Scrutiny, rhetoric ratchet up as Cooper officially joins governor's race
Posted October 12, 2015
Raleigh, N.C. — Attorney General Roy Cooper surprised virtually nobody Monday night when he made his 2016 campaign for governor official. The Democrat, who wraps up his fourth four-year term in statewide office next year, has been sounding and acting like he's seeking the state's top job for a while.
The election that most political observers expect to be a clash between Cooper, 58, and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, 58, has been on something of a low simmer for the past two years. Both men have taken potshots at one another through their official offices while their campaigns-in-waiting have traded further criticism.
Whatever gloves there were came off Monday.
"The truth is, Gov. McCrory has the wrong priorities for North Carolina, giving away the store to those at the top at the expense of the middle class and our schools," Cooper said during his announcement in Rocky Mount. "He won't find a way to keep good teachers, but he finds a way to pass tax giveaways to big corporations."
The Republican Governors Association, a national group that backs GOP chief executives, fired back before Cooper had finished his remarks.
"After spending nearly 30 years in government, Democrat Roy Cooper has nothing to show for it but a consistent record of supporting Obamacare, higher taxes, more spending and other anti-business, out-of-touch policies that put North Carolina at a disadvantage for decades," said Jon Thompson, the RGA's communications director.
Cooper's announcement turns up the heat, unleashing him to be more critical of the Republican's handling of state government and the economy. But it also gives critics broader license to scrutinize Cooper's three decades in Raleigh as a lawmaker and attorney general.
"He can now stop using the veiled criticisms and go on the attack," said Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist. "That's also going to put him in a place to be attacked."
Both decisions Cooper has made during his time has attorney general as well as votes he took while a lawmakers will be in the spotlight.
Candidates will not officially register to run for election until December, but an earlier-than-usual March 15 primary has political players of all stripes making moves in advance of the holiday rush.
McCrory has not officially announced that he will seek re-election, although his campaign organization is certainly raising money and beginning to put out messages one would expect from a man working to keep his job.
"My focus is on improving customer service in North Carolina," McCrory demurred after a bill signing ceremony and press event Monday morning at the Division of Motor Vehicles office in Garner.
The event gave McCrory a chance to ballyhoo changes that will let North Carolina residents renew their driver's licenses online, extend hours at many DMV branches and support other efforts to cut down wait times.
"A decision point for me to run for governor was when I waiting in line for an hour and 15 minutes to get my driver's license," McCrory said, bringing up a theme of "fixing broken government" on which he ran in 2012.
The event had something of the feel of a campaign event, complete with a celebrity welcome from American Idol winner Scotty McCreery, who grew up in Garner.
Typically, there are significant advantages to running as an incumbent. It confers name recognition, the ability to stage events that attract free media attention and plenty of campaign donations. As well, McCrory has benefited from an economy that has been struggling out of the recession and has improved in terms of key metrics such as lower unemployment since he took office.
But Cooper has both proved himself a prodigious fundraiser – his campaign account was fatter than McCrory's at the midpoint of the year – as well as a well-known name with four statewide victories to his credit. In 2012, Republicans did not field a candidate against him.
Bitzer says Cooper will be able to attract votes from unaffiliated voters and conservative Democrats needed to make a campaign against McCrory competitive.
"He's pretty much a proven quantity in that he has the resources, he has the infrastructure and he has the strategy that I think will be effective in putting up a major challenge to a sitting governor," Bitzer said.
While the state Republican Party has focused mainly on Cooper as McCrory's potential general election rival, the Democrat does have a vocal primary opponent in Durham lawyer Ken Spaulding, 70, a former state lawmaker and former member of the state Board of Transportation.
Despite having been a candidate for the past two years and launching the campaign's first radio ads, Spaulding has been largely ignored by both sides of the political establishment, in part because his fundraising numbers are anemic compared to the multi-million-dollar totals racked up by McCrory and Cooper.
"I have never heard of a dollar bill getting in a car, driving up to a polling place, walking in and casting a ballot. That's something people do," Spaulding said, adding that he was raising a "reasonable" amount of money that has allowed him to both reach out to voters and point out what he says is Cooper's "not stellar" record.
"If you are the attorney general, the people want you to follow the law, not to play politics and look over your shoulder," Spaulding said, making the case that too many of Cooper's decision in office have been driven by his desire to run for governor.
In particular, he criticizes Cooper's decision to have lawyers in his office defend a 2013 elections law that liberals have blasted as rolling back voting rights. In particular, sections limiting same-day registration, changing early voting and requiring voter photo identification have been criticized by Democrats.
Spaulding said that Cooper should have declined to defend that law, especially given that lawmakers had already made provisions to hire their own lawyers. But Cooper says his office is duty-bound to defend the laws of the state.
Spaulding's criticism provides one half of the needle Cooper will have to thread as a candidate. The GOP will also focus on his record but complain Cooper did not act vigorously enough on the state's behalf.
Last week, for example, Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse blasted Cooper for not stepping into a fight over water rights in the state. On Monday, Woodhouse acknowledged that Cooper's announcement won't come as a surprise to anyone but does open him up to more scrutiny.
"He has a 30-year record," Woodhouse said.
Cooper served in the state House and then state Senate from 1991 until he was elected attorney general in 2000. A former Senate majority leader, Cooper voted for tax increases and took other stands that Republicans will almost certainly raise during the campaign.
"There's a lot of things that people are going to be surprised about when they give him the examination a major candidate for office deserves," Woodhouse said.