By Louis Jacobson
Editor's Note: Louis Jacobson is a senior correspondent for PolitiFact and a regular contributor on state politics to Sabato's Crystal Ball and U.S. News and World Report. Since 2002, Louis has handicapped political races, including races for Congress, governor, state legislature, other state offices, and the electoral college. Louis has served as deputy editor of Roll Call and as the founding editor of its legislative wire service, CongressNow. Earlier, Louis spent more than a decade as a reporter covering Congress, politics and lobbying for National Journal. He is also a senior author for "The Almanac of American Politics," a heralded reference work for those who are interested in knowing more about the politics of the United States.
In this special column, Louis shares his chapter on North Carolina and Governor Roy Cooper. In addition, readers of ONSP can pre-order this book with a 15 percent discount.
For more than five decades, the Almanac of American Politics has set the standard for political reference books.
In July, the Almanac will be publishing its 2024 edition, with some 2,200 pages offering fully updated chapters on all 435 House members and their districts, all 100 senators, all 50 states and governors, and much more.
Louis Jacobson, a senior author of the Almanac and a contributor to seven volumes, writes the 100 state and gubernatorial chapters. Here are the chapters he wrote for the Almanac about North Carolina and Gov. Cooper.
Readers can receive a 15 percent discount if they purchase the 2024 edition through the Almanac’s website -- https://www.thealmanacofamericanpolitics.com/ -- and apply the code ONSP15 at checkout. The offer is good through August, 2023.
An Overview of North Carolina's Politics:
In few states today is the political climate more polarized between rural and populated areas as it is in North Carolina—and in few states are the margins between the two parties so consistently narrow. But for several election cycles running, the GOP has come out ahead in key races, suggesting just how hard it will be to make North Carolina the next Georgia or Arizona—a state that’s been red in recent years, but where Democrats have been increasingly able to win federal races.
In the early republic, when Virginia and South Carolina produced statesmen and had grand plantation cultures, North Carolina was often called a valley of humility between two mountains of conceit. It joined the Confederacy only after those two neighbors did. After the Civil War, North Carolina developed its tobacco industry and enticed textile mills south from New England, while its hardwood forests produced raw material for furniture factories. Textile mills were prevalent in the Piedmont region as owners saw in the South an opportunity for cheap land, cheap labor and state governments eager to foster pro-business, anti-union climates. In the following decades, the industry continued to expand and drastically improved the economy of the South. The mill industry became the main source of industrial paid labor for white southerners. While it was one of the lowest paying manufacturing industries, the jobs were valued because there were few other options other than agricultural or service work. The tobacco-textile-furniture trio enabled North Carolina to grow faster than the national average in the 1920s and 1930s, but the state began to lag in the 1950s. Then, two developments transformed the state. In 1959, Gov. Luther Hodges established Research Triangle Park between Raleigh and Durham. With synergy from nearby universities—Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State—the region became one of the leading research centers in the United States. The second development was Charlotte’s emergence as the nation’s No. 2 city in financial assets, behind New York.
These developments help explain how North Carolina has become one of the fastest-growing and largest states. Its population more than doubled between 1970 and 2022, from 5.1 million to 10.7 million. In the same period, Charlotte grew from 241,000 to 880,000 and Raleigh grew from 123,000 to 469,000. Since the 2010 census, the state as a whole has grown a healthy 12.2 percent, enough to add another seat in Congress. But several populous counties have expanded faster than that: Wake County (Raleigh) grew by 27.7 percent, Mecklenburg County (Charlotte) by 22 percent, Durham County (Durham) by 21.9 percent, and Buncombe County (Asheville) by 13.9 percent. U-Haul and United Van Lines’ calculations put North Carolina fourth and sixth, respectively, for inbound moves in 2022. Immigrants seeking jobs in construction and in meat and chicken factories have pushed the Hispanic population above 10 percent, doubling their share in about two decades. But, politically, Hispanics punch well below their weight in North Carolina: Only 36 percent of eligible Hispanics are registered to vote, and only 25 percent cast a ballot, according to the Raleigh News & Observer. In 2022, North Carolina’s lone Hispanic legislator lost his seat.
