Within hours after the returns came in from the 2022 midterm election, speculation was already floating about 2024. Two years from November, the general election will have presidential and gubernatorial contests on the ballot, along with N.C.’s Council of State and the N.C. General Assembly. 

For all intents and purposes, the races start now, even though candidates have not officially declared their intent to run, except for N.C. Labor Commissioner Josh Dobson, who said in December’s monthly Council of State meeting that he would not run for re-election.

“Let me be clear; I’m not going anywhere,” Dobson said. “My focus over the next two years will be health and safety in the workplace, toning down the political rhetoric, and working with this council and this General Assembly to find innovative solutions to the workforce shortage across the state, and, in particular, state government.”

Labor Commissioner will be an open race in 2024, as will the race for N.C. Governor. Current Gov. Roy Cooper cannot run again due to statutory term limits, but his endorsement will carry weight. His overall approval rating among voters has remained relatively high and unchanged through much of his tenure, despite conflict with the Republican-led General Assembly and more vetoes than all other N.C. governors combined. A Civitas Poll taken in November finds that 48% of voters think he’s doing a good job, compared to 43% who do not. 

N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein. source: ncdoj.gov

Among Democrats, the field of candidates is somewhat split. The left-wing non-profit Carolina Forward released early polling that showed current Attorney General Josh Stein leads with 22% of voters favoring him, followed by former secretary of N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Mandy Cohen second (18%), and newly elected U.S. Congressman Jeff Jackson trailing not far behind (12%). Another 39%, however, were undecided, and 9% had another candidate in mind. Cohen led in urban areas, and Stein in suburban and rural areas. While she has not indicated her intention to run, Cohen served in the Biden Administration in health policy and became the face of the state’s pandemic response, including forced shutdowns, so gauging how voters would respond to that association is likely a significant consideration for Democrats going into 2024.

Among Republicans, current Lt. Governor Mark Robinson leads Carolina Forward’s poll with 54% of respondents, as opposed to U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis (20%) and Treasurer Dale Folwell (4%). The preference for Robinson among Republicans was especially pronounced in rural areas (64%) and with men (61%), while in suburban areas (41%) and with women (49%), Robinson did not have quite as high support. Folwell has made clear that he is considering a run for governor, after serving as N.C. Treasurer since 2017.

If the primary voters were to select Robinson, age 54, and Stein, age 56, at this point, Stein leads 44-42, but 14% were undecided. Republicans, independents, men, and rural voters favored Robinson, while Democrats, women, suburban, and urban voters preferred Stein.

But a lot can happen between now and the 2024 primary elections. Among other things, the 4th Circuit U.S. Appeals Court heard arguments in December on a state criminal libel law that could be used against N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein. The law, which dates back to 1931, makes it illegal to lie in a political ad. In 2020, Stein narrowly defeated Republican challenger Jim O’Neill, the Forsyth County district attorney. One of Stein’s ads, called “Survivor,” blamed O’Neill for the state’s backlog of untested rape kits. O’Neill filed a complaint with the State Board of Elections, calling the ad false and defamatory. The NCSBE investigated and referred the case to the Wake County District attorney’s office. 

Stein and his lawyers then worked to have the libel law overturned. Should the 4th Circuit rule that the libel law stands, Stein could face misdemeanor charges for running an intentionally false political ad. Those charges may change the 2024 gubernatorial primary strategy for Democrats.

In the race for the White House, N.C. voters selected a Republican in three of the last four presidential elections; Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020, Mitt Romney in 2012, and Barak Obama won the state in 2008. In a November Civitas poll, N.C. voters do not approve of the job President Joe Biden is doing, with 54% disapproving and 42% approving. That figure is up from a low of 31% approval over the summer. When asked who they would vote for between Trump and Biden in 2024, N.C. voters are deadlocked 44-44 between the two.

Biden’s approval rating was a weight on Democrats in the 2022 election. However, the left’s messaging in the campaign was clearer to voters. In the Civitas poll, only 39% of respondents think Republicans did a good job explaining their visions for Congress, compared to over 48% believing Democrats did a good job. 

While neither Stein nor Robinson was on the ballot in 2022, campaign donations continue to fill their coffers. In the 2022 mid-year campaign finance report, Stein had raised more than $4.2 million and had $3.4 million cash on hand. For Robinson, the campaign report indicates $2 million in cash on hand, and he has raised more than $3.5 million.

“Fundraising is the greatest indicator of a candidate’s intention to run in the next cycle,” said Jim Stirling of the John Locke Foundation. “Given North Carolina’s ever-increasing election costs, candidates must raise significant funds to get a message out to voters. There is a long road ahead to the 2024 election, and it would not be the first time a candidate came from nowhere to beat out a well-known opponent.” 

The Civitas poll was conducted Nov. 12-14 and surveyed 600 likely general election voters with a margin of error of 3.99%. The Carolina Forward poll was taken among 606 registered N.C. voters a month before the 2022 elections, with a margin of error of 4%.