Strong races give NC voters bold choices come November

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper is running for governor against Republican incumbent Pat McCrory.
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper is running for governor against Republican incumbent Pat McCrory. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

The North Carolina primary lacked drama, but it has set up a general election that promises to be full of theater and suspense.

North Carolina will have impressive contests in its gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races in which two Republican incumbents will face Democratic challengers with strong credentials. Both races will unfold under a presidential contest that’s likely to feature Hillary Clinton against the bombastic Donald Trump or some surprise candidate who emerges from a brokered Republican convention. The presidential campaigns will focus heavily on North Carolina as a swing state.

There’s also some unusually interesting competition down the state ticket. Former Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker, a Democrat, will try to unseat longtime Republican Cherie Berry in the race for state labor commissioner. State Treasurer Janet Cowell’s surprise announcement in October that she would not seek a third term has set up a contest between Raleigh attorney Dan Blue III, a Democrat, and Dale Folwell, a former state representative and the former Employment Security Division leader under Gov. Pat McCrory. With Attorney General Roy Cooper leaving office to challenge McCrory, there will be a battle between two state senators seeking to succeed him, Democrat Josh Stein of Raleigh against Republican Buck Newton from Wilson.

The contests for U.S. Senate and governor will offer stark choices and candidates who know how to campaign effectively. In the Senate race, Republican incumbent Sen. Richard Burr starts with an advantage in statewide recognition over his Democratic challenger, Deborah K. Ross, a Raleigh attorney and a former five-term state representative from Wake County.

Despite years as a U.S. representative and two terms in the Senate, Burr is still a relatively low-profile politician who has approached his work quietly. That changed after the 2014 election when he succeeded Democrat Dianne Feinstein as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Burr now has one of the Senate’s most prominent roles in an era of terrorism concerns, but his efforts to withhold the committee’s report on the CIA’s torture of detainees has drawn fire from liberals and could hurt him with independent voters. Appropriately, Ross is a former head of the ACLU in North Carolina. Nationally, the ACLU is seeking the release of the report.

Ross will bring a strong defense of civil liberties to the race, but she will also focus on the need for a senator who passes legislation that helps people rather than engages in constant obstruction of a president’s agenda and his Supreme Court nominee. Ross will need to gain recognition, and that will depend on how much national Democrats are willing to put into her campaign.

McCrory also enjoys the benefits of incumbency, but in his case it also has burdens. Despite Republican control of the General Assembly, the governor has been unable to get much done. Mostly, he has gone along with the Republican leadership’s wrongheaded agenda of tax cuts, tight spending, limits on voting and pushing conservative stances on social issues. Oddly, he’ll end up running on economic gains under a Democratic president and running away from the unpopular record of a legislature controlled by his party.

Cooper will bring a strong record as attorney general to his run for governor. He also has deep roots in North Carolina and an understanding of its politics after 15 years in a statewide office. In a year when Republicans are self-destructing from the top down, Cooper may be tempted to take too cautious a route. There’s already grumbling that Cooper’s campaign has been lackluster, but with the drama looming in November it’s unlikely to stay that way.