By Colin Campbell
Republican North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory announced Monday that he's conceded the election to Democrat Roy Cooper, the state's attorney general, and will support transition efforts.
McCrory made the concession in a video message posted around noon Monday as a recount he requested in Durham County entered its final hours. Durham officials plan to finish the recount later Monday, but early results from the recount showed virtually no change in the vote tally there.
"I personally believe that the majority of our citizens have spoken, and we now should do everything we can to support the 75th governor of North Carolina, Roy Cooper," McCrory says in the video. "The McCrory administration team will assist in every way to help the new administration make a smooth transition.
"It's time to celebrate our democratic process and respect what I see to be the ultimate outcome of the closest North Carolina governor's race in modern history."
With the concession, McCrory becomes the state's first governor to lose a re-election bid since a constitutional amendment in the 1970s gave governors the ability to seek more than one term. His defeat followed the nation's second costliest gubernatorial race and North Carolina's most expensive ever.
North Carolina Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore both congratulated Cooper on the win Monday, ending weeks of speculation that the legislature might intervene and declare McCrory the winner. Berger warned that Cooper "won his new office with a razor-thin plurality" and shouldn't propose any tax increases as governor.
McCrory's concession comes nearly a month after Election Day, following dozens of election complaints filed by Republicans with help from the governor's campaign. The majority of them were dismissed by GOP-controlled county election boards.
McCrory referenced those concerns in his concession video, calling them "continued questions that should be answered regarding the voting process." The governor called Saturday for a State Bureau of Investigation probe into absentee ballots in Bladen County, shortly after the State Board of Elections dismissed a protest calling for those ballots to be thrown out.
Cooper had a lead of 10,263 votes over McCrory in nearly final election tallies on the State Board of Elections website Monday afternoon.
Cooper issued a written statement shortly after McCrory's concession Monday, saying he looks forward to serving as governor. His campaign is planning to hold a "victory rally" on Tuesday night in Raleigh.
"I want to thank Gov. McCrory and our First Lady Ann McCrory for their service to our state," Cooper wrote. "Kristin and I look forward to working with them and their staff in what I expect will be a smooth transition. I'm proud to have received the support from so many who believe that we can come together to make a North Carolina that works for everyone. ... While this was a divisive election season, I know still that there is more that unites us than divides us."
Cooper's power as governor will be limited by the state legislature, which has a Republican supermajority in both chambers. That means that the GOP has enough votes to override Cooper's veto of bills that Democrats oppose. And he'll need support from Republican legislators to accomplish his policy goals.
The timing of McCrory's announcement came as a surprise to many because Durham County's recount was still underway, with about 2,500 ballots still to be recounted as of Monday afternoon. Durham officials faced a 7 p.m. deadline to complete the recount.
By the time McCrory's video was released at noon, it was becoming increasingly clear that the recount process was not finding any vote-counting errors that could favor the governor.
On Sunday night, Durham election officials announced that with nearly 53,000 of 90,000 ballots recounted, Cooper had three more votes than the original tally and McCrory had one vote fewer.
Durham County Board of Elections Chairman Bill Brian, a Republican, said Monday that the recount was finding an "extraordinarily low variation" from the original count.
McCrory's campaign had requested the recount of 90,000 ballots in Durham, arguing that the late addition of the 90,000 votes to the statewide tally on election night constituted an "irregularity." McCrory appeared to have a lead in incomplete election results for much of the night until Durham's tally was updated around 11:30 p.m.
The State Board of Elections approved the recount request last week, overturning a decision by the Durham elections board. Brian estimated that the recount will cost the county about $35,000.
"We went through a recount that was not necessary, that was not based on law or fact, and we've spent a lot of money doing it," Brian told reporters Monday morning.
The state elections board will meet later this week to certify the election results, and while McCrory has conceded, another race appears headed for a statewide recount.
Incumbent State Auditor Beth Wood, a Democrat, has a 5,976 vote lead over Republican challenger Chuck Stuber in the latest results _ well within the 10,000 vote margin required for a recount. Stuber has said he'll still seek a recount even though there will be no statewide recount in the governor's race.
With McCrory's concession, attention can now turn to Cooper's transition efforts ahead of his January inauguration.
Cooper's transition has been quietly under way for weeks since he declared himself governor-elect and named leaders for his transition team. A website encourages job seekers to submit resumes for administration positions.
The transition is being led by Ken Eudy. a former political reporter who founded strategic communications firm Capstrat, as well as Kristi Jones, Cooper's longtime chief of staff in the justice department, and Jim W. Phillips Jr., an attorney who has known Cooper since their UNC-Chapel Hill days.
The team has been working out of homes and offices scattered around Raleigh, but McCrory's concession could mean Cooper's staff soon moves into state government office space. Four years ago, McCrory's transition team used several floors of the Albemarle Building, located close to the state Capitol.
Cooper hasn't yet named any of his Cabinet members, who will lead agencies ranging from the Department of Transportation to the Department of Health and Human Services. Those appointments are typically made in the weeks ahead of an inauguration.
Among his other appointment powers, Cooper will restructure the state and county elections boards with majority Democratic members, as required in state law. The state board appoints county board members.
McCrory's loss to Cooper came in an otherwise favorable year for Republican statewide candidates in North Carolina. Both presidential candidate Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Richard Burr easily won the state, and the GOP picked up three Council of State positions currently held by Democrats: Insurance commissioner, state treasurer and superintendent of public instruction.
McCrory lost votes in urban areas because of his strong support for House Bill 2, the controversial law that among other provisions requires transgender people in government facilities to use the bathroom that corresponds to their birth certificates.
HB2 has prompted numerous sporting events to be moved outside North Carolina, as well as conferences and some corporate expansions _ resulting in millions of dollars in economic losses. Opponents of the law made McCrory their main target, and the national LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign was one of the first groups to celebrate the governor's concession speech Monday.
"Pat McCrory's reign of discrimination is finally over," Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said in a news release. "McCrory's stubborn and reckless support of HB2 cost him this election, and his defeat sends a powerful warning to lawmakers across the country that targeting LGBTQ people will not be tolerated."
But HB2 wasn't the only issue that prompted some of McCrory's supporters in 2012 to vote against him this year.
McCrory also fared poorly in Charlotte's Republican-leaning northern suburbs around Lake Norman. Much of the opposition to the governor there didn't involve bathrooms; voters were upset that McCrory wouldn't stop a plan to build toll lanes on Interstate 77, the main commuter route in the area that has some of the region's worst traffic jams.
McCrory, however, clearly hopes his legacy won't revolve around tolls and bathrooms. In his concession video, he ticked off a number of accomplishments: Income tax cuts, pay raises for teachers, budget surpluses and 300,000 new jobs.
"While exhibiting the highest of ethical standards, I am proud that our team leaves the state a much better place than when we came into office," the governor said in the video.
Fellow Republicans praised McCrory as he conceded defeat. "Four years ago, his leadership helped ignite North Carolina's struggling economy, which is now the fastest growing in the entire nation," U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis said in a news release Monday. "Our state's elected officials would be wise to build on this momentum and ensure that North Carolina remains the best state to get a quality education, raise a family, run a business and retire."
(c)2016 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)