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Cooper, Forest Need Primary Wins Before Governor's Showdown

Roy Cooper Dan Forest
Roy Cooper (left) and Dan Forest (right) need to win their primaries before they can face off in the North Carolina governor race.

RALEIGH — North Carolina's Democratic governor will have to defend his seat against the highest ranking Republican official elected statewide in this fall's general election if each wins his respective party primary next week.

Gov. Roy Cooper and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest are running for their party nominations on Super Tuesday, as are candidates seeking the Council of State's other nine statewide positions.

Fifteen candidates are running for the Democratic or Republican nomination for lieutenant governor in the hopes of succeeding Forest, including Republican schools chief Mark Johnson. Seven candidates from both parties are vying to replace Johnson.

Cooper faces low-key opposition in the primary from Democratic challenger Ernest Reeves of Greenville, who has run unsuccessfully for several positions since 2014. Forest is being challenged by state Rep. Holly Grange of Wilmington for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.

Forest, who was elected lieutenant governor in 2012 and 2016, says he’s built a 100-county operation with more than 10,000 campaign volunteers. Like many lieutenant governors before him, Forest began prepping for a possible gubernatorial run years before his campaign kickoff in August. He has raised significantly more money than Grange, who entered the race in the summer.

A favorite of Christian conservatives, Forest is a former architect pitching what he calls a broad, positive message focusing on hope, opportunity and bringing people together.

Voters are “tired of identity politics," Forest, 52, told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "I think they're tired of being called haters and bigots ... and everything else when it's just really not the case. They love our state, they love America, they love their families. And they just want the best for their families.”

But Grange, a former U.S. Army officer and West Point cadet, said Forest has been divisive and would campaign in a general election with political baggage.

“The most important thing is electability,” she said in an interview. “And I think that electability is an issue with Dan Forest.”

Grange, 59, specifically cites Forest’s aggressive support and defense of North Carolina’s 2016 “bathroom bill” as an obstacle to victory in November. The legislation, known as HB 2, barred local governments from approving LGBT anti-discrimination ordinances and required transgender people to use the public restroom that corresponded with the sex on their birth certificates.

Grange said HB 2, partially repealed in 2017, was unpopular in her hometown, whose film industry business took a hit during a nationwide backlash against the law. She voted for the 2017 repeal.

Forest said the bathroom bill is old news and that he supports the status quo under the replacement law: “Nobody wants to bring it back to North Carolina again. Business is booming. People are happy.”

Grange also said Forest’s connection to insurance magnate Greg Lindberg is disconcerting. Lindberg is currently being tried on federal charges of trying to bribe Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey. Causey has not been accused of any wrongdoing and aided authorities in their investigation.

Independent expenditure committees that have supported Forest previously received large amounts of money from Lindberg, which Grange says raises ethical issues. She questioned why the committees haven't returned the money.

Forest said those donations were given well before Lindberg was charged, and the contributions are legal.

“There is no ethical issue there,” he said.

In preparation for a reelection bid, Cooper had accumulated $9.5 million in campaign cash in mid-February, according to campaign finance records. Reeves reported no cash in the last campaign report that the state elections board posted.

Cooper campaign spokeswoman Liz Doherty said the governor “has fought hard to expand health care, improve public schools and create jobs, all in the name of putting North Carolina first — always."

"Dan Forest would take us backward,” Doherty said.

Forest, who as lieutenant governor has worked to bring broadband service to schools and teach students financial literacy, said he's really never heard a substantive message from Cooper.

A runoff for lieutenant governor in one or both crowded primaries is possible; the leading candidate must receive more than 30% of the vote to avoid one.

Democratic candidates include current state Reps. Chaz Beasley and Yvonne Lewis Holley, Sen. Terry Van Duyn, and environmental lawyer Bill Toole, whose big campaign issue is legalizing marijuana. Toole and Van Duyn were among the campaign's top fundraisers.

Besides Johnson, Republican candidates for lieutenant governor include former U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, current state Sen. Andy Wells, former state Rep. Scott Stone and Mark Robinson, a former factory worker and day care operator who became known in 2018 for a gun rights speech he delivered at a Greensboro city council meeting. Wells vaulted toward the top of fundraising by giving his campaign a $500,000 loan.

Five Democrats are running for the nomination to succeed Johnson as superintendent. They are education consultant Constance Lav Johnson; education professor Jen Mangrum; educator group president Michael Maher; former Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board member James Barrett; and Wake County school board Chairman Keith Sutton. The Republicans running are state Rep. Craig Horn and Catherine Truitt, North Carolina chancellor for Western Governors University.

In the attorney general's race, Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill, ex-state agency attorney Sam Hayes and North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence executive director Christine Mumma are competing in next week's Republican primary to face Democratic incumbent Josh Stein in November.

Democratic State Auditor Beth Wood and the Republican insurance commissioner, Causey, both face primary challenges, with Democrat Luis Toledo challenging Wood, and Republican Ronald Pierce challenging Causey. Pierce also ran against Causey in the 2016 primary.

Tony Street and Tim Hoegemeyer are seeking the GOP nomination for auditor. Former Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin, now the state Democratic Party chairman, is his party's nominee for the commissioner's job.

In other races:

— Republicans Pearl Burris Floyd, Josh Dobson and Chuck Stanley are seeking the nomination for labor commissioner. Current Commissioner Cherie Berry isn’t seeking reelection. The winner takes on Democrat Jessica Holmes.

— Republicans Chad Brown, E.C. Sykes and Michael LaPaglia are running for the secretary of state nomination. Incumbent Elaine Marshall is the Democratic nominee.

— Democrats Donovan Alexander Watson, Jenna Wadsworth and Walter Smith want to challenge Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, a Republican.

— Matt Leatherman, Ronnie Chatterji and Dimple Ajmera seek the Democratic nomination for state treasurer against Republican incumbent Dale Folwell.