Justice Morgan’s likely run is good news for NC Dems

N.C. Supreme Court Justice Michael Morgan

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It has been a little quiet around Raleigh, as legislators finish up a marathon legislative session. Democrats have been beat down in the capital with Republican legislative supermajorities working their policy will over the objections of Democrats, including Gov. Cooper. 

Yet, Democrats have reasons for hope because of a few recent developments. 

One of the more interesting political developments in the last few weeks is that North Carolina Democrats may be getting an interesting primary in 2024 that could pay dividends for team blue. 

Earlier this spring, Democrat North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Michael “Mike” Morgan announced he would not seek re-election to the state’s highest court. Morgan will be 69 years of age on election day in 2024 and could only serve three years of an eight-year term due to the state’s current mandatory retirement age of 72 for judges.  

Justice Morgan, one of two registered Democrats on the state’s highest court, said recently that many Democrats are encouraging asking him to enter the Democratic primary for governor. 

Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein entered the race he has long been planning to run in January.  

Who is Justice Michael Morgan?

Michael Rivers Morgan was born in Cherry Point, North Carolina, to Barbara and the late Leander R. Morgan and is the eldest of five children. The family resided in Washington, D.C., until young Mike was the age of six, when the family relocated to his mother’s hometown of New Bern, North Carolina. As an eight-year-old fifth grader in 1964, Mike was the first black student to attend all-white Trent Park Elementary School, becoming one of five black students that year to integrate the New Bern public school system city-wide. In the 11th grade, he became the first black drum major of the marching band of New Bern Senior High School. 

Morgan earned his Bachelor of Arts Degree in both history and sociology from Duke University. He went on to obtain his Juris Doctor Degree with honors from North Carolina Central University School of Law, where he served as the student body president during his final year of law school. 

In 1994, Justice Morgan was appointed as a Wake County District Court Judge by Gov. Jim Hunt, and he was subsequently elected to the judgeship by the voters of Wake County in 1996 and again in 2000. He was elected to the Superior Court bench in 2004 for an eight-year term and was re-elected to the post in 2012. In his first statewide quest for elective office, Justice Morgan was elected in November 2016 to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina. 

The benefit of Morgan’s run for Democrats

Should Morgan pull the trigger, he will have an uphill battle against Attorney General Josh Stein, who is well known and well-funded. 

Mr. Stein would of course like to avoid a significant primary contest, but that may not be in the best interest of his party or his own candidacy.  

Looking at a few key elections, 2008 for N.C. Democrats and 2016 for the NCGOP, exciting primary contests help lift the parties in the General Election. 

An exciting primary contest between Clinton and Obama attracted huge numbers of unaffiliated voters in the North Carolina 2008 Democratic primary for president. Far fewer unaffiliated voters chose to vote in the GOP primary where the selection of U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona was a forgone conclusion. 

The situation flipped in 2016, when Clinton was coronated for Democrats by the time the Dem race hit N.C., but Trump, Ted Cruz, and others were battling it out in the state. 

I was executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party in 2016. We found that 75% of unaffiliated voters who chose a GOP ballot voted for Trump in the General Election, irrespective of who they voted for in the primary. Many unaffiliated primary voters cast ballots like loyal Democrats or loyal Republicans, but not all. Exciting primary contests draw in unaffiliated voters early, who then tend to stick with your team. 

Assuming President Biden continues to seek re-election with no real primary threat, a competitive Democrat primary for governor is the only statewide race that can draw these critical swing unaffiliated voters to pull a Democrat ballot instead of opting for the GOP primary, which will certainly have high-profile contests for the GOP nominations for president and governor. 

Even with Justice Morgan entering the race, I would argue that Stein is the front runner in the race for governor, in both the Democratic primary and the General Election. He is far better known than Morgan and is extremely well-funded. Should Stein advance, he would face a Republican Party that has only elected three Republican governors since 1972. When Roy Cooper finishes his term at the end of 2024, Democrats will have occupied the Executive Mansion 36 out of the last 52 years, with Republicans only serving 16. Republican Pat McCrory’s single term (2013-2016) is the only time Republicans have controlled North Carolina’s executive branch in the last 30 years. 

There is a reason that in Raleigh they say A.G. stands for “almost governor.” 

Mike Easley and Roy Cooper both served as attorney general before becoming governors. They went 2-2 in the quest to become governor. Attorneys general can run on issues with broad bi-partisan support. Law and order, tackling drug addiction, and protecting seniors from scam artists.  

Meanwhile, history shows that moving from the lieutenant governor’s office to governor, as Republican Mark Robinson is attempting to do, is extremely difficult. Since the state constitution was changed in 1980 to allow governors to serve two consecutive terms, sitting lieutenant governors are 1-5: Jim Gardner (R-1992), Dennis Wicker (D-2000), Walter Dalton (D-2012), and Dan Forest (R-2020) all lost bids for governor.  

Democrat Bev Perdue, elected to a single term in 2008, was the lone exception.  

Should Stein compete against Mark Robinson in the General Election, he will meet North Carolina’s first African American lieutenant governor. Stein will have to contrast his positions and qualifications against Robinson without offending the sensibilities of people of color. Learning how to thread that needle in a primary could be valuable. 

And as Woodshed will explain in Part 2, this is not the only good news for North Carolina Democrats. 

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