This legislative session, Gov. Roy Cooper has vetoed more than 14 bills from the Republican-led General Assembly, using the stamp to highlight in national media what he calls a “culture war” against Republicans.
The national spotlight on his effort to push back against a Republican-led legislature doesn’t seem to be changing lawmakers’ policy or shifting veto override votes, but the summer’s campaign finance reports indicate that it is drawing out-of-state money for Democrats.
“With such a very closely divided political state raising that recognition, especially outside of the state to get resources into the state, is really one the key dynamics that he’s going to be able to bring to the overall race,” said Dr. Michael Bitzer, Professor of Politics and History at Catawba College.
Cooper has vetoed bills that restrict abortions after the first trimester, ban ESG investing in state retirement plans, and ban the state from requiring employees and job candidates to make a statement of ideology. The legislature has overridden eight of his vetoes so far, with more override votes scheduled. His vetoes on bills to expand and strengthen charter schools, ban transgender surgeries for minors, keep biological males out of sports designated for biological females, and the Parents Bill of Rights were overridden by the legislature in August.
Cooper is using these policy losses to present the state as a major front in the Democrats’ national battle to take back state legislatures. Term-limited, Cooper will not be on the ballot, but his fundraising for Democrats ensures that he will still have a powerful role in the 2024 election. Cooper is pounding the national pavement to sound political alarms over the state legislature’s abortion law, school choice, and parental influence in the classroom.
Is it working?
The numbers are incomplete as candidates prepare their campaign finance reports, but so far, in most closely watched congressional races, numbers show that incumbent Democrats are building a war chest for 2024 with a lot of out-of-state money. However, the biggest war chests are for incumbent Republicans Rep. Virginia Foxx and Rep. Patrick McHenry, who each report more than $2.5 million in campaign cash on hand as of June 30, 2023.
The John Locke Foundation’s Jim Stirling analyzed data available for North Carolina’s federal races including their totals raised, how much cash they have on hand, how much of their campaign contributions are coming from out-of-state sources, and how much some have loaned their campaign. So far, CD13 Republican primary candidate Josh Mcconkey has the largest loan in the congressional races, at $250,000.
“When calculating in-state vs. out-of-state funding, I choose to remove a candidate’s loans to their committee from their in-state contributions,” said Stirling. ”Many candidates choose to invest significant amounts of their personal finances into their committee in the early stages of the election. Since candidates are not limited in how much they choose to invest in their campaign committee, this can inflate their in-state money and give the impression that they have greater financial backers in their home state than in reality.”
North Carolina’s 7-7 congressional maps are being redrawn after the court-drawn maps were used for 2022 only. The lineups may shift in the months ahead as lawmakers return to Raleigh for redistricting. Four key congressional districts are getting the most attention from analysts and donors.
“With Republicans only holding a narrow majority in Congress, political scientists are closely monitoring NC’s 1st, 6th, 13th, & 14th congressional districts,” said Stirling. “These four districts are the most likely districts in NC’s congressional delegation to see any kind of political party change.”
Cooper’s effort to stop North Carolina Republicans’ impact at the border appears to be resonating with out-of-state donors with an eye on the congressional races. But a focus for Democrats in 2024 is wresting back Republican’s decade-long control of the state. As the de-facto head of the Democratic Party since 2016, Cooper saw Republicans win the majority three times in the legislature, twice on the NC Supreme Court, and maintain a majority in the Council of State.
Can Cooper turn Republicans’ election tide?
“I would attribute the general November electorate to being pretty much a 46/47 split on either side,” said Bitzer. “The Council of State races have been ones where Democrats can win and Republicans can win on the same ballot, but it flips back and forth. I think what Cooper certainly wants to do is leave a resource trail for Stein, if he’s the ultimate nominee, but also make sure that the party, particularly at the state legislative level, is perhaps able to negate super-majorities.”
Current Attorney General and Democrat nominee for governor, Josh Stein, is taking that lesson from Cooper, raising money out of state and focusing his public comments on “culture wars” with Republicans. He reported taking in more than $10 million in donations as of June 30, outpacing the front-running Republican Lt. Gov Mark Robinson, who reported raising $2.2 million with $3.2 million in cash on hand.
Robinson’s campaign says there is more to momentum than money, pointing out his 22,000 individual contributions.
“Lieutenant Governor Robinson raised $2.2 million on this report and has $3.2 million cash on hand, which is more than any Republican Governor candidate in North Carolina history,” Robinson campaign manager Conrad Pogorzelski told CJ.
An unapologetic conservative, Robinson has been a target for Stein, who proved his discipline in fundraising in 2020. In that race for NC Attorney General, Stein outraised his opponent Republican Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill, by more than 10-1. However, he defeated O’Neill by less than 15,000 votes, or 1% of the total votes cast.
“In this day and age, I think it’s more about the dynamic of the ground game, the turn out operations, rather that the great money wars that everybody tends to focus on, like how much money is being spent on campaign advertising,” said Bitzer. “It’s now about getting your folks to show up — identifying them, getting them energized and mobilized to show up and cast a ballot.”
In June, 46.2% of responding NC voters said that on a 2024 generic ballot they are likely to vote for the Republican congressional candidate, compared to 42.8% for the Democrat. However, that is down for Republicans from January of 2023 at 48.1%. Those voters did not shift to Democrat though; they seemed to have shifted to the “undecided” column, which grew by a point and a half since January.
“That is the dynamic of NC‘s elections nowadays,” said Bitzer. “The margin of victory is going to be within the margin of error and that is typically 3 to 4 percentage points. What that 3 to 4 percent does is anybody’s guess.”
Carolina Journal’s Follow the Money series is completed with the research of Jim Stirling, Research Fellow at the John Locke Foundation’s Civitas Center for Public Integrity. This story originally appeared in the 2023 Aug/Sept issue of the Carolina Journal.