As North Carolina has shifted to pharmaceuticals and aerospace, so have its exports, including civilian aircraft engines and parts—fitting for a state that was home to the first flight at Kitty Hawk—and various categories of medical products. The Triangle, as the RaleighDurham-Chapel Hill area is known, has become one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical and medical device centers. Highly skilled people from the Northeast have flocked to the state: The jurisdiction of Cary in the Triangle, jokingly said to be an acronym for “Containment Area for Relocated Yankees,” has grown nearly 31 percent since 2010. High-tech firms are also sprouting farther west in the Piedmont Triad, the state’s ancestral furniture hub that includes Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point. Following the Triangle model, the 350-acre North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis is a research center north of Charlotte focusing on academic research of agriculture and nutrition. North Carolina has regularly been ranked at or near the top of business-friendly states by Site Selection and Business Facilities magazines and CNBC. Not coincidentally, North and South Carolina regularly vie for the title of the least unionized labor force in the nation; in 2022, North Carolina’s anti-labor orientation was strengthened further when a federal appeals court upheld a state law that banned automatic withdrawal of union dues from paychecks, which is seen as the only viable option to unionize farm laborers. In 2022, Lowe’s opened a 25-story technology hub in Charlotte’s south end; Eli Lilly made major expansions at Research Triangle Park; and Pratt & Whitney was finishing a $650 million casting foundry and airfoil production facility in Asheville. Even the furniture industry has had something of a comeback in recent years, driven by the demand from such retailers as Crate & Barrel. Upholstered furniture, which requires higher-skilled labor and custom production lines, experienced labor shortages amid strong sales, including from a surge in remote workers.
Urban, affluent, high-tech North Carolina is not the only North Carolina. The state’s predominantly rural counties saw taxable wages decline 3 percent in the past decade, compared with a 6 percent increase in suburban counties and a 15 percent increase in urban counties, the NC Rural Center calculated. Projections suggest that in 21 counties of the state’s 100, population will fall between 2020 and 2038. “Many rural counties in the eastern part of the state are 40 miles from a natural gas line, a non-starter for some corporations,” the Wall Street Journal noted. For a time, a $5 billion, 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline running from West Virginia to Pembroke North Carolina promised an economic jolt. But in 2020, amid legal challenges, its sponsors pulled the plug. North Carolina’s agriculture sector remains significant: The state is the nation’s biggest producer of broilers, sweet potatoes, and tobacco (though for tobacco, in sharply declining amounts). North Carolina is also the second-biggest producer of Christmas trees, through a complicated process in which Fraser firs are continually trimmed over a period of up to 15 years before they are harvested. Notably, North Carolina ranks third in hog production, with big feedlots in the southeastern portion of the state. Hurricane Florence, which dropped a record 30-odd inches of rain in 2018, spotlighted the problems of hog-waste lagoons, dozens of which overflowed amid the flooding. The psychic draw of rural North Carolina runs deep: If Charlotte is proud of its downtown bank towers and modern art museum, it is also proud of its Billy Graham Library and the NASCAR Hall of Fame. But overall, its median income has remained in the bottom quarter of states.
Big-government liberalism provided an impetus toward spending on education, but in 2021 Education Week ranked North Carolina’s public schools below average. The state has historically spent lavishly on highways and amenities, including the nation’s first state-funded symphony and state high schools for science, mathematics and the arts. A different philosophical strand, religious conservatism, has provided a communitarian spirit and charitable impulses, as well as a moral undertone that anchors those who might go astray. In the early 20th century, North Carolina had a high concentration of KKK chapters, but with a few notable exceptions, the state’s racial conflicts were never as intense as they were in Alabama or Mississippi, although the Greensboro sit-ins in 1960 were a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. Still, in a state with an African-American population of 21 percent—the eighth-highest of any state—the legacy of segregation persists, including the drawing of the state’s congressional and legislative district lines. The “Silent Sam” confederate statue on the University of North Carolina campus was toppled by protesters, then moved to storage.
In 2020, the board of commissioners in Orange County, which includes Chapel Hill, voted to apologize for slavery and discrimination, following similar statements in Asheville, Durham, and Carrboro. But this has prompted a backlash in some corners; the University of North Carolina’s race-conscious admissions policies was challenged in a watershed Supreme Court case in 2023.
