Tillis, Cunningham to meet in UNC discussion of friendships across the political divide

Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) and former N.C. State Senator Cal Cunningham, a Democrat, will meet this evening as part of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Abbey Speaker series.

U.S. Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) and former Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham will discuss building and maintaining friendships across the political divide.

The event, to be held at the Nelson Mandela Auditorium of the FedEx Global Education Center and livestreamed on Zoom, will focus on building and maintaining friendships across the political divide.

Cunningham challenged Tillis for his U.S. Senate seat in 2020 but failed in the wake of a sex scandal in which text messages revealed he carried on an extramarital affair while campaigning for office. The contest was then the most expensive in U.S. history, with campaigns and outside groups spending more than $280 million as the outcome helped decide control of the U.S. Senate.

Cunningham kept a low profile as the scandal erupted around him in October, which political observers said contributed to his loss. He has since remained relatively low-profile.

The discussion, co-sponsored by the UNC Institute of Politics. will be moderated by Sarah Treul Roberts, professor of Political Science and faculty director of UNC’s Program for Public Discourse.

Those interested in registering for the Tillis/Cunningham discussion  can do so here.

More information on upcoming events as part of the Abbey Speaker Series and Program for Public Discourse here.

Elon, Meredith and HPU polls offer insight into mindset of voters ahead of next week’s election

With elections looming next week, a trio of North Carolina-based polls released this week give insight into the mood of the electorate, voters’ top concerns and how confident they are in the elections themselves.

The national economy continues to be a top issue for voters and the latest Elon University Poll, conducted Oct. 26 and 27,  found most North Carolina voters giving it low marks.

Asked to give the  current national economy a grade from A to F, a quarter of respondents gave it the lowest grade – up from 16 percent when the poll asked the same question two years ago. The largest number of respondents said they would give it a “C” while just three percent said they would give the economy an “A” – down from 7 percent two years ago.


Asked about their personal financial situations, 55 percent of respondents said it has gotten worse since 2020. Just 14 percent said it has gotten better.

The vast majority of respondents – 75 percent – said the national economy has gotten worse since 2020.

The poll found respondents tend to favor Republicans over Democrats on economic issues. Though President Joe Biden isn’t on the ballot this year, voters’ view on his culpability for the state of the economy and inflation could spell trouble for his fellow Democrats, said Jason Husser, director of the Elon Poll and associate professor of political science.

“Few North Carolina voters rate the economy highly, and four out of five say inflation is negatively affecting them personally,” Husser said in a statement on the poll results. “A majority of voters think President Biden is at least somewhat responsible for inflation, and more voters favor the Republican Party over the Democratic Party on the economy as an issue. These findings combined with the historical importance of the economy on midterm elections portend trouble for Democrats on the ballot in North Carolina.”

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Governor signs executive order establishing commission on UNC System governance

Governor Roy Cooper announced a commission Tuesday to study how the UNC System functions, who governs it and how.

The Governor’s Commission on  the Governance of Public Universities in North Carolina, created by executive order, will be headed by former UNC System Presidents Tom Ross and Margaret Spellings, a Democrat and Republican respectively.

“North Carolina’s public universities are our most valuable assets,” Cooper said in a statement Tuesday. “And the key to building a stronger economy with opportunity for everyone and they need serious, diverse leadership committed to working together for the good of our students, faculty, future employers and our state.”

Gov. Roy Cooper

“Seeking unbiased review and recommendations on proposed reform from bipartisan leaders with first-hand experience building our great universities will ensure the UNC System’s continued success,” Cooper said. “And I appreciate President Ross’s and President Spellings’s willingness to lead this commission.”

Ross was ousted from his position in 2015 by a new Republican majority on the UNC System Board of Governors. While the board gave no explanation for removing Ross, they did say it was not related to his performance in the position.

Spellings, a former education secretary in the George W. Bush presidential administration, replaced Ross. But after a series of conflicts with board members and criticism from conservatives that she was too independent, she stepped down from the position halfway through a five year contract.

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Demographic shifts, historical revisionism fueling Christian nationalist push among conservatives

This week, Policy Watch published a report on the Christian nationalism animating The American Renewal Project, a conservative evangelical group working closely with the N.C. Republican party to promote GOP candidates and recruit pastors to run for office.

