Pat McCrory's New Game

He would stride into the building shortly before 8 a.m., with just minutes to spare before showtime. Coffee and newspaper in hand, he’d navigate a warren of narrow hallways before arriving at the small studio named for WBT radio legend Ty Boyd.

There, in front of a wall draped with an American flag, he’d pull up a chair at the end of a desk, don headphones and adjust the mic.

It was time for The Pat McCrory Show.

For the next two hours, the former Republican governor served up a steady commentary on news, politics, and the media. He and co-host Bo Thompson spliced their banter with interviews, satire, and the classic rock that McCrory loves. He aimed jokes at Democrats, liberals, himself, and the fictional “David from Asheville.”

The show, which started as an hour in 2017, grew to two hours before McCrory left in April of last year. When it jumped to the top of the Charlotte area’s morning ratings, he entertained the notion of taking it national through syndication. Nobody ever accused him of lacking confidence.

“As a governor, mayor, businessman, I know the game,” he said in the taped intro that began every show. “Been played by the game. Now we’re exposing the game.”

McCrory, 65, has played the game for over three decades and more than a dozen elections, from Charlotte’s City Council to mayor to governor. Now he’s a top candidate for the U.S. Senate in a race that​​ could determine the balance of power in that chamber. 

But the game has changed.

McCrory is a pragmatic conservative who believes in what former GOP Gov. Jim Martin called “constructive conservatism.” He calls himself a Reagan Republican, even an Eisenhower Republican. Those are no longer the names that matter.

“Today’s Republican Party politics is about personality, and it’s about the personality of one individual—Donald Trump,” Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist, told The Assembly. Loyalty to the former president, he’s written, is “deeply rooted in the base of the Republican Party.”

Trump, who carried North Carolina twice, endorsed McCrory’s main primary rival, U.S. Rep. Ted Budd of Davie County. That persuaded Club for Growth Action, a Washington-based super PAC, to spend at least $10 million on ads bashing the former governor. Trump doubled down on his support for Budd in January.

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McCrory jokes around during the photo shoot in his Charlotte campaign office. He said the chair he's sitting in, which he picked up after someone discarded it in Charlotte's Dilworth neighborhood, reminds him of a chair his father had // Photo by Alex Boerner

Budd was one of 139 House Republicans who voted not to certify some results of the 2020 presidential election. Polls show only about 1 in 5 Republicans believe Democrat Joe Biden was legitimately elected. McCrory says he was, and doesn’t believe the election was stolen.

Former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker also is part of the crowded Republican field. The winner is expected to face former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, a Democrat. 

McCrory finds himself in a state party comprised of factions that echo old divisions, though now with a more militant, anti-establishment wing. Almost 6 in 10 likely North Carolina GOP primary voters consider themselves Trump Republicans, not “traditional” Republicans, according to a January poll for the conservative Civitas Institute. Half said they’re inclined to vote for somebody backed by Trump.

“Candidly, I don’t think Pat fits in the Republican Party of today,” former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, an outspoken anti-Trumper who left the GOP last year, told The Assembly. “He’s trying to. But it’s a square peg in a round hole.”

McCrory disagrees.

“Policy, leadership (and) temperament trump all individuals,” he said in an interview. “I’m a big supporter of almost all of Trump’s policies … (But) we also have to look at how we communicate those policies …especially to those who have deserted our party over the last decade.”

McCrory’s success has been about selling himself as much as his policies, whether in Charlotte or statewide. His personality can be as engaging as the one that lifted his radio show to the top of the ratings. But he has nursed slights and often alienated or befuddled those otherwise inclined to support him. He hasn’t always cultivated the relationships that successful politicians do.

“Pat’s an enigma wrapped up in a riddle,” former GOP state Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville said in an interview. “As effective as he can be…he still has pretty thin skin when it comes to getting his way.”

Budd calls McCrory “a professional politician.” But McCrory is positioning himself as the outsider in the race, at least as far as Washington. “I don't want to move to Washington,” he told Moore County Republicans in January. “I'm (running) because the problem is Washington.”

For him, it’s a new game.