In the first two decades of the new millennium, a polarized, increasingly party-line politics evolved, waged partly on economic issues but even more on cultural attitudes. Barack Obama narrowly won the state in 2008, bolstered by high turnout by minorities, affluent whites and newcomers to the state. But Republicans achieved big legislative majorities two years later —the first GOP control since Reconstruction—and in 2012, Republican Pat McCrory was elected governor and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney won the state by 92,000 votes. McCrory ran as a centrist, pro-business mayor of Charlotte, but the legislature produced a
virtual assembly line of conservative legislation and dared McCrory to use his veto. Despite some tensions and a series of protests known as “Moral Mondays” led by Rev. William Barber III of the state NAACP, McCrory mostly acceded to their wishes. When Republicans passed a bill known as H.B. 2 in 2016 that required people to use bathrooms that coincided with their birth gender, allies of the LGBTQ community peeled off sizable portions of the business community, who predicted, correctly, that national groups would boycott the state. The law became an albatross for McCrory and contributed to his narrow loss in 2016 to longtime Attorney General Roy Cooper. After the election, the two sides agreed to repeal the law.
In the 2018 midterm elections, voters elected enough Democrats to break the GOP’s legislative supermajorities, bolstering Cooper’s leverage. Statewide elections also gave Democrats a 6-1 majority on the state Supreme Court. In 2020, North Carolina, arguably the state with the most genuinely bipartisan lineup of statewide elected officials in the nation, voted to keep the incumbent party in power in every office—Cooper as governor, plus the attorney general, secretary of state, and state auditor for the Democrats, while voters backed Republican for six other offices, including the reelection of Sen. Thom Tillis. But federal elections have been a continuing problem for North Carolina Democrats. While the margins have often been close, the last Democrats to win federal statewide races were Obama and Sen. Kay Hagan in 2008. In the presidential race, Donald Trump won by 173,000 votes in 2016 and 74,000 votes in 2020, as Democrats’ gains in the big urban-suburban counties of Mecklenburg and Wake were unable to match Trump’s gains in rural North Carolina—places like Robeson County, notable for its Lumbee Indian population, which shifted its margin 15 percentage points in Trump’s direction in 2020. Trump was also boosted in places with an influx of retirees, such as Brunswick County, which is located on the coast southwest of Wilmington and has grown 34 percent since 2010; Trump won it by 25 points in 2020. While neighboring Georgia has experienced a blue shift, this has been amplified by the scale of metropolitan Atlanta, which casts a bigger electoral shadow than the combination of Charlotte and the Research Triangle region in North Carolina.
In 2022, Democrats fell narrowly short again, as Republican Ted Budd defeated Democrat Cheri Beasley for an open Senate seat by three percentage points, a slightly wider margin than Tillis’ or Trump’s two years earlier. Crucially, the GOP won two state supreme court races by four points each, teeing up the possibility that the GOP could overrule a relatively even-handed congressional map and torpedo the current 7-7 split. Under the map used for the 2022 elections, the Democrats won the competitive 1st and 13th district races against Trump-aligned GOP nominees, but those seats (and others) would be at risk under a new map. Initially, the Democrats won just enough state House seats to keep the GOP from a supermajority, but in April, a Democrat switched parties, giving the House GOP a veto-proof supermajority, potentially empowering Republicans to enact a more aggressively conservative agenda. A key group that could shape future elections in North Carolina will be voters unaffiliated with either Republicans or Democrats; as a share of the electorate, they have doubled to 36 percent since 2004, with voters 40 and younger having the largest percentage of unaffiliated voters of any age group. Unaffiliated voters surpassed the number of registered Republicans in 2017 and the number of registered Democrats in 2022.
About NC's Governor, Roy Cooper:
Roy Cooper, a Democrat who had served four terms as North Carolina’s attorney general, narrowly ousted Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in 2016 and battled with a GOP legislature over the next four years. In 2020, bolstered by public support for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Cooper won a second term by a significantly wider margin. During his three and a half decades in politics, Cooper has notched a 16-0 record in primary and general elections, “in good years and bad years for Democrats, in the North Carolina of his youth and in the very different place his state has become,” Edward-Isaac Dovere wrote in the Atlantic. With a careful ascent up the political ladder and a generally cautious approach, Dovere wrote, “no governor in America has a winning streak like Cooper’s, and few current statewide officials in the country can match it.”
