Get ready for a new version of Roy Cooper.

The North Carolina governor appears to be moving back toward the political middle as he heads into what’s expected to be a bruising re-election campaign. Now we’ll see how Cooper handles backlash from his own party.

The evidence? Gov. Cooper decision this week to rescind the appointment of sharp-tongued Charlotte city councilwoman LaWana Mayfield to the state Human Relations Committee. He quickly faced criticism, primarily from Republicans, who cited anti-police comments Mayfield made on social media a year ago. She had referred to police officers as “home-grown terrorists.” Mayfield has also expressed her doubts about the 9/11 attacks.

LaWana Mayfield

The decision reflects the tricky balancing act that statewide Democrats must play.

Cooper campaigned in 2016 as a relatively centrist, small-town law-and-order Democrat — and he’s likely to do so again in the current election cycle. It’s historically been a winning formula for statewide Democrats, from former Gov. Mike Easley to Attorney General Josh Stein.

However, Cooper’s party has continued to barrel steadily leftward. Democratic challengers to the General Assembly ousted several moderate members of their party in last year’s primary, and the “resistance” movement against President Donald Trump has trickled down into the DNA of state politics, as well.

Minority groups and LGBT advocates are also key components of the base. And it’s this faction of the party — a large percentage of the primary electorate — that wanted Cooper to stand tough against Mayfield’s critics.

These groups hold much less sway in statewide general elections, where winning candidates must tap into a conservative-leaning unaffiliated voter base.

Cooper has used this calculus several times. Soon after his inauguration, he struck a deal with the General Assembly to repeal HB2, the law that required transgender people to use the bathroom of their gender identity in public buildings.

But this deal brought things back to the status quo rather than strengthening LGBT protections, as many Democrats had wanted.

Cooper doesn’t need liberal bona fides. Does he?

Cooper was able to excite liberal voters in 2016 by contrasting himself from former Gov. Pat McCrory, particularly on HB2. He earned a ringing endorsement from groups like the Human Rights Coalition and Equality NC.

It’s a lot harder to campaign based on an actual record, and a lot harder to excite the base.

The lesson of McCrory could be illustrative. He lost by just 10,000 votes after underperforming in the Lake Norman area, where he alienated deep-red voters for his inability to cancel a toll lane deal on I-77.

There isn’t a strong enough primary challenger to threaten Cooper in 2020. But will positions like the one on Mayfield be enough to keep Democratic voters at home?

In a purple state like North Carolina, even small factors like this can make a difference.

Cover photo of Gov. Roy Cooper breaking ground on a Credit Suisse expansion in RTP. Photo by the governor’s office via Facebook.

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