Rioting May Tip Presidential Scales in Crucial North Carolina

(Bloomberg) -- Riots threaten to sway a deadlocked presidential race in race-riven North Carolina by pushing enough undecided voters toward Republican Donald Trump to overcome Hillary Clinton’s lead among blacks.

The shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, 43, outside a Charlotte apartment complex was the third at police hands in less than a year in a swing state whose 15 electoral votes are crucial to White House hopes. The ensuing riots culminated a period of charged politics that began in 2013, when Republicans took over both the legislature and governor’s office for the first time in a century.

The state went for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 and for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012. This year’s race has been a statistical tie for weeks between Trump, who has pushed a law-and-order platform, and Clinton, who has campaigned with the parents of black men shot by police. The contest remained a toss-up in the days leading up to Tuesday’s killing of Scott, according to a New York Times poll released today.

Democratic challengers were also polling even with or ahead of Republican incumbents Governor Pat McCrory and U.S. Senator Richard Burr, according to that poll and one released by Public Policy Polling on Wednesday.

Many voters -- between 10 and 12 percent of the electorate -- haven’t made up their minds on the presidential race, said Carter Wrenn, a Republican political consultant. “The undecideds have been staying undecided.”

Bank Town

The specter of racial violence overtook the state’s biggest metropolitan area, a business-oriented corporate capital of about 2.3 million that is home to Bank of America Corp. and where Wells Fargo & Co. has more than 20,000 workers.

McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, called a state of emergency Wednesday night after a peaceful protest turned violent for the second day in a row. The demonstrations followed the Tuesday killing of Scott, who police say had a handgun that was found near where he fell. Family members say he was holding a book.

On Wednesday night, one man was hospitalized with critical injuries after a demonstration. Protesters broke windows, damaged cars and looted across downtown, in turmoil that didn’t subside until after 2 a.m.

The city was quiet under a drizzling rain by Thursday’s start of business. Bank of America had directed employees not to come in to work, according to news accounts. Duke Energy Corp. also instructed most of its 5,500 employees who work downtown to work from home, spokesman Tom Williams said.

“This thing in Charlotte comes right on the heels of what happened in Oklahoma and you’ve got passions that are stirred up and running high,” said Thomas Mills, a former political consultant from Carrboro who is running for Congress as a Democrat. “This could start to shift into a law-and-order thing that favors Trump and Republicans.”

Two Prisms

Black concerns about policing and criminal justice have become a central part of Clinton’s campaign. Police killings must stop, Clinton said Wednesday in Orlando, Florida.

“It’s unbearable. And it needs to become intolerable,” she said. "We’re safer when people respect the police and the police respect the people."

Trump said in a Pittsburgh speech Thursday that the violence is an embarrassment.

“Our country looks bad to the world, especially when we are supposed to be the world’s leader,” he said. “How can we lead when we can’t even control our own cities?”

The politics of race are newly prominent in the former mill state that came to exemplify the so-called New South. While other Southern states fought battles to preserve segregation, North Carolina poured funding into its university system. It defined itself by the Research Triangle Park’s high-tech companies near Raleigh and Durham, and Charlotte’s banks. An influx of residents from other states made North Carolina a political outlier in a heavily Republican region.

In 2013, Republican leaders began aggressively overhauling the state. They cut taxes and public spending, imposed new limits on abortion and enacted a bill requiring trans-gendered people to use the bathroom of the gender on their birth certificates. That move cost the state business, including, in the past two weeks, collegiate basketball and football championships. In April, PayPal Holdings Inc. announced it was abandoning a planned 400-job expansion in Charlotte because of the law.

McCrory has defended the bathroom bill, even running campaign ads on it. The law and its aftermath damaged Republicans, though, particularly in suburban areas that voted for McCrory and Romney in 2012, said Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, which polls for Democratic candidates. This week’s events could revive their support, particularly if the violence continues, Jensen said Wednesday, before the riots extended into a second night.

Swarming Raleigh

The state’s hard turn to the right also galvanized the opposition, led by William Barber, president of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Since 2013, the NAACP has been organizing regular protests in Raleigh, which resulted in hundreds of civil-disobedience arrests. Black voters in particular were energized by a new poll-access law, which not only required voter identification at the polls but included new limits that appeared specifically intended to make it more difficult for blacks to vote.

In July, a federal court threw out the law with a blistering ruling that said lawmakers gathered data on black voting practices to help draft it, evidence that the opinion called “as close to a smoking gun as we are likely to see in modern times.”

McCrory defends the law: “Three Democrat judges undermining the integrity of our elections while also maligning our state,” he said on Facebook.

Even black voters less excited by Clinton than they were about Obama are motivated by the voter law, said Mills, the congressional candidate.

“People were worried that African-Americans are not fired up enough about Hillary,” he said. “But they are very fired up because someone tried to stop them from voting."

Francis De Luca, president of the Civitas Institute, among a group of Republican-leaning free-market think tanks in the state, said the poll law “has been a great get-out-the-vote issue for them.”

“For Democrats, its been a great way to energize the vote.”

In a statement, the NAACP’s Barber said his organization was waiting “for the full release of all facts available.”

“We ask that the city of Charlotte be transparent with any video and any additional information held by the city that can bring light in the tragic death,” Barber said.

Barber said he stands with those who “exercise the right to peacefully protest,” and warned against “unjust, random or purposeless acts of violence.”

Both Democrats and Republicans in the state said two nights of violence were unlikely to make a difference in elections still more than a month away, but continued violence is a different story.

“That just feeds into Trump’s message,” said Public Policy Polling’s Jensen. “If it becomes a national story for a protracted period of time it could help Trump increase his advantage with white voters.”