Raleigh, N.C. — To say that Attorney General Roy Cooper has been dropping hints about running for governor in 2016 would be putting it mildly.
Consider this quote from the Asheville Citizen-Times prompted by Cooper being asked about running for governor: "It’s a little early to make a formal announcement, but certainly that’s in the plans," he told the audience at the state Democratic Party's Western Gala Breakfast.
Or consider this quote in the The News-Herald of Morganton last week: "The good news is that people are paying attention. They are coming alive, are ready to move, are hungry for change and in need of leaders who can help them,” said Cooper. “We have a lot of work to do in 2013 and 2014. I plan to be running in 2016, and not as Attorney General."
And there's the fact Cooper recently changed the name of his campaign committee from "Cooper for Attorney General" to "Cooper for North Carolina."
So can we just rip the Band-aid off and say he's running?
"It's three years away," observed Morgan Jackson, Cooper's longtime political strategist. "It's way too early to make any formal announcement."
The 2014 election cycle is just kicking into gear with Republicans settling who will challenge incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan for U.S. Senate and every seat in the state legislature up for grabs.
That said, Jackson didn't dispute either of the newspaper quotes and acknowledged that Cooper is clearly making appearances and doing other things that one would need to do if they planned to run for statewide office. Presumably the race would be between Cooper and Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican who would be running for his second term.
Currently, Democrats who have declared they are running include Ken Spaulding, a Durham lawyer, and James Protzman, a Chapel Hill businessman and a blogger well-known in Democratic circles. Cooper hasn't been as direct of either of those men, but Jackson said it would be fair to say Cooper is "actively" considering a run.
A Washington Post story identified state Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, as another potential Democratic contender for governor. But Stein said in that story, Stein told the paper, “If Roy Cooper runs for governor, I won’t run for governor." That could be one other reason for Cooper to allow the chatter around his potential campaign get a bit louder. It could discourage those who might otherwise be inclined to prepare for a run from eying the race. And it could make donors to Democratic campaigns hold off from investing in a candidate who might find themselves in a primary against the long-time attorney general.
However, Cooper's deliberations are complicated by a couple things.
Because he regularly draws more votes than other Democrats running statewide, such as U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and former Gov. Bev Perdue, his name has frequently been floated as a potential candidate for others offices. And those public flirtations – whether self-inflicted or media driven – have made the political chatter class skeptical of his intentions.
Also, Cooper is a sitting state official and the more he is viewed as a 2016 candidate, the more his actions will be viewed through a political lens. For example, Cooper was critical of a new elections law that will require voters to show photo ID when they go to the polls in 2016. He was quoted in the federal government's lawsuit seeking to stop the new law. That, in turn, has prompted Republicans to take criticize Cooper.
"North Carolina deserves an Attorney General who is fully committed to the job he has now, not the job he wants in three years, and Cooper’s flagrant political posturing is an incredible disservice to the people of North Carolina," North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Claude Pope said in a news release Monday.