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

The stakes for the next 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.

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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.

However, Forest doesn’t currently poll as the top Republican in the race.

A recent poll from left-leaning Public Policy Polling actually shows former Gov. Pat McCrory running the closest race against the incumbent Cooper.

For his part, McCrory announced at the end of 2018 that he’d spend this new year evaluating whether to run for governor in 2020 or for U.S. Senate in 2022.

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 seek another term. He’ll likely face well-funded opposition from Democrats who smell blood in the water after 2018.

Also worth noting: The state’s senior senator, Richard Burr, has already said he won’t run for re-election in 2022.

So far, one Democrat has announced for the race: Mecklenburg County commissioner Trevor Fuller.

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)
  • 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)
  • U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R)

Lieutenant Governor

This race is starting to heat up, with several Democrats already announcing they’ll seek the seat.

Two high-profile Democrats — former U.S. Senate candidate and former Sen. Cal Cunningham and Sen. Terry Van Duyn — have announced their candidacies. a third, former Sen. Malcolm Graham, is testing the waters.

Republican Deborah Cochran, former mayor of Mount Airy, was the first Republican to throw her hat in the ring. Former Mecklenburg County commissioner Jim Puckett is also exploring a run. Former Sen. Joel Ford is also rumored to be thinking about switching political parties and running for lieutenant governor as a Republican.

Main contenders:

  • Former Mecklenburg County commissioner Jim Puckett (R)
  • Mt. Airy mayor Deborah Cochran (R)
  • Former Sen. Joel Ford (D/R)
  • 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 widely expected to run for a second term. Competition will certainly line up on the Republican side.

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)

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.


  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.


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