**

McCrory’s Senate headquarters is in a nondescript office building near uptown Charlotte. On a cold January morning, it’s quiet, with none of the buzz of a busy campaign office. Sitting on a table near the door is a pair of bright red boxing gloves. They were a gift from heavyweight champ George Foreman and for McCrory, a reminder that politics, like boxing, can knock you to the canvas. 

In 2008, McCrory met Foreman at a college bowl game in Charlotte. The former mayor was still smarting from a loss to Democrat Bev Perdue in the governor’s race, a contest that stung all the more because he’d narrowly lost his home county of Mecklenburg. Foreman recalled his own disappointments.

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A pair of boxing gloves given to McCrory by George Foreman in the entryway of his campaign headquarters in Charlotte. Above the gloves, an illustration commemorating McCrory’s service on the Homeland Security advisory committee during the George W. Bush administration // Photo by Alex Boerner

“But guess what he did?” McCrory told The Assembly. “He got back off the ground and fought another day. Told him I’d keep swinging.”

Foreman sent him the gloves two weeks later.

McCrory’s first knockout came before he ever entered the ring. In the 1980s, he tried and failed to win an appointment to a Charlotte city board. When he finally did, the board disbanded before its first meeting.

But he won election to city council in 1989 and became mayor six years later. As mayor, he was tireless in attending community events and became the closest to a full-time mayor that Charlotte ever had. He also enjoyed an unusual degree of bi-partisan support. He served a record seven terms and never faced a tough campaign, winning an average 63% of the vote in a city growing steadily more Democratic. He may go down as Charlotte’s last Republican mayor.

McCrory’s winning streak ended with his 2008 loss to Perdue. In 2012, he comfortably won the governor’s race (and Mecklenburg County). But four years later he lost to Democrat Roy Cooper by barely over 10,000 votes (he lost Mecklenburg by over 136,000 votes). It was the first time a North Carolina governor lost a bid for reelection since the state’s chief executive gained the power to seek a second consecutive term in 1977. 

At headquarters, McCrory is sitting at the end of a long conference table. His new rescue dog, Maddy, a brown Labrador retriever mix, nuzzles a reporter across the room. Losing in 2016, he said, has made him a better candidate.

“First of all, I think if you look at any successful leader, they’ve gone through losses, whether it be in business, politics or life,” he said. “And it grounds you. And it makes you reevaluate and think and step out of the fishbowl … I’ve learned to not take myself so seriously, but take the issues seriously.”

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McCrory’s young brown Lab mix, Maddy, accompanies him to the office nearly every day. Maddy is a rescue that McCrory picked up from Union County at the suggestion of a friend. “She was in bad shape when we found her but she’s come a long way,” he said // Photo by Alex Boerner

Early in his career, deep knowledge of the issues was not McCrory’s strong point. Critics dismissed him as a lightweight. But he worked on it. During the George W. Bush administration, he served on a Homeland Security advisory committee. In 2006, he joined a group of academics and planners on the hilly banks of Italy's Lake Como as a guest of the Brookings Institution. The invitation called him “a nationally recognized leader and a substantive transportation expert.”

In Charlotte, his signature accomplishment was light rail, which now runs nearly 19 miles from Pineville in the south to UNC-Charlotte in the north. It was more popular with voters than with pundits. One WBT host mocked it as “the McCrory Line.” 

His toughest critics came from his own party. They tried to defeat the 1998 referendum that would raise the sales tax to pay for the rail line. Then they mounted a 2007 effort to repeal the tax. Both attempts failed.

To bring back an NBA team, McCrory spearheaded a 2002 effort to build a $260 million uptown arena. That was a year after voters, in a nonbinding referendum, had rejected a tax that would have paid for an arena and other uptown projects. In 2006, he pushed a hotel tax hike that brought Charlotte the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Ideology was never at the forefront for McCrory as mayor. He prided himself on getting things done, particularly when courting new employers like General Dynamics or the NBA. One business leader describes him as transactional and good at sealing a deal. A state commerce secretary once said McCrory would “talk to anybody, any time, any place.”

As in politics, he was selling himself as much as his city. That worked better in Charlotte than it would in Raleigh.

***

In 2013, McCrory entered the governor’s office as the state’s first Republican governor with a General Assembly controlled entirely by his own party since right after the Civil War. But traveling to Jones Street was often like crossing enemy lines.

