News: CJ Exclusives

Cooper gets second term, but faces a lot of questions

Gov. Roy Cooper at a July 2020 COVID-19 news briefing. (Pool photo)
Gov. Roy Cooper at a July 2020 COVID-19 news briefing. (Pool photo)

Races filling the N.C. ballot were won or lost by the thinnest of margins. With a few exceptions, races — statewide and national — stayed excruciatingly close days after election night.

Just as polls predicted. All teetering within the margins of error, albeit with at least one important anomaly on a largely red night. 

The incumbent governor, Roy Cooper, as of Thursday, Nov. 12, was beating Lt. Gov. Dan Forest by about 255,000 votes, about 4.5%, according to unofficial results. That’s still less than the margins won by State Treasurer Dale Folwell (about five points) and Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler (nearly eight points), both Republicans.

A statewide voting canvass will be complete Friday. The State Board of Elections will certify the results Nov. 24.

This is the second straight election cycle Democrat Cooper won the governor’s office and Republican Donald Trump took the state’s 15 electoral votes.

In 2016, Cooper beat Republican incumbent Pat McCrory by a little more than 10,000 votes, a result McCrory was unwilling to concede until early December of that year. 

The 2020 result in the governor’s race was, in fact, tighter than polls predicted. Some polls had Cooper, who raised about three times as much as Forest, leading by as many as 10 points a week before the election. 

Steven Greene, a political science professor at N.C. State University, told WRAL that Cooper’s win was a “clear victory.” In a relevant sense, of course.  

Forest was strong in the state’s smaller, rural counties, winning in places such as Rockingham and Alexander, for example. But Cooper won big in the suburbs, getting more than 409,000 votes in Wake to Forest’s about 208,000. Forest dominated on Election Day — about 541,000 to about 326,000 — but Cooper got far more votes by absentee ballot. 

Greene told WRAL that Cooper was fortunate because Forest wasn’t the strongest of competitors. Cooper and the Democratic Governors Association spend $50 million on the race; Forest about just $5 million, political strategist Brad Crone said during a post-election event sponsored by the N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation. 

Forest was behind Cooper throughout the election cycle, and his words and actions against wearing masks unsettled many voters nervous about the pandemic. 

Cooper viewed himself as a calming presence, holding regular media briefings addressing the pandemic and fielding questions from mostly friendly reporters. He issued executive orders and lockdowns in March, edicts critics viewed as draconian and subjective. Initially, businesses closed temporarily. A growing number are making those closures permanent. 

It’s just the start of an ominous trend, economists and political experts warn. 

As many as 40% of businesses targeted with restrictions will disappear, Michael Walden has told Carolina Journal. Walden is an N.C. State University economist and member of the governor’s N.C. Economic Recovery Group.  

“The election win certainly gives Governor Cooper more freedom to take the actions he wants in addressing COVID-19,” says Mitch Kokai, John Locke Foundation senior political analyst. “The big question is whether that means turning the clock back to the severe economic restrictions enacted earlier this year, or continuing to reopen the state at a pace that’s not dictated by the electoral calendar. How he approaches this question is likely to determine how well he gets along with his frequent sparring partners in the Republican-led General Assembly.” 

Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State, asks this: How should Cooper move forward on coronavirus? He then offers an answer. 

“I suspect he will be unwilling to reverse the ‘opening up’ of the state, although he will probably continue with the cautious approach that is consistent with his personality,” Taylor says.   

In his victory speech, Cooper talked about the coming months. About striving to protect one another, regardless of individual political beliefs. To come together as a state. He talked about the ways North Carolinians have persevered, through racial tensions, a rough-and-tumble election season, and through a string of hurricanes. He played on the usual political themes — strong schools, clean air and water, and a vibrant economy. 

“We didn’t let the question of ‘how’ stop us,” Cooper said Tuesday night. “We just did it. We came together to do the hard work. And right now, it’s time to do the hard work of healing, because North Carolinians deserve that.” 

Cooper closed the state in March and has allowed it to reopen only in truncated phases, without concurrence from his Council of State, despite a lawsuit from Forest, which — given courts friendly to Democrats — he eventually dropped. At the same time, Cooper has promised $445 million state tax dollars to corporations so far in 2020

The Republican legislature had passed bills to establish the 10 elected members of the Council of State as a check on the governor’s power. Cooper vetoed them all. Cooper reopened elementary schools but has mostly given school leaders, influenced by teachers’ unions, the option to continue virtual learning. 

Cooper is telling residents to trust him and his cohorts, most notably state health secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen, to lead them through the pandemic. He has incessantly talked about relying on “science and data” but remains cloudy in identifying specific outbreaks and areas of concern, leaning instead on a “one-size-fits-all approach.” In the process he has vetoed several bills that would reopen businesses such as bars, gyms, and bowling alleys. 

Rather than reasonably reopening businesses, such as bars and movie theaters, he has limited seating to a point to which operating becomes untenable. Cooper is asking residents to rely on government programs, such as N.C. HOPE, which prevents evictions and keeps utility companies from cutting power to homes, as well as other assistance from taxpayers.. 

“Many families are trying to do the right thing, but this virus has made it difficult,” Cooper said in a statement. 

Expanding Medicaid to 700,000 mostly working age, childless, able-bodied adults is one of the governor’s biggest priorities. 

“Our current Medicaid program already covers 20% of our population, serving poor children and pregnant women, the aged and disabled,” wrote Becki Gray, John Locke Foundation senior vice president. “Instead of ensuring the program meets the needs of those who need it, Cooper’s expansion plan would cost an additional $6 billion in the first two years.” 

But what about that budget plan, the latest of which Cooper vetoed because it failed to expand Medicaid? 

 “The state was in healthy fiscal shape going into the pandemic, but any hopes of an unconstrained spending spree are surely gone,” Taylor says.” Now he is a lame-duck, he might feel freer to pursue bipartisan cooperation.” 

Which means working with Republicans, who remained confident throughout this election in keeping or even gaining seats in the General Assembly. Even if polls hinted at Democrats picking off seats.  

That didn’t happen. 

The GOP kept control of the state Senate by a 28-22 margin, losing one seat of their majority. Republicans control the House, too, as Democrats lost four seats. Republicans will open the 2021 legislative session with a 69-51 majority. It’s not veto proof, but considerable enough to prevent the most progressive of Cooper’s initiatives. 

The governor has some interesting questions to answer, Taylor says.  

“With the GOP pick-ups in the General Assembly, his dream of having one or both chambers under Democratic control have been shattered. His vetoes can still be sustained, but his party must face another round of redistricting with the Republicans in charge. Cooper will watch as a spectator since the (N.C.) Constitution gives the chief executive no role in the process.”