Think the 2018 midterms were contentious? The 2020 election in North Carolina will make that look like nothing.

The stakes for the current cycle could hardly be higher. North Carolina will be a swing state in President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign and the site of his party’s 2020 nominating convention. We’ll elect a governor for four years, and a U.S. senator for six — and the General Assembly is very much in play.

This piece will keep tabs on the frontrunners for the 2020 election in North Carolina and how the early campaigns are unfolding. Keep checking back for the latest on the state of the 2020 election in North Carolina.

    • See an update? Let us know. Write to andrew@longleafpolitics.com.



      Governor

      With the Republican supermajority in the General Assembly broken, the Executive Mansion takes on much more prominence. Gov. Roy Cooper will enjoy actual veto power in this new legislative session, and Republicans will be gunning for the governorship a lot harder in the 2020 election cycle.

      Gov. Cooper has high favorability ratings, but he’s also been largely on the sidelines of the day-to-day political world. Instead, he had been focused on fundraising and building up to the midterms. That all changes now. N.C. Republicans will try to put Cooper in difficult positions where he actually has to make decisions that matter.

      Cooper will also have to bring back his famed deal-making abilities that have been on the shelf since the early 2017 deal to repeal HB2.

      Gov. Roy Cooper, speaking in Charlotte.

      Lt. Gov. Dan Forest is the overwhelming favorite to be the Republican candidate for governor in 2020. He already has a much higher profile than most lieutenant governors, a powerful social media following, and genuine excitement among the base.

      Dan Forest. Photo via Lt. Gov. Dan Forest on Facebook.

      The elephant in the room remains former Gov. Pat McCrory.

      A poll from left-leaning Public Policy Polling actually shows McCrory running the closest race against the incumbent Cooper. However, much of that could be based on name recognition.

      McCrory has continued to publicly hold his options open to run for governor in 2020 or for U.S. Senate in 2022, when U.S. Sen. Richard Burr will be retiring.

      Main contenders: 

      • Gov. Roy Cooper
      • Lt. Gov. Dan Forest
      • Former Gov. Pat McCrory

      U.S. Senate


      Incumbent Thom Tillis’s seat will be up for election once again in a political world that looks much different than 2014. Back then, Tillis squeaked by then-U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan with less than 49% of the vote in a cycle favorable for Republicans.

      Since then, the White House has flipped and North Carolina has gotten bluer. Democrats also have several high-profile potential contenders. Tillis has an advantage, however, in that he can plausibly appeal to suburban voters that turned on the GOP in 2018.

      Photo by Thom Tillis via Facebook

      Tillis is all but a lock to get the Republican nomination for another term. He’ll likely face well-funded opposition from Democrats who smell blood in the water after 2018.

      The first Democrat to announce for the race was Mecklenburg County commissioner Trevor Fuller. His campaign has been slow to get off the ground.

      N.C. Sen. Erica Smith from northeastern North Carolina has also officially thrown her hat in the ring. As a former teacher and minister, she has the background to be a strong candidate.

      Former state Sen. Eric Mansfield has also said he’s considering a run on the Democratic side. He’s a doctor and Army veteran who previously lost a primary for lieutenant governor.

      The presumptive front-runner, however, is someone who hasn’t even declared: Sen. Jeff Jackson. The Charlotte Democrat has said he’s giving the 2020 U.S. Senate race a serious look.

      N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein has said he won’t run.

      Main contenders (officially announced names are in bold):

      • U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis (R)
      • N.C. Sen. Jeff Jackson (D)
      • Mecklenburg County commissioner Trevor Fuller (D)
      • N.C. Sen. Erica Smith (D)
      • Deborah Ross (D)
      • Eric Mansfield (D)
      • Kathy Manning (D)
      • Linda Coleman (D)
      • Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx (D)
      • N.C. Sen. Dan Blue (D)
      • Former state treasurer Janet Cowell (D)

      Lieutenant Governor


      This race is starting to heat up, with big names lining up on both the Republican and Democrat side.

      The biggest name among Republicans is Renee Elmers, the former Congresswoman from Dunn. She’s campaigning on health care as her primary issue.

      Former Rep. Scott Stone, who was swept out of the General Assembly by the urban area blue wave in 2018, is also in the race.

      So far, they’ve eclipsed Republican Deborah Cochran, former mayor of Mount Airy, who was the first Republican to throw her hat in the ring. Former Mecklenburg County commissioner Jim Puckett is also exploring a run. Republican insiders say State Superintendent Mark Johnson is also considering a run.

