Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and Democrat Roy Cooper turned back their primary opponents Tuesday, setting up what’s expected to be one of the closest and hardest fought gubernatorial races in the nation.
McCrory found broad statewide support in defeating two challengers but lost some votes in north Mecklenburg, where some Republicans blame him for an unpopular Interstate 77 toll contract.
Overall, McCrory took 82 percent of the vote to 111 percent for former state lawmaker Robert Brawley of Mooresville and 8 percent for Randleman businessman Kenneth Moss in complete results.
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In the Democratic race, Cooper, the attorney general, defeated Durham businessman Ken Spaulding 69 percent to 3 percent.
Neither wasted any time in launching attacks against their new opponent.
Cooper sought to tie McCrory to Donald Trump, who won the state’s GOP presidential primary.
“For too long, we have seen Gov. McCrory hand out tax giveaways to the large corporations at the expense of public education and the middle class,” Cooper said in a statement. “But the damage done is only a hint of what’s in store under a Trump, McCrory administration.”
But a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association called Cooper “an out-of-touch career politician … with a consistent record of supporting bigger government, higher taxes, more regulation, expanding Obamacare and other liberal job killing policies.”
That could be just a preview of the next eight months.
“I expect the governor’s race in North Carolina to be the most closely fought in the country,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the Cook Political Report. “I’d be very surprised if it ever gets out of the margin of error in public polls.”
It could also be one of the most expensive races. This month, Cooper reported $5.7 million cash on hand and McCrory, $4.3 million. Both candidates vastly outraised their primary opponents.
Both Cooper and McCrory fared slightly better in the Triangle than they did statewide. Cooper exceeded his overall vote in Wake, Orange, Johnson and Chatham counties, but fell significantly short in Durham County, with 62 percent, where Spaulding is better known.
McCrory’s statewide vote was met or exceeded in all those counties.
In his campaign, McCrory touted the “Carolina Comeback.” He cited an economy that added more than 20,000 manufacturing jobs and an administration that cut taxes and paid off a $2.5 billion unemployment insurance debt to the federal government ahead of schedule.
In the primary, Spaulding criticized Cooper for defending laws passed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly, including laws requiring voter IDs and allowing magistrates to recuse themselves from officiating at gay marriages. Though Cooper publicly disagreed with many of them, he said his office has a constitutional duty to defend them.
Spaulding, an African-American, specifically courted black voters. He criticized Cooper for not re-trying former Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Randall Kerrick, whose trial for killing an unarmed black man resulted in a hung jury.
“He has done what a lesser-known challenger has had to do,” said Jarvis Hall, political scientist at N.C. Central University. “He has tried to bring attention to his campaign.… He’s pointed out those issues that affect the black community … His problem is name recognition outside of Durham.”
For his part, Cooper focused almost exclusively on McCrory and GOP lawmakers.
“North Carolina has gone off the tracks,” he told a group of Charlotte Democrats last month. “I love this job, but when I saw what’s been happening to my state … I knew I had to step up and do this.”
Cooper is trying to become the first candidate to unseat an incumbent North Carolina governor since the state first allowed governors to run for more than one term nearly four decades ago. Duffy, of the Cook Report, said McCrory is the nation’s only vulnerable incumbent.
Polls consistently show the race close. One last month had McCrory up by three points. Another showed Cooper up by two.
“This race for governor will be one that should receive a great deal of national attention,” said Hall. “One, because it’s so close. Two, it is North Carolina, and North Carolina is still a swing state.”
Brawley advocated more transparency in state government and pledged to fight public private partnerships, especially the toll lanes. For many Republican voters, he became the vehicle for anger at McCrory’s administration for signing a 50-year toll contract with a subsidiary of the Spanish firm Cintra.
On Tuesday, the group called Lake Norman Conservatives passed out thousands of voter guides backing Brawley and other conservatives. And John Hettwer, a former chair of the Lake Norman Chamber, distributed 15,000 fliers that said, “McCrory = tolls.”
“What we’re trying to do is send a message that he can’t walk away from the strong Republican pockets of north Mecklenburg,” Hettwer said. “There’s a lot of people feel they would rather have four years of Roy Cooper than 50 years of this contract.”
Cooper has weighed in. With a Cintra subsidiary in Texas facing bankruptcy, he said McCrory should cancel the toll contract and said he wouldn’t have signed it in the first place. Administration officials argue that the attorney general’s office reviewed the contract before it was signed.
Roy Cooper 68.77%
Ken Spaulding 31.23%
2,709 of 2,709 precincts reporting
C. Robert Brawley 10.59%
Pat McCrory (i) 81.76%
Charles Moss 7.65%
2,709 of 2,709 precincts reporting