North Carolina’s governorship has not always been a venerated position. The first European settlers in the state were underclass “Lubbers” who resisted authority of all kinds, making early North Carolina a hive of lawlessness and piracy and virtually ungovernable by anyone, let alone a royally appointed chief executive. In the 18th century, the hated William Tryon left such a negative impression that the state’s first constitution limited governors to one-year terms. Centuries later, however, Governor Jim Hunt strengthened the office considerably, and it is now a coveted seat.
Incumbent Roy Cooper entered office having defeated a sitting governor, Pat McCrory, for the first time in the state’s history. McCrory is still extraordinarily bitter about his loss. But Cooper has maintained strong favorability ratings throughout his three-year tenure, and racked up a solid record of executive actions despite dealing with a legislature that, frankly, hates him. He has also raised an unprecedented amount of money for his reelection campaign: at present, he has $8.2 million cash-on-hand. It would appear that he is in a solid position.
But national Republicans dearly desire his seat. The RGA has stated that North Carolina is their “1b” priority after deep-red Montana. They say they believe they missed a good opportunity to keep the governorship in 2016 and view it as ripe for the picking this year. Observers in the state would likely consider this view wishful thinking on the part of a national establishment that does not understand the nuances of North Carolina politics. Nevertheless, the state can expect to see an enormous investment of funds on the Republican side.
Waiting to inherit their support is Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest. Ever since he was narrowly elected in 2012, he has been building toward a gubernatorial race. The Forest campaign has assiduously cultivated religious conservatives in the fundamentalist protestant churches that still exist in very large numbers outside the state’s cities. In addition to evangelical leaders, he has assembled a network of political supporters in all 100 counties. Although his fundraising has been unimpressive, his campaign is not to be taken lightly by Democrats.
Forest does have to win a primary. But that should not be too much of a challenge. Despite sporting an attractive candidate profile, his Republican opponent, Holly Grange, has gotten minimal traction. The conservative Civitas Institute found her at 3% in their last poll of the primary. It would appear that “I served in the military” is not enough of a message, even for a Republican.
So the general election is likely to come down to Forest versus Cooper. For all the evenly balanced fundamentals of the state, candidate quality is a variable that can scramble the deck in a tight race. Here, Cooper holds the advantage. Extreme social conservatism has not traditionally sold well in North Carolina governors’ races, and Forest brings that form of stridency in droves. His public statements leave a trove of wild statements that can be mined by Democrats for devastating attack ads. And he is constitutionally incapable of holding back. Republicans, then, will likely field a relatively flawed candidate against a popular, well-funded incumbent governor.
Polls so far show Cooper well ahead, but some of his lead is an artifact of name recognition. Not all of it, however: he also led the universally known Pat McCrory by healthy margins before the latter announced he would not run. Cooper is on track to raise $25 million or more in his reelection bid, and he has a message that resonates with North Carolina voters. Forest, by contrast, is an extremist. Thus, the incumbent enters this race as a modest favorite. Much can change, though, perhaps very soon as a certain socialist from Vermont threatens to bring down the whole Democratic ticket.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.