Roy Cooper Won Big. And Lost Big

Governor Roy Cooper did something this election that North Carolina’s last two governors couldn’t do: win a second term. 

Now he may have to do something no governor has done in nearly 30 years: work with a hostile legislature throughout both his terms. 

For four years, Cooper labored mightily to break Republicans’ hold on the General Assembly. He recruited candidates, raised tons of money and put his campaign team to work on legislative races.

In 2018, Democrats broke the supermajority. This year, they hoped to make bigger gains. They even dreamed of winning a majority in one or both houses.

It didn’t happen. 

Cooper had planned a big push to expand Medicaid, roll back corporate tax cuts and raise teacher pay. What now?

Election night

He and legislative leaders have made predictable post-election promises about working together. But Republicans might treat Cooper the same way the Democratic majority treated Republican Governor Jim Martin throughout his two terms, 1985 to 1993.

Legislators routinely ignored and insulted Martin. When he sent over his proposed budgets, Democrats had a little private ceremony and dumped the document in the trash can.

Cooper remembers. He was in the House and Senate then.

While the Governor is far too disciplined and controlled to show it, he has to be frustrated. After all, he pulled off an amazing feat. He got elected twice despite President Trump carrying the state both times. In 2016, he beat an incumbent, one of the hardest things to do in politics.

Cooper’s handling of Covid-19 helped him this year. It always helps Governors politically when they can command the airwaves showing they’re in command.

It also helps to have a weak opponent. Dan Forest bet all his chips on Reopen NC. It didn’t pay off.

Both of Cooper’s immediate predecessors served only one term. Cooper defeated Governor Pat McCrory four years ago. In 2012, Governor Bev Perdue stepped down after one term, knowing she faced a tough reelection race. 

Before that, Governors routinely won two terms: Jim Hunt (who did it twice, 1977-85 and 1993-2001), Jim Martin (1985-93) and Mike Easley (2001-2009). 

Hunt and Perdue had to deal with Republican legislatures during part of their terms. 

Perdue was hamstrung and frustrated by Republicans who controlled both the House and Senate her last two years.

Hunt faced a Republican House from 1995-1999. But he had a Democratic Senate. He worked with Republicans on some big things, like teacher pay raises, Smart Start and gubernatorial veto. Republicans helped pass the veto in large part because Governor Martin had been so frustrated by his lack of it.

But Governor Cooper doesn’t want the story of his eight years in office to be written with a veto pen.

What will he do?

He can try to forge compromises. He said last week he’ll try.

Or he can pick fights with Republicans and focus on winning the legislature in 2022. Donald Trump won’t be on the ballot, and that helped Democrats in 2018. But that would leave Cooper only two years. Everybody will be looking at the next Governor’s race.

Perhaps Cooper should ponder the question a North Carolina Democrat texted me: “How much consideration for President or Vice President should be bestowed upon a Southern Democratic governor who just handily won reelection despite the Republican president carrying the state both times?”

In 2024, Democrats may need a new face on the national ticket – and a new winning formula. Virginia and Georgia have shown that the South can be part of the formula. 

Why not North Carolina?

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