“He would enjoy coming down and telling us what to do,” former Republican state Sen. Bob Rucho, who represented a Charlotte suburb and now lives in Southport, told The Assembly. “He didn’t understand how Raleigh worked and how you had to work with a legislature. There’s an old saying: ‘Some people just don’t know what they don’t know.’ Clearly, Pat believed he was going to tell Raleigh what to do.”

Part of the problem was institutional. Democratic governors also had butted heads with legislators of their party. That was underscored in 2014 when McCrory, joined by former Govs. Jim Hunt, a Democrat, and Jim Martin, a Republican, sued the General Assembly in a separation of powers case over appointment authority. Two years later, the state Supreme Court ruled in the governors’ favor.

Lawmakers overrode four of McCrory’s half-dozen vetoes. One, in 2015, was Senate GOP Leader Phil Berger’s own bill allowing magistrates to recuse themselves on religious grounds from performing same-sex marriages.

“I had some people in the Senate who did not want a Republican governor because they saw it as a challenge to their power—and they told me that,” McCrory said. Asked who, he named a then-powerful lawmaker, Republican Tom Apodaca.

“He never visited the governor’s office one time,” McCrory said. “... I was told he’d prefer to have a Democratic governor because it gives them more power in the legislative branch. And I bucked.”

Apodaca, who’s now a lobbyist, denies ever saying that. And the Hendersonville Republican said he was in McCrory’s office “multiple times.”

“More times than I can count,” Apodaca said. “He did not understand how state government worked.”

Apodaca and Rucho are supporting Budd. Berger’s name appeared on an invitation to a Budd fundraiser. Jim Blaine, Berger’s former longtime chief of staff, is consulting for the Club for Growth Action, the powerful super PAC that endorsed Budd. No Republican legislator has publicly endorsed McCrory.

“I haven’t sought any,” McCrory said. “I haven’t sought one endorsement. I stand on my record of achievement.”

Jeter, a former Republican House leader, gives the former governor credit for GOP accomplishments. But, he said, “The flip side of that is Pat may have one of the shortest fuses I’ve seen in my life.”

Jeter, who supports McCrory, recalls the time McCrory called him at home. The voice over the phone was so loud his daughter could hear it. “She said, ‘Dad, who the heck is yelling at you?’ I said, ‘It’s just the governor’.”

During McCrory’s administration, the state cut taxes and adopted a transportation strategy based on need, not politics. By slashing unemployment benefits, it repaid a $2.5 billion federal loan and won praise from the business community.

He also backed a successful $2 billion bond issue. And he benefited from a rebounding economy. The state achieved its lowest unemployment rate in nearly a decade.

“It’s hard to argue that his administration was moderate,” John Hood, a long-time analyst of North Carolina politics and president of the John William Pope Foundation, said in an interview. “It wasn’t. He implemented conservative policies.”

Rucho, who chaired the Senate Finance Committee, credits the legislature with initiating and seeing through many of those accomplishments.

A longtime manager at Duke Energy, McCrory was attacked for what critics called his cozy ties to the company and to the energy industry, especially after Duke’s 2014 coal ash spill into the Dan River.

McCrory’s most controversial move was signing HB2. The 2016 law barred transgender people from using the bathroom of the gender they identify with in government buildings and prevented cities from passing their own LGBT ordinances. The reaction was swift.

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McCrory carries boxes of yard signs from the delivery truck into his campaign office // Photo by Alex Boerner

Companies canceled expansions. The NCAA moved tournaments. The NBA took its All-Star game from Charlotte. The law has since been repealed. But the Associated Press estimated it cost the state $3.7 billion in lost business.

McCrory remained a staunch supporter of the law. He described the Charlotte ordinance on which the law was based “government overreach.” After losing the 2016 election, McCrory blamed the backlash against HB2 for making it hard for him to find a job. 

“That was part of the cancel culture that at the time no one knew how to respond to,” McCrory said of the HB2 controversy. “Everyone’s at fault (for) not allowing our society and our politics to have good, honest discussions about complex issues, especially social issues.

“I’ve moved on, and I think Charlotte’s moved on too.”

