when he posted a poem saying he was tired of “of straight cis men legislating my freedom.”

“This thing has gone viral, it has really exploded,” said Morgan Jackson, Cooper’s campaign consultant. “Every three minutes, there’s someone else from the sports community or the business community who’s weighing in on this. It’s taken on a life of its own.” The Cooper campaign released a web video Monday thrashing McCrory over the business community’s response, but it is mostly letting the organic outrage do the work of hitting McCrory for them.

The protestations recalled scenes last year in Indiana, where GOP Gov. Mike Pence signed a controversial religious-freedom law that drew criticism from businesses like Walmart and Apple and took a toll on his popularity, pushing his approval rating from 62 percent to 45 percent as of April 2015. (McCrory, for his part,vetoed a comparable bill in North Carolina in May 2015.) Pence hasn’t backed off his position, and Democrat John Gregg, who lost to Pence by 3 percentage points in 2012, has made the religious-freedom law a central theme of his repeat campaign.

“I’ve been in hundreds of meetings of CEOs and business leaders and that is the first topic of conversation that comes up in every single meeting,” said Jeff Harris, spokesman for the Gregg campaign.

In Missouri, another “religious freedom” bill is working its way through the legislature, despite a 39-hour filibuster to try and kill the bill in the state’s Senate earlier this month. Three Republicans running in the contested primary to be Missouri’s next governor have backed the bill over business groups’ objections. The Kansas City Sports Commission estimated the bill could cost the state $50 million a year in economic activity and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce also opposes it.

“I believe that flying a flag of discrimination over this state’s business community is the wrong way to attract the best and the brightest to help us build a stronger future,” Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster, the presumptive Democratic nominee, wrote in a post on Facebook.

And In Montana, Democrats have criticized Republican Greg Gianforte for pushing local religious-freedom bills in the past, as a private citizen. Now that he’s running for governor, Gianforte has been largely silent on social issues, even as the fights over them have merged with debate over the business climate in different states.

Gianforte’s campaign spokesman declined to comment, writing in an email that he would gladly take a call, but only “to discuss jobs and the economy in one of your next reports.