Cooper was born and raised in a rural portion of east-central North Carolina. He earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and political science and a law degree at UNC-Chapel Hill. While Cooper was still in law school, then-Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat, named him to a state goals and policy board. Upon graduation, Cooper joined the family law firm, handling civil suits and personal injury and insurance cases; he also served as a Sunday school teacher and deacon at his Presbyterian church. Cooper served in the state House from 1987 to 1991, and in the state Senate from 1991 to 2001, part of that time as majority leader. In 2000, Cooper ran for attorney general against Republican Dan Boyce. It was a hard-fought race, with Cooper airing ads accusing Boyce of overbilling in a class-action lawsuit against the state. (The overbilling allegation prompted a 14-year legal battle that ended with Cooper apologizing.)
After outspending Boyce four-to-one, Cooper won the race by five points. He later won reelection three times, serving 16 years. As attorney general, Cooper oversaw the increased use of DNA testing and sought tougher sentences for child predators and pornographers. He took over the bogus Duke lacrosse rape case after Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong recused himself; Cooper re-investigated the allegations and cleared the players of all charges.
Cooper was aiming for a gubernatorial run against McCrory in 2016. McCrory, a seven-term mayor of Charlotte, had run for governor in 2012 touting a pragmatic, “middle way” philosophy based on pro-business policies and little emphasis on social issues—an approach that had worked for him as a Republican serving on the city level, and that embodied the kind of centrism that had historically carried both Republicans and Democrats to North Carolina’s governor’s mansion. Once in office, however, McCrory had to work with a Republican-dominated legislature that had little interest in pragmatic centrism and a strong desire to control the agenda, which often included socially conservative issues. The biggest threat to McCrory’s hopes for reelection came from H.B. 2, a bill that preempted local nondiscrimination ordinances on sexual orientation, requiring, among other things, that people use bathrooms corresponding with their birth gender. The types of business interests who had historically aligned with McCrory were unhappy; they feared boycotts would emerge, and they were right. During the campaign, Cooper made opposition to H.B. 2—and particularly its effect on the state’s economy—a cornerstone of his message. Cooper’s approach resonated enough to defeat McCrory by a little over 10,000 votes.
After months of negotiations on how to repeal H.B. 2, the two sides reached a deal in March 2017, after the Associated Press had estimated that the state would suffer $3.76 billion over 12 years in lost business. However, the repeal measure contained a provision sought by Republicans that continued for three years a restriction on the types of local ordinances that had precipitated H.B. 2 in the first place. The three-year moratorium was a bitter pill for LGBT advocates, and Cooper signed it unhappily, saying it wasn’t his “preferred solution.” The same year, following the white nationalist march in Charlottesville Virginia, Cooper came out in favor of removing Confederate monuments. “Some people cling to the belief that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights,” he wrote. “But history is not on their side. We cannot continue to glorify a war against the United States of America fought in the defense of slavery. These monuments should come down.” A year later, Cooper pulled back North Carolina National Guard members from serving at the U.S.-Mexico border in protest of the Trump administration policy of family separations.
On a few issues, Cooper was able to act without being blocked by the legislature. He opposed a Trump administration proposal to drill for oil and gas offshore, reversing McCrory’s position. He also signed an executive order setting a state goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2025, effectively keeping North Carolina within the terms of the Paris climate accord, from which Trump had pulled the U.S. In September 2018, Cooper led the recovery from Hurricane Florence, which left some three dozen North Carolinians dead and caused widespread damage. Meanwhile, the legislature was unable to override two of Cooper’s vetoes—one of a bill that would have let nonprofits hold gambling fundraisers, and another of a bill that critics said would have permitted the spraying of “garbage juice” at landfills.
