Discussion of the coronavirus dominated the first half-hour of the gubernatorial debate between incumbent Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. But at times, Cooper treated Forest like a proxy for the GOP-led General Assembly, as the governor attacked school choice, tax cuts, teacher pay, and other issue-driven fights between Cooper and the legislature. 

The only debate between the two candidates took place Wednesday, Oct. 14. Forest asked for three debates, but Cooper agreed to only one. 

It was combative. The candidates clashed on reopening the state as the pandemic lingers. Forest promised to immediately reopen schools and businesses. He attacked Cooper’s lockdowns, saying the governor has destroyed the economy while failing to protect the vulnerable. Cooper slammed Forest for ignoring the pandemic.

The two have been sniping at each other since March. Cooper’s campaign repeatedly blasts Forest as “desperate” and “delusional.” Forest blames Cooper for nursing home deaths, economic suffering, and closed schools and businesses. 

Cooper’s relationship with the General Assembly soured even before he took office. Republican lawmakers sapped Cooper’s powers, and he launched the first of many legal battles between the branches. He has since shattered veto records and stalled the budget to push Medicaid expansion. 

“His relationship with the General Assembly has been bad ever since he took office,” said Mitch Kokai, John Locke Foundation senior political analyst. “One of the things he has done consistently is blame Republicans for not doing what he wants them to do. He’s vetoed all of their budgets, ignored their priorities, and pushed his priorities, even when it’s clear the General Assembly doesn’t want them.”

Cooper spent much of the debate attacking the legislature’s work for school choice, saying the voucher program starved public schools for “rich” kids. He promised to get rid of corporate tax cuts, while defending tax-funded incentives — targeted handouts to favored businesess.

Forest countered by saying he’d work with whoever controlled the General Assembly, rather than trying to undercut legislative leaders.

Cooper rarely sounds outraged in public, but he aggressively blamed Forest for fueling viral spread and spreading misinformation.

Forest replied that Cooper is blinded to the full devastation of the pandemic. He argued that Cooper’s lockdowns are ruining lives, fueling deaths of despair, and driving poverty. 

“Their kids are learning absolutely nothing,” Forest said. “They’ll log onto class and lay on the sofa. Special needs kids need teachers in the classroom. All kids need teachers in the classroom.”

Forest has pushed for economic reopening since the lockdowns began. The legislature passed a battery of reopening bills and checks on Cooper’s power to close businesses. Cooper vetoed them all, and Forest took the fight to court. He sued to check Cooper’s power to close businesses without permission from the 10 elected members of the Council of State. 

“This action is about the rule of law. That the chief executive must follow the law is as old as the idea of the rule of law itself,” his lawsuit said. 

His tone hasn’t changed much since.

“Cooper has laid off a million and a half people,” Forest said during the debate. “We need to get people back to work. We need to protect the most vulnerable. We can do two things at once.”

“We need to get people’s livelihoods back,” Forest said. “It’s devastating across the states. The businesses that have been closed, the businesses that have lost everything. We’re trading public health for public health.” 

Democrats have latched onto Forest’s skepticism of wearing masks and social distancing to paint him as being unconcerned about public health. But Forest does have President Trump’s endorsement, and has appeared with him at rallies in the state.

“The Governor of North Carolina, @RoyCooperNC, made it absolutely IMPOSSIBLE for the Republican Party to have its Convention there – and we all love the State,” Trump tweeted. “Millions of Dollars, & JOBS, lost by State. VOTE FOR @DanForestNC!”

Trump’s support hasn’t brought enough voters along, based on the Real Clear Politics polling average. Cooper enjoys a lead of 11.1 points in the RCP average. Trump trails former Vice President Joe Biden by only 3.3 points in the same survey average.