The group, which rejects the concept of a separation between church and state, seeks to make its conservative interpretation of Christianity central to government policy and to mandate religious instruction and Christian prayer in public schools. Among the Renewal Project’s most passionate supporters: Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson. Robinson – the top elected Republican in the state, now teasing a run for governor – has headlined Renewal Project events at churches across the state all year, including one this week with U.S. Senate candidate Ted Budd.

The Republican party has long courted evangelical Christians, said Dr. Michael Bitzer, professor of History and Political Science at Catawba College in Salisbury. But research continues to show Americans becoming less religious – with declines concentrated among the protestants who make up the American evangelical movement. Anxiety over that shift has tightened the bonds between evangelicals and the Republican party, Bitzer said, leading to a GOP embrace of a brand of Christian nationalism that was once well outside the mainstream.

“Just as Black African American voters are reliable Democratic voters, evangelicals are now reliable Republican voters,” Bitzer said. “They tend to influence the candidates and they become the candidates seeking office under the Republican nomination.”

As the society continues to change and diversify, Bitzer said, many evangelicals have become worried about losing governing power in what they see as a zero sum political game. The recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade was the result of a 50 year campaign to return decisions about abortion to the states, he said, where religious conservatives have more influence. But increasingly, generations coming of political age have no religious affiliation.

Last year, the Pew Research Center found about 30 percent of American surveyed were religious “nones” – people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular” when asked about their religious identity. When Pew began asking its current questions about religious identity in 2007, it found American Christians outnumbered religious “nones” five-to-one. Today, that’s down to a little more than two-to-one in a steady downward trend.

Self-identified evangelicals or “born again” Christians make up 60 percent of U.S. protestants. But the overall protestant population – evangelical and not – has dropped 10 percent in the last ten years, from about half  of Americans to 40 percent. The remaining evangelicals tend to be whiter and much older than the general population, Bitzer said, while rising generations are both more racially and ethnically diverse and less in line with socially conservative evangelical Christian values.

“Society is changing, there’s transformation under way,” Bitzer said. “And there are concerns by evangelicals about losing their governing power.”

To hold on to that power, Bitzer said, they need to instill some of their religious beliefs into government policy. Read more

Lt. Governor rips Potato Heads, “egghead” Christian leaders, transgender people in church speeches

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson speaking at a recent American Renewal Project event – Photo: Joe Killian

This week Policy Watch published a special report on the increasingly close relationship between the American Renewal Project, conservative evangelical churches and the North Carolina Republican party.

To report the story, Policy Watch attended North Carolina Renewal Project events this month and last. Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson spoke at these events, as he does at nearly all advertised Renewal Project events in the state. Known widely for his fiery, controversial statements — especially during speeches before church groups — Robinson has been heavily criticized for homophobic, transphobic, and factually incorrect statements since he entered politics in 2020.

As the top elected Republican in the state, his more controversial statements have sometimes gone beyond the usual rhetoric of his party and its leaders on a variety of issues. But it has earned him a reputation among some conservative Christians as a champion of their values in a culture they say should be ordered and governed based on their interpretation of the Bible.

In his recent appearances at churches in Raleigh and Statesville, Robinson lived up to that reputation, giving speeches that railed against LGBTQ people, state and federal government, weakness he perceives in modern Christian churches, pastors and Christians who disagree with his conservative evangelical brand of faith.

Potatoes, gender and outrage

Robinson got laughs and cheers early in his remarks at Calvary Chapel Lake Norman church in Statesville on Sept. 26 with an anecdote about Hasbro’s “Potato Head” line of toys:

“Somewhere in a board room a bunch of grown ups with a college degrees at some sat around…God, in a board room for crying out loud..they sat around and argued about the gender of a plastic potato!” Robinson said. “There was a raging argument in a toy company about the gender of a plastic potato!”

Robinson appears to have been referring to the 2021 rebranding of the “Mr. Potato Head” line of toys, which became the “Potato Head” line. There does not appear to be any evidence that a raging argument took place at the toy company, though a number of conservative commentators were outraged by the change.

Some outlets misreported that the “Mr.” and “Mrs.” designations of the long-lived and popular Potato Head characters were being removed. In fact, those titles remained — as did the traditional gender characteristics of the non-human potato characters. It was the toy’s overall branding and logo that changed. The company had to correct the record in a Tweet the same day the brand name-change was announced. Read more