***

In Charlotte, some of McCrory’s most vocal critics came from a group calling themselves the Huns. For decades, they’ve talked politics at weekly lunches. Venues and faces have changed. But like Attilas of the digital age, they’re still stalwart conservatives.

“There’s a perception that [McCrory] is not conservative enough,” longtime member Ivan Mothershead, a former Republican state legislator, said in an interview. “Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know.”

McCrory has long faced conservative skeptics, several of whom spoke with The Assembly

Steven Rader, a former state party official from Beaufort County, calls McCrory “a wishy washy moderate.” Jim Womack of Lee County, a director of the grassroots Conservative Coalition of NC, said he “blows with the wind.”

“Whatever’s expedient about getting elected,” Womack said.

Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the N.C. Values Coalition, describes McCrory as “more a centrist.”

“The issues he cares about most are economic, like lowering taxes, cutting spending, bringing new business,” she said. “But the issues that tend to motivate Republicans are social issues … like the pro-life issue (and) bathroom privacy.”

Decades ago, the North Carolina GOP was divided between economic and social conservatives, factions once personified by Gov. Jim Holshouser and Sen. Jesse Helms. Many blamed the split for the 1986 election of Democrat Terry Sanford to the Senate. 

Now the factions are more complicated. They include diehard Trump loyalists and more militant voters typified by U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who calls Biden “a tyrant.” In the Civitas poll, 3 in 10 likely GOP primary voters said the party is to their left.

“Maybe that old tension in North Carolina politics has been replaced by a new one, which in some ways is institutionalist versus a new type of anarchism,” political scientist Chris Cooper of Western Carolina University said in an interview. “Economic conservatism is no longer the most valuable currency within the Republican Party.”

Last year, the N.C. state Republican party censured GOP Sen. Richard Burr—the state’s three-term, senior senator—when he voted after Trump’s second impeachment trial to convict the former president of inciting an insurrection at the Capitol.

“My party’s leadership has chosen loyalty to one man over the core principles of the Republican Party and the founders of our great nation,” Burr said in a statement at the time.

Asked if he agreed with Burr, McCrory said, “I believe his [Trump’s] and other words helped contribute.”

“All politicians have helped contribute to violence,” he adds, “whether it be in Portland, Seattle, or Washington, DC, or Raleigh.”

In February, after the Republican Party approved a resolution describing the Jan. 6 insurrection as “legitimate political discourse,” McCrory posted a Facebook video in which he supported Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s condemnation of the party’s language. 

In 2017, McCrory tried and failed to get a job in the Trump administration. A file leaked to Axios highlighted a series of “red flags,” including comments critical of Trump. In one, McCrory said the president-elect “needs to have his mouth washed out with soap.”

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McCrory walks with yard signs into a back room of his Charlotte campaign office // Photo by Alex Boerner

Republican strategist Carter Wrenn said McCrory still enjoys wide name recognition. “I didn’t see Republican voters having an ideological problem with Pat,” he said.

Still, McCrory seems to have adopted more conservative rhetoric. He has tweeted about Biden’s “radical socialist agenda.” He criticizes the “media elite” and “woke” culture. He blames antifa for leading Charlotte’s 2016 urban unrest, despite no proof that the anarchist group was involved.

“The party’s changed, I think Pat’s changed too,” said Ralph McMillan, a longtime Hun who supports McCrory. “He’s more conservative than he used to be. I always thought he had conservative instincts. But to be the mayor of Charlotte, you can’t be as conservative as you might want to be.”

**

Just as the McCrory show was good for WBT, it was good for McCrory. Reports last year showed the station paid him $286,000 from the start of 2020 until he left in April  2021 to run for the Senate. That’s far more than his $141,000 annual salary as governor.

The show also has been good for his critics, who have found plenty of fodder in the recordings.

In January, CNN quoted a 2021 segment in which McCrory compared being “blacklisted” from teaching at Duke University after his governorship to Black students being denied service at a Greensboro lunch counter in 1960.

Spokesman Jordan Shaw said McCrory was trying to make a point. “He has seen first-hand the way the far-left uses cancel culture to advance their extreme agenda,” Shaw told CNN. But the Twitter response wasn’t kind.

