Rob Christensen

Christensen: Cooper-McCrory race to be close, costly, conspicuous

Democrats waited a long time for Attorney General Roy Cooper’s announcement that he was running for governor.

Cooper was singled out as a potential governor as early as 1986, when he first won a House seat at age 29, knocking off an entrenched Democratic incumbent. He was smart, telegenic and came from a prominent Rocky Mount family.

But it was not until Monday night, before hundreds of cheering supporters gathered at Nash Community College, that Cooper declared his candidacy.

It’s not as though Cooper waited until there was an easy path to the Executive Mansion. Even senior Democrats acknowledge that Cooper’s chances are no better than 50/50.

But at the same time, the polls all suggest Republican Gov. Pat McCrory is vulnerable.

“It’s going to be a very close election,’’ said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, noting the closeness of the polls and of recent statewide elections.

A bi-partisan consensus has developed in Raleigh that McCrory is the third disappointing governor in a row, following Democrats Bev Perdue and Mike Easley.

But none of that may matter much in what is likely to be an unprecedented TV advertising blitz financed by the campaigns, the national parties, and by independent groups. Some informed estimates suggest that $80 million will be spent on the race. North Carolina is likely to be the highest profile governor’s race in the country – in a year when there are few high priority governor’s races.

McCrory can take comfort in the fact that no sitting North Carolina governor has ever lost re-election. The benefit of incumbency was on display Monday, when McCrory announced a new program allowing people to renew their driver’s license online the same day that Cooper announced his candidacy.

McCrory could also be helped by a national political climate favorable to the GOP. President Barack Obama is not popular, and the likely Democratic presidential nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is not polling well in the state. But the presidential race is obviously in flux and a lot can happen between now and November 2016.

The gubernatorial campaigns are offering different narratives.

McCrory has been touting the Carolina Comeback – that the state has been pulling out of the great recession with the help of business-friendly initiatives such as lower taxes.

On Monday, Cooper provided a more populist theme. The economic recovery is not working for everyone, he said. Wages are stagnant. The middle class is falling behind. The jobs are not coming here. North Carolina is no longer a leader in the South in education and other areas.

The argument here is the flip of what is happening in the presidential debate, where Republican presidential candidates have sharply criticized the recovery under Democratic President Barack Obama.

Cooper sought to tie McCrory to an unpopular and very conservative legislature – or as he put it “that crowd that is in charge in Raleigh.” The Republicans were busy linking Cooper to Obama and past Democratic scandals.

The Cooper announcement looked like a rally for Jim Hunt, the former four-term governor, with a cross-section of party workers, sheriffs and big donors, and Hunt himself.

Cooper has already proved himself an adept fund raiser, which will make it difficult for former state Rep. Ken Spaulding of Durham, who is also seeking the Democratic nomination in the March primary.

Cooper hails from the state’s eastern tobacco belt, which has been a wellspring for producing Democratic governors, including Hunt, Easley, Perdue, Terry Sanford and a host of others. But Eastern North Carolina is no longer a Democratic stronghold, and the battleground has shifted to the state’s fast-growing metropolitan areas.

Both Cooper and McCrory, the former Charlotte-mayor, are likely to do well in the suburbs. Cooper has actually lived in Raleigh since his election as attorney general. His selfie-ready family – with a wife and three grown daughters – were highlighted at the campaign kickoff.

Cooper and McCrory bear a certain physical resemblance to each other. They are both 58, and both entered elective politics around the same time, Cooper in 1986 and McCrory in 1989.

But as the next 13 months will likely show, their remedies for what ails the states should be quite different.