More often, though, Cooper’s efforts were stymied. His campaign pledge to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act stalled, and his vetoes of budget bills were overridden in 2017 and 2018. By January 2019, Cooper had vetoed more than two dozen bills, including several that sought to limit the governor’s powers. Many of these power-curbing bills went through various stages of vetoes, overrides, lower court decisions and judicial appeals. One that became law after an override was a bill to make judicial elections partisan. On Election Day 2018, voters rejected, by 3-to-2 margins, a pair of legislature-backed ballot measures to weaken the governor’s powers after all five living former governors, including McCrory, joined with Cooper in opposition.
In an even more important Election Day development, Democrats won enough seats in the state House and Senate to break the GOP’s veto-proof supermajority. As a result, the legislature failed to override any of Cooper’s vetoes in 2019, including a bill that would have criminalized the failure to treat “any infant born alive after an abortion.” Cooper vetoed a two-year budget measure, demanding additional teacher pay and an expansion of Medicaid. On Sept. 11, Republican legislators took advantage of Democrats’ absence at a commemoration of the 2001 terrorist attacks to hold an unannounced vote with mostly Republicans present. Similar tactics have been employed by both parties in other states at times, but Cooper called it legislation by “trickery, deception, and lies.” The GOP’s gambit failed, as did another override attempt in January 2020. Instead, the state muddled through with temporary spending extensions that did not include any controversial changes. By the time the coronavirus pandemic arrived in 2020, Republican leaders shelved additional efforts to override Cooper’s budget veto. Meanwhile, amid racial justice protests across the country, Cooper vetoed a measure that would have tightened confidentiality on investigations of deaths in the custody of police or in prison.
Cooper took an aggressive stance against the coronavirus, especially for a southern governor. Republicans, including Cooper’s reelection opponent, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, tried to make an issue of the governor’s restrictions. In the run-up to the Republican National Convention in Charlotte, Cooper insisted on strict guidelines. This clashed with Trump’s vision for a traditional confab; blaming Cooper’s intransigence, Trump largely pulled the convention out of Charlotte, though the party used the city as a base for some back-office operations. Ultimately, Cooper’s coronavirus efforts probably aided his victory in November, though he ended up defeating Forest by well below the double-digit margins that some polls in the summer had indicated. On an Election Day with numerous close races in the state, Cooper won by 248,000 votes, a margin about 24 times bigger than his razor-thin edge in 2016.
Following his reelection, Cooper faced continuing Republican efforts to curb his powers, including those governing the appointment of board members to Rockingham Community College (located in the home county of Senate leader Phil Berger) and those addressing the declaration of states of emergency, which sprang from GOP concerns about his coronavirus policies. Cooper pardoned Montoyae Dontae Sharpe, who had spent 24 years in prison for murder until a judge vacated the conviction due to a witness’ fabricated testimony. On the political front, Cooper chaired the Democratic Governors Association during a 2022 cycle in which Democrats were urgently playing defense in such politically sensitive states as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. “Never have the rights of Americans depended more on who’s running their states,” Cooper told the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin. Democrats had a better-than-expected gubernatorial cycle, flipping seats in Arizona, Maryland, and Massachusetts while losing just one Democratic incumbent to a Republican, in Nevada. Closer to home, Cooper worked to oust a Democratic state senator in the primary, hoping to secure a more reliable supporter; the Cooper-backed challenger won the primary and then again in November. The Democrats narrowly avoided a full GOP supermajority in the legislature when Republicans fell one state House member short.
After the 2022 election, Cooper grappled with the fallout from an attack on two power stations in Moore County, northwest of Fayetteville; the attack left 45,000 people without power during a cold snap and was investigated as a possible terrorist incident. In its wake, Cooper pledged to work on hardening critical infrastructure. Meanwhile, Cooper and Republicans made progress on a long-standing source of friction: Republican leaders came to an agreement on expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and Cooper signed it in March 2023. However, in April, Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Democrat representing a Charlotte area district, switched parties, giving the House GOP a veto-proof supermajority.
While Cooper was still little-known on the national stage, some Democrats pined for him to take a bigger role, given his record of winning in a state that has leaned toward the GOP in recent federal elections. But there was one complication for this plan: Leaving the state to campaign elsewhere, either as a candidate or as a Democratic surrogate, would mean leaving executive powers to Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a member of the GOP’s socially conservative wing.