“Pat McCrory’s disingenuous and foul comment [shows] why he didn’t get a job at Duke University,” tweeted a user called Rainmaker.

Last year one Club for Growth Action TV ad used radio segments to portray McCrory as anti-Trump.

It quoted McCrory saying Trump was “destroying democracy.” It also said McCrory claimed he’d seen no evidence of election fraud. And in another segment, McCrory said Trump should “get off the stage.” 

Several fact-checks found the ad misleading, with quotes taken out of context. Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel called it “some incredible quote-mangling.” The “get off the stage” line, for example, was from a 2020 comment in which McCrory said he wanted Trump to win, and that Trump would benefit by letting Biden talk longer.

“They’re taking things completely out of context,” McCrory said. “And that’s where the ads are deceitful as hell.”

McCrory ally Art Pope, a major GOP and conservative financier, said the Club for Growth Action ads hurt, to a point.

“Pat McCrory should be able to consolidate the conservative vote,” Pope said in an interview. “It does not help (him) for the Washington D.C. Club for Growth to falsely call him a liberal. But because it has not gotten much traction, I don’t think it will hurt him in the general (election).”

Those were not the only times McCrory mentioned Trump on his show. In 2020, he said Trump had “too many family members” in his administration. When Biden was winning Arizona in 2020, he said Trump’s criticisms of the late Sen. John McCain was “coming back to haunt us.

While critics might find ammunition in such comments, supporters would say McCrory was just being candid.

“Pat’s brand of honesty is not shock, it’s just plain-spoken candor,” said Matt Hanlon, the former WBT general manager who hired McCrory. “He was a natural on the radio because…he’s a for-the-people guy.”

When Trump endorsed Budd at the state GOP convention last year, he took a pointed dig at McCrory. “You can’t pick people that have lost two races and do not stand for our values,” the former president said.

Pope, who served as McCrory’s state budget director, said nobody can question the former governor’s support for the former president or his policies.

“This is not a never-Trumper versus a Trump loyalist,” he said. “This is the way the Club for Growth and Ted Budd would like to portray it. But it’s not true.”

Andy Yates, a Republican consultant from Mecklenburg County, said the challenge for McCrory is to appeal to Republicans who like the former president on the issues “but aren’t rubber stamps for Trump.”

“He left office pretty popular with the Republican base,” Yates said of McCrory. “He has more of an opportunity than [other] folks running against Trump-endorsed candidates to pick off [support] from those strong Trump loyalists.”

But Jane Bilello, a Tea Party leader from Asheville, said Trump’s endorsement “carries an awful lot of weight.” She alluded to Hillary Clinton’s disparaging description of some Trump supporters.

“The deplorables,” Billello said, “are still around.”

***

At WBT, McCrory considered seeking national syndication and staying behind the mic long term. Hanlon, the general manager, said he wanted McCrory to stay local, believing that was his strength. But if he’d gone national, Hanlon said he might have been a candidate for the late Rush Limbaugh’s slot.

But McCrory said he realized he’d rather be doing something in politics, not just talking about it. He’s not ready to retire. He and his wife, Ann, live in Charlotte’s Myers Park neighborhood and have a second home on Lake James.

“I’m more of a doer,” he said. “Always have been … I’m pretty consistent. I’m transparent. I step on toes. I’m a change agent.”

One former staffer, who asked not to be identified out of deference to his current employer, said McCrory “really feels lost when he’s not in the game. And the game is serving in office and rolling up your sleeves and getting things done. I think he feels that is his sense of purpose.” 

McCrory would agree.

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McCrory in his campaign office. He faces a tough primary election contest this spring // Photo by Alex Boerner

“I love public service more than I do politics,” he said. “One of my themes on the radio was, ‘I know the game. I’ve played the game. I’ve been played by the game.’

“But that doesn’t mean I like the game.” 

Maybe not. But as McCrory undergoes his 14th campaign in five different decades for four elected offices, it’s clear there’s something that keeps him coming back. To win this year, in a more intense contest with higher stakes, he’ll have to adapt to a new game with new rules.

***

Jim Morrill covered politics for The Charlotte Observer for 37 years. Follow him on twitter @jimmorrill.