The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Three years out, Democrats eye McCrory’s seat

RALEIGH, N.C. — Pat McCrory, North Carolina’s Republican governor, is eight months into his first term in office. At least three Democrats are already making plans to deny him a second term.

Roy Cooper, North Carolina’s Democratic attorney general, says it’s far too early to declare his intention to run against McCrory. But after 13 years in statewide office, and after declining entreaties to run for governor and Senate in previous elections, Cooper isn’t doing much to conceal his interest in the state’s top job.

“I’m deeply concerned about where this state’s headed, and I want to help lead North Carolina in a better direction. It’s too early to make an announcement,” he says when asked whether he’ll run for governor in 2016. But, he adds, he’ll make a formal declaration “relatively soon.”

State Sen. Josh Stein says he’s interested in statewide office, too. Stein, 46, represents downtown Raleigh and western Wake County, and Democrats see him as one of the emerging leaders of the party. Stein says he won’t run against Cooper, his former boss (Stein served as deputy attorney general for consumer protection before winning his seat), but he’s likely to be on the statewide ballot in three years.

“If Roy Cooper runs for governor, I won’t run for governor. If he runs for attorney general, I won’t run for attorney general,” Stein said Thursday.

The third potential candidate is Charles Meeker, the former five-term mayor of Raleigh. He told the Raleigh News & Observer on Wednesday that he’s considering running for governor but won’t make a final decision until after the 2014 elections. Meeker is hugely popular in the Raleigh-Durham-Fayetteville media market, which covers about 20 percent of the state’s population.

Durham lawyer Ken Spaulding and James Protzman, a businessman from Chapel Hill, have also said they’ll run against McCrory.

Despite losing the governorship and sliding even farther backward in the legislature in 2012, Democrats still hold a majority of the 10 statewide elected offices in North Carolina. To capture more ground, the party needs to improve its relations with rural voters in the state’s eastern districts, where traditional Yellow Dogs have voted Republican in recent years. Cooper, the only one of the three potential candidates to hail from outside Raleigh, is seen by many as the candidate with the best chance of appealing to those voters.

“We need to do better in the east,” Stein said. “Roy Cooper comes from Rocky Mount, so he is of the east.”

In a wide-ranging interview on Wednesday in his office, across the street from the state capitol building, Cooper spelled out his displeasure with the direction McCrory, and the Republican-dominated state legislature, are taking the state. Cuts to public education that took teachers’ assistants out of the classroom, a budget that cut taxes for high-income earners, a refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and an end to unemployment insurance for tens of thousands of North Carolinians, he says, were the first examples of Republican overreach.

“The coup de grace was this election law reform, which makes it harder for people to register and vote,” he said. The 49-page bill goes far beyond requiring voters to show identification when they get to the polls — it alters early voting locations, eliminates straight-ticket voting and ends a state-funded voter-registration drive, among other provisions.

“If it were just voter ID, it would be something we could deal with,” Cooper says. “The problem is you have a whole boatload of bad ideas.”

Education, taxes, the budget, Medicaid expansion and unemployment insurance aren’t normally under the purview of an attorney general. But Cooper has been calling donors, several Democrats around the state say, to let them know why he’s expanding his scope: He wants a shot at McCrory’s seat.

If this story sounds familiar, it should. Party strategists at the Democratic Governors Association and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington have urged Cooper to run before. He has considered several races, but he’s never taken the plunge. Several Democrats use the same term to describe Cooper: “risk-averse.”

But, he says, the confluence of a Republican governor and an unusually conservative Republican legislature running roughshod over the Democratic minority has him thinking differently. As the state’s senior Democratic elected official, along with Sen. Kay Hagan, he says, “I have to look at things in a different way.”

Still, Cooper says he’ll have to defend the new election reform measure he despises if opponents bring a lawsuit.

“It is the duty of the office of the attorney general to defend the state when it gets sued,” he said. “For the integrity of this office, I don’t need to be picking and choosing what to defend.”