It’s not an original observation that political competition in North Carolina is intense. For the last decade, and to some extent even the last century, our state has seen hard-fought races up and down the ballot. Richard Burr’s victories have stood out as relatively sizable, but even he tends to win only by single digits. Next year’s elections will continue the trend.
Polling shows the presidential and Senate elections to be close. That’s not surprising given the closely balanced alignment of the state and the weakness of incumbents Donald Trump and Thom Tillis. Conversely, to date, gubernatorial polls have shown wide leads for Governor Roy Cooper. Civitas, PPP and Meredith College all have him leading his Republican opponents by double digits, The same polls, however, also find that his opponents remain relatively anonymous. Here is the question: When his competition emerges from obscurity, how strong a challenge will they pose?
Assuming for the moment that he wins the primary, Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest will be the GOP standard bearer against Cooper. Although he has been elected twice to statewide office, those victories came largely as tributes to being a generic Republican in Republican years. He has little name recognition across the state. Insiders, Democrats especially, tend to see him as a deeply flawed candidate.
There’s good evidence for this. Forest is a strident social conservative who even went down to Texas to promote that state’s version of HB2; he invokes Biblical stories in making a case for maximal gun rights. In a statement that was historically ludicrous but revealing of his extreme cultural conservatism, he claimed that the United States was “founded on the principles of Jesus Christ.” (The Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated in the Washington administration, stated that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”) Forest’s social views are mainstream in the world of megachurches and right-wing chat rooms, but they could repel moderate suburbanites.
His radicalism does not end at social questions. In remarks to the right-wing Civitas Institute, he seemed to question the value of Social Security. Why would “we take care of mom and dad,” he wondered, if we knew they could count on a public pension? He asserted the the income tax–which accounts for half of North Carolina’s state revenues–“punishes success.” Public schools would lose a vast trove of resources if his education plan were to pass. On size of government issues, he is every bit as uncompromising as he is on the question of moral values.
So Forest is extreme, and both political science and North Carolina history indicate that extreme candidates tend to be punished for their stridency. Additionally, he carries the burden of scandal. No one was closer to indicted businessman Greg Lindberg than the lieutenant governor, who recruited Lindberg as a “sponsor” of his birthday party/fundraisier. Forest accepted $2.4 million in campaign contributions from Lindberg, and he steadfastly refuses to return the funds to his disgraced patron. Democrats have already released a devastating video detailing Forest’s role in the largest scandal of the decade.
That alone is not a guarantee, however, that he cannot sneak his radicalism into the governor’s mansion. Forest boasts a certain finesse in his public presentation that can mollify his hard-edged conservatism. I’d encourage readers to listen to Tim Boyum’s podcast interview with Forest. The lieutenant governor comes across as friendly and approachable, optimistic about the state in spite of his apocalyptic Christianist declinism. If he is allowed to define the terms of debate, he could convince swing voters that he’s a McCrory 2012-style inclusive conservative. It will take an aggressive effort by the Cooper campaign to expose Forest for the fire eater he is.
The bottom line: Forest brings a lot of baggage, political and ethical, to the campaign. But without a strong campaign by Cooper, he could well become the most extreme governor in North Carolina history.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.