      Two high-profile Democrats — former U.S. Senate candidate and former Sen. Cal Cunningham and Sen. Terry Van Duyn — were the first to announce their candidacies. They were soon joined by Rep. Chaz Beasley, a 33-year-old rising star from northern Mecklenburg County.

      Former Sen. Malcolm Graham is also testing the waters.

      Former Sen. Joel Ford had also been rumored to be thinking about switching political parties and running for lieutenant governor as a Republican. This doesn’t appear like it will happen.

      Main contenders:

      • Renee Elmers (R)
      • Scott Stone (R)
      • Former Mecklenburg County commissioner Jim Puckett (R)
      • Mt. Airy mayor Deborah Cochran (R)
      • New Bern restauranteur Buddy Bengel
      • State Superintendent Mark Johnson
      • Former Sen. Cal Cunningham (D)
      • Sen. Terry Van Duyn (D)
      • Former Sen. Malcolm Graham (D)
      • Rep. Chaz Beasley (D)

      Attorney General

      Current AG Josh Stein is set to run for a second term after saying he won’t run for U.S. Senate.

      2016 candidate Jim O’Neill has announced he is in the race for the Republican nomination. He lost the bid to Buck Newton in the last cycle. Newton went on to lose to Stein.

      O’Neill is currently the Forsyth County district attorney.

      Main contenders:

      • Josh Stein
      • Jim O’Neill

      General Assembly


      After breaking the supermajority in the General Assembly, N.C. Democrats will seek to add to those gains, with eyes on overall control of the state legislature. Meanwhile, Republicans are trying to find a new message to win back suburban territory they lost in 2018.

      Whoever is successful will have the ability to draw new district lines after the decennial census — a major prize.

      The Legislative Building in Raleigh. Photo by the state of N.C.

      Superintendent of Public Instruction


      This statewide elected official oversees the Department of Public Instruction and serves as the head of the public schools.

      Republican Mark Johnson is in his first term as superintendent after defeating long-time incumbent June Atkinson in 2016. Johnson is likely to run for another term.

      He’ll likely face stiff competition from Jen Mangrum, an education professor and former teacher who challenged Sen. Phil Berger in 2018.

      James Barrett, a Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools board member, and Michael Maher, a professor at N.C. State, have also declared for the race.

      Main contenders:

      • Mark Johnson (R)
      • Jen Mangrum (D)
      • James Barrett (D)
      • Michael Maher (D)

      Secretary of State


      Elaine Marshall earned the highest percentage of the vote among statewide Democratic candidates in 2016. Out of 20 years in office, this term has been one of the most kind to her: She ultimately won a battle with the General Assembly over control of lobbyist registration.

      She’s expected to run again in 2020. Republicans have begun lining up to challenge her.

      The Republican nominee in 2016, Michael LaPaglia, will run again in 2020.

      Gaston County Commissioner Chad Brown is also in the race.

      Main contenders:

      • Elaine Marshall (D)
      • Michael LaPaglia (R)
      • Chad Brown (R)

      Labor Commissioner

      “Elevator Queen” Cherie Berry has announced that she will not run for sixth term as the state commissioner of labor. That leaves an open seat for the first time since the year 2000.

      No Republicans have yet announced campaigns to hold the seat for the GOP. Two Democrats are currently in the race.

      The frontrunner on the Democratic side is Jessica Holmes, an attorney and the chairwoman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners. Eva Lee, also a Raleigh attorney, is also in the race.

    • What districts will we use for 2020?

      This is one of the biggest questions right now for the 2020 election.

      There are numerous lawsuits at various stages of the legal process challenging the existing lines for U.S. House and the General Assembly. Courts have frequently invalidated some of the Republican-drawn lines, though there has yet to be a definitive ruling on whather partisan gerrymandering is legal or illegal.

      We will have more guidance on that before 2020. The U.S. Supreme Court has taken a North Carolina partisan gerrymandering case and should rule on it by the summer.

      [Longleaf story: The definitive explanation of North Carolina’s gerrymandering mess]

      Cover image of the Executive Mansion by the state of North Carolina.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Curious what the #NCGA races early messaging will be in the face of uncertain district lines for 2020…and can that messaging prove effective in a post census shakeup?

  2. I heard that Johnson plans to run for Lt Gov – vs another term as State Superintendent. His website and actions seem to support that.

  3. Great article. Would love to see two things.
    A- An update every few weeks/months.
    B- Include US Congress, including the two 2019 races.

  4. Keith Sutton on WCPSS Board of Ed is running for State Superintendent as well.

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