By Andrew Dunn

Though the 2018 elections will dominate the news this year, candidates are already lining up for the North Carolina gubernatorial race two years later.

Clearly, Republicans are already planning their return to the Executive Mansion. I broke down the four main contenders and a few dark horses in this piece.

But Democrats may not have their 2020 plans locked up. I see a small but distinct possibility that Cooper could face a legitimate primary challenger from his left.

Gov. Roy Cooper, in Charlotte

Why would somebody challenge the sitting governor?

Cooper is not unpopular. The most recent numbers from Public Policy Polling showed 48 percent of voters approving his performance, with just 33 percent disapproving. The net +15 rating is head and shoulders above where Pat McCrory and Bev Perdue were at the same point in their tenure. He also keeps a 70/20 rating among Democrats, the poll showed.

While it’s still very early, there’s a good chance Cooper will head into a re-election campaign on solid footing as the economy continues to grow.

But there has been a consistent undercurrent of discontent among his party, particularly the more left-leaning wing. Some of that is because Cooper has been somewhat muted in his political battles with a Republican-dominated state legislature. He has not used the bully pulpit of his position as frequently as some have hoped in a year dominated by #resistance.

There’s also the matter of House Bill 2. Cooper campaigned hard against the state law passed under the McCrory administration that prohibited cities from passing protections for LGBT people and required them to use bathrooms of the gender on their birth certificate in public buildings. The law had a profound impact on North Carolina’s national reputation and led to a massive boycott by entertainers and sporting events.

One of Cooper’s only significant accomplishments in his term is reaching a compromise with legislative Republicans to repeal the law — but it came with a prohibition against cities passing nondiscrimination ordinances until 2020 (get ready for this to be a campaign issue).

That angered his base, who see it as compromising on human rights.

Cooper is a centrist, pragmatic Democrat representing a party that’s becoming more polarized.

That opens up a challenge from the left. I see one potential candidate who’d have a solid chance.

That would be Rev. William J. Barber II, until recently the head of the North Carolina NAACP who rose to national prominence by leading the “Moral Monday” movement at the state capitol. Each week, protestors would flood the government building and picket until they were removed by capitol police. The movement catapulted Barber into the spotlight and made him an instantly recognizable political figure.

He’s currently taking the movement national, with plans to resurrect Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Poor People’s Campaign.” He spoke in support of Hillary Clinton at the 2016 Democratic National Convention and met with the Pope over Thanksgiving.

Barber is not tight with Cooper. This fall, Barber snubbed the governor by not giving him the traditional invitation to the state NAACP convention, citing Cooper’s failure to pardon Dontae Sharpe, who has been in prison since 1995 on a murder charge with flimsy evidence. Sharpe has consistently insisted he is innocent — even rejecting deals that would have set him free.

Rev. William Barber, at right, during a rally in Washington D.C. in 2016. Photo by Becker1999 via Flickr (Creative Commons)

What are the chances this actually happens?

They’re very slim.

Independents also continue to have a high opinion of Cooper, and that could bode well if Lt. Gov. Dan Forest becomes the Republican nominee (as I expect) since Forest is significantly farther to the right than was McCrory.

But Cooper won by a wafer-thin margin in an unusual political year. Cooper’s favorability is also slightly lower among African-Americans (64 percent), a key constituency in the Democratic primary.

The Democratic voting base may decide that their best chance to keep the Executive Mansion is to back a candidate who would energize their base versus someone who may have worn out his welcome come 2020.

The North Carolina Executive Mansion. Photo by NAVFAC via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Would anybody else have a shot?

Barber is far enough outside the state political establishment to make a run possible. I don’t see anybody else with enough political clout throwing their hat in the ring unless something major happens to damage Cooper.

If that happens, or if the political winds are so much against Cooper that he has little chance of winning (a la Beverly Perdue), I suspect the Democrats would put up Linda Coleman as a candidate in 2020. She’s suffered two narrow losses in lieutenant governor races, so she has a statewide campaign infrastructure in place and decent name recognition.

The next few names are even longer shots, but could very well make moves toward a run in 2024.

Josh Stein. He was Cooper’s right-hand man at the Justice Department and won a statewide race to become attorney general as a Democrat — following in Cooper’s footsteps. AG might as well stand for “aspiring governor,” so Stein could be next in line.

Janet Cowell. The former state treasurer was well-respected on both sides of the aisle and could be convinced to run for governor.

Anthony Foxx. The former Charlotte mayor was tapped by the Obama administration to be U.S. Secretary of Transportation. He’s been looked at as a potential challenger for the U.S. Senate seat held by Thom Tillis, which will be up for election in 2020. But Foxx also just took a lucrative job in New York, and at age 46 could decide to sit out electoral politics for awhile to build up a nest egg.

Jeff Jackson. The state senator from North Carolina is a rising star in the Democratic Party and has a powerful digital following. He’s leading the charge to flip the state legislature blue in 2018. As a former assistant district attorney still in his 30s, he could first run for state attorney general if and when Stein runs for governor.

Anne Tompkins. She served as U.S. attorney in western North Carolina after being appointed by President Obama, and is now back in private practice. She’s a dark horse to re-enter politics but is well liked.

Dan Blue III. He narrowly lost a bid for state treasurer and comes from a political family (his father is the Democratic leader in the state Senate). He’d still need a few steps to build his political resume.


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