By Andrew Dunn
Some people in North Carolina Republican circles are already talking about Dan Forest as their nominee for the governorship in 2020.
And the two-term lieutenant governor is certainly preparing for the job. The son of former Charlotte mayor and Congresswoman Sue Myrick, Forest has spoken openly about running for governor and his “Run Forest Run” club has more than 80,000 likes on Facebook.
But the issue is likely far from settled. At least three other Republicans are being talked about as potential candidates in 2020. I’d expect 2018 to be the year when we figure out who’s actually going to run.
Forest is the favorite of social conservatives.
He was one of the highest-profile defenders of House Bill 2, best known as the “bathroom bill” that requires transgender people to use the restroom of their biological sex in public buildings. He’s significantly farther to the right than his predecessor, Pat McCrory, and in theory would work more closely with a more conservative state legislature. He would have to be more willing to be combative on the campaign trail.
I’m already hearing excitement about Forest from suburban Charlotte people who played a major hand in keeping McCrory a one-term governor.
But McCrory could very well make a comeback.
The former governor is on something of a revival tour right now, hosting a regular segment on WBT radio in Charlotte and inserting himself more into the conversation on state politics. Of course, he’s barely a year removed from a narrow defeat despite the state going heavily for Donald Trump. He’s also still smarting from a contentious election season that saw him cursed out in public and later chased down the street in Washington D.C. He could be trying to restore some measure of goodwill before heading off into the sunset.
Republicans in North Carolina still really like him. While his favorability is 40/41 statewide, it’s 65/15 positive among registered Republicans, according to numbers from Public Policy Polling. He has significantly more name recognition than Forest, who rates at 29/14 favorability among Republicans. Despite being elected statewide twice, most of his own party doesn’t know who he is well enough to have an opinion.
I’ve heard from some inside the party that if McCrory runs, Forest won’t. I think pitting the two against each other would be closer than you think.
Thom Tillis will have to make a decision.
Tillis has won a statewide election to earn his U.S. Senate seat, and fits roughly in the same mold as McCrory as a center-leaning business-minded conservative. He won election in 2014, so he’ll have to choose whether to run for re-election or throw his hat in the governor’s race.
His approval ratings aren’t great — just 39/34 among Republicans, according to PPP. Even though I don’t see him as serving as long in the Senate as Richard Burr has, Tillis would likely be the favorite to keep his seat should he run for re-election. My guess is he’ll stay put.
Phil Berger, the N.C. Senate leader, is commonly talked about as the fourth likely candidate. He’ll face an even harder road to build name recognition statewide. He has, however, battled frequently with Gov. Roy Cooper and would have the easiest time campaigning on the state’s growing economy — with the N.C. tax cuts in his back pocket. I see Berger as least likely of the four main contenders.
Will there be any out-of-the-box candidates?
I’ve heard that there might be a surprise candidate. I’ll throw two dark horse candidates out just for fun. I think these two won’t actually run but would have a good shot.
Franklin Graham. Though his father famously stayed out of politics, Franklin has increasingly waded into those waters. In 2016, he urged pastors to run for office. He was an early and consistent supporter of Donald Trump and wields a powerful online presence. If Graham does decide to run for something, though, would N.C. governor be aiming too low?
Dan DiMicco. The former CEO of Nucor, DiMicco has been outspoken on the economy and trade issues and served as a Trump advisor during the campaign. If businessmen start thinking more about political office, I could see an angle here.
2018 will bring more answers.
The General Assembly elections in November will give us — and all the candidates named above — a read on the temperature of the electorate. Expect to hear some definitive answers on the 2020 governor’s race when those ballots are counted.