Loss of 'March Madness' games could hurt North Carolina governor's re-election bid

September 13, 2016 11:13 AM EDT

View of the NCAA basketball trophy as confetti falls after the game between the Villanova Wildcats and the North Carolina Tar Heels in the championship game of the 2016 NCAA Men's Final Four at NRG Stadium, in Houston, Texas, April 4, 2016. Mandatory Cred

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By Colleen Jenkins

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (Reuters) - North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory has weathered negative headlines as jobs, conventions and musical performances were canceled in his state this year to protest a law deemed discriminatory against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

But news that the Southern state was being stripped of hosting two rounds of the nationally popular "March Madness" Division I men's college basketball tournament next spring could prove the law's most damaging fallout yet for the Republican seeking re-election in November, political experts said on Tuesday.

"There’s one thing you don’t do in North Carolina. That is mess with basketball, particularly college basketball," said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in Salisbury.

In addition to the tournament, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) announced on Monday it would relocate six other championship sporting events from North Carolina for the 2016-17 season.

NCAA President Mark Emmert said the move was a "proverbial no-brainer" after North Carolina in March became the only U.S. state to require transgender people to use bathrooms in government buildings and public schools that correspond with the sex listed on their birth certificate.

The Republican-backed law, known as House Bill 2 or H.B. 2, also blocked local government measures aimed at protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination.

McCrory signed the measure into law and has continued to defend it as he campaigns for a second four-year term. Several recent opinion polls show him trailing his Democratic opponent, state Attorney General Roy Cooper, who has criticized the incumbent for backing the law despite mounting economic losses.

In July, the National Basketball Association yanked its 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte over objections to H.B. 2.

The NCAA's decision will not help McCrory's re-election chances, said Steven Greene, a political science professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, the state capital.

"He’s going to suffer from this the most," Greene said in a phone interview, explaining that most of the Republican state legislators associated with the law represent districts drawn so that Republicans have a good chance of winning elections.

Responding on Tuesday to the NCAA's move, McCrory called for a halt to "economic threats or political retaliation" while nearly two dozen states challenge an Obama administration policy that calls for public schools to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice.

"The issue of redefining gender and basic norms of privacy will be resolved in the near future in the United States court system for not only North Carolina, but the entire nation," the governor said in a statement.

Around North Carolina, residents and local officials bemoaned the loss of championship events. Polls have shown most voters think the law is hurting the state, which has hosted more Division I men’s basketball tournament games than any other.

"That's part of North Carolina's heart right there," said Cindy Clodfelter, 62, a retired school counselor in Winston-Salem. "Anything that messes with my sports, I don't like it."

The mayor of Cary - a town which was to host championship events in women's soccer, men's and women's tennis, women's lacrosse and baseball, but lost all of them to this week's NCAA decision - said it was time for state lawmakers to re-evaluate the law.

McCrory "seems to be doubling down," said Mayor Harold Weinbrecht Jr. "It will say a lot about our state if he wins or if he loses."

(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Will Dunham and Jonathan Oatis)

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