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Scott Mooneyham: A protest, an election and a contest to frame them

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RALEIGH — A day before tens of thousands of people gathered for a protest march in the state capital, the head of the state Republican Party, Claude Pope, called a news conference to conduct his own protest.

Pope told reporters that elected Democratic officer-holders like U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and Attorney General Roy Cooper should condemn the key organizer of the march, state NAACP head William Barber, for his inflammatory rhetoric.

“We can have our disagreements on policy,” Pope said. “But if Democrats want to have a seat at the table, they need to learn how to turn down some of that rhetoric and discourse.”

In an indirect sort of way, his words get to the heart of the current state of politics here.

The problem is that they imply that the Republicans who control the levers of power in Raleigh, like the Democrats before them, have not acted as if politics is a zero-sum game, one in which those in the losing party are ignored like a dull water-colored landscape hanging on the wall.

And the words imply that those in the minority party, whether Democrat or Republican, who publicly cooperate with the majority party won’t eventually be punished for that cooperation.

After spending almost two decades watching Raleigh politics, I could write five columns citing examples to show that doesn’t happen very often.

So, what is one to make of those words, coming from someone whose job is electoral politics and not the formation of public policy?

They likely mean that, while Pope and Republican leaders hope to use Barber’s Moral Monday protests as a wedge (as I have already written about), the GOP also worries about the effect of its message.

Pope can say that the media pays too much attention to Barber.

When you can tap into voter anger and organize a rally that brings tens of thousands of people to Raleigh on a weekend, you deserve media attention. When you can do that after having organized weeks and weeks of protests during a single summer that brought thousands more to the Legislative Building, a political reporter who ignores that isn’t doing his or her job.

What Pope and his fellow GOP leaders fear is that Barber helps turn the 2014 elections into a bottom-up election, with voters more focused on policies bubbling up from Raleigh than those rolling down from Washington.

It would be quite a feat.

At a time when many voters are fairly disengaged when it comes to following the machinations of state and local politics, votes up and down the ballot are cast based on the political winds pushing out of Washington.

The Republicans hope that is the case again this year, that they can make all contests about Obamacare and turn Hagan, at the top of the ballot, into an Obamacare villain who damages the Democrats below her.

When thousands show up in Raleigh on a weekend to change the conversation, some worrying and fretting might be in order.