RALEIGH — Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest earned dominating primary gubernatorial victories. But a blowout is unlikely in their fall election clash, especially if Donald Trump performs in presidential battleground North Carolina much how he did four years ago.
Forest and Cooper each neared getting 90% of the votes in their respective primaries on Tuesday. Now they'll go head to head.
Democrats and Republican strategists said Wednesday they expect this year's presidential and gubernatorial contests to ebb and flow together, with a strong effort by Trump helping Forest. Cooper defeated Republican Gov. Pat McCrory by just 10,000 votes in 2016 at the same time Trump won the state’s electoral votes by nearly 4 percentage points.
With Forest already closely aligned with Trump, “there's not going to be much margin between the presidential and the gubernatorial race,” said Mac McCorkle, a Duke University instructor and former adviser to Democratic Govs. Mike Easley and Beverly Perdue. Forest, he added, "is probably going to be within earshot of a competitive race unless Trump collapses.”
Cooper has a massive cash advantage over Forest entering the eight-month general election campaign. State reports showed $9.5 million in Cooper's campaign accounts as of a few weeks ago, compared to $750,000 for Forest.
The incumbent Cooper also has his bully pulpit, which he's used in office to battle with Republican legislators over public education spending and teacher pay, Medicaid expansion and the “bathroom bill” that gave North Carolina unwanted national attention. He’s gained more leverage since Republicans lost their veto-proof majorities in 2018. Cooper said reelecting him would help Democrats ultimately prevail on these issues.
“In 2016, we started righting the ship,” Cooper told Democrats at their primary-night celebration in Raleigh. “We've done a lot, but I'm not satisfied, are you? I won't be satisfied until teachers and other educators get the pay raises that they deserve. Until all students are in quality classrooms and out of trailers, until we close that health care coverage gap and reduce health care costs for all North Carolinians.”
McCorkle said Cooper’s campaign likely benefited from the strong showing of Joe Biden in Super Tuesday states. A Bernie Sanders nomination and his liberal platform could create discomfort for Cooper in a statewide race.
Forest said in his victory speech Tuesday that he’d stick to a campaign focusing on societal unity and economic and educational opportunity for individuals and the state.
“We obviously live in a very divisive time politically right now, and we believe it’s time to pull all North Carolinians together,” Forest said. The lieutenant governor previously has said that Cooper has little to show for his three years as governor.
In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Forest was optimistic that independent expenditure groups would spend in his race, predicting it would be the most closely watched governor’s election this year. North Carolina also will have the U.S. Senate race between Thom Tillis and Cal Cunningham and the Republican National Convention in Charlotte.
“We better have people come down to our aid,” Forest said. “There's going to be a lot of people playing in North Carolina and hopefully a lot of it will benefit us down the road.”
Republican Governors Association Executive Director Dave Rexrode said after Tuesday's primary it “stands ready to support” Fores, but didn't describe how. Rexrode accused Cooper of vetoing the 2019 state budget bill "in an attempt force his left-wing agenda on North Carolina voters.”
Cooper’s campaign and the Democratic Governors Association is jumping on Forest’s perceived weaknesses — labeling him extreme as a vocal supporter of the 2016 “bathroom bill,” which required transgender students to use the restroom matching their sex on their birth certificate. The law has been partially repealed.
“We will hold Forest accountable,” Democratic Governors Association spokesman Noam Lee said.
Cooper's campaign began a digital ad campaign highlighting connections between Forest and insurance magnate Greg Lindberg, who has given large amounts to committees supporting Forest. A jury on Wednesday deliberated on federal charges against Lindberg and two others accused of trying to bribe Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey. Forest isn’t accused of any wrongdoing.
Forest needs to veer the campaign conversation toward issues that appeal to swing voters such as school choice and clean energy, said Dee Stewart, a veteran Republican consultant not working with Forest.
In any event, Stewart said, Forest’s political “fortunes are largely tied to President Trump’s fortunes.”