North Carolina may never see another Democratic Governor like Roy Cooper. In fact, we may never see another Democratic statewide candidate like him.
By “like him,” I mean Democratic Governors like Jim Hunt who have dominated politics since World War II: farm boys and small-town boys who went off to college, acquired some urban polish and assembled broad centrist-progressive coalitions that propelled them to office.
They were attuned to the innate conservatism and religious faith of small-town and rural North Carolina. They blended that background with the progressive traditions of universities and urban areas. They understood both urban and rural areas.
That model may be outdated now.
The 2020 election pitted deep-red, Republican small towns and rural areas against deep-blue Democratic urban areas. Suburbs and exurbs voted red or blue depending on whether they’re closer to cities or the countryside.
From now on, few, if any, Democratic statewide candidates will come out of rural areas. For one thing, there won’t be many progressive Democrats living there. For another, it will be virtually impossible for such a creature to win a local or legislative election that will boost them onto the statewide stage.
By the same token, we’re not likely to see many statewide Republican candidates who fit the mold of North Carolina’s only three Republican Governors in modern times. They came out of Mecklenburg County (Pat McCrory and Jim Martin) and Watauga County (Jim Holshouser).
Both Mecklenburg and Watauga are now deep-blue Democratic.
Terry Sanford pioneered the Democratic model. He grew up in Laurinburg and went to UNC for undergrad and law school. After fighting in World War II, he moved to Fayetteville. He was elected Governor in 1960 by combining young WWII vets with the “branchhead boys,” farmers and country people who had bucked the establishment and elected Kerr Scott as Governor in 1948.
Jim Hunt perfected the model through five winning campaigns, Lieutenant Governor in 1972 and Governor in 1976, 1980, 1992 and 1996. Hunt grew up on a farm in Wilson County. He earned bachelors and master’s degrees at NC State and a law degree at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Governor Mike Easley (2001-2009) came from Rocky Mount. His father owned a tobacco warehouse. Easley went to UNC and N.C. Central Law School.
Bev Perdue (2009-2013) was a variation on the theme; she grew up in a Virginia coal town, graduated from the University of Kentucky and represented the New Bern area in the legislature.
Cooper is the epitome of the winning formula. He grew up in Nash County. His father was a lawyer and a farmer. Cooper worked on the farm growing up. Like Hunt, his mother was a teacher. Cooper went to UNC undergrad and law school. He moved his family to Raleigh after he was elected Attorney General in 2000.
He beat an incumbent Governor in 2016. This year, again, he won despite Donald Trump carrying the state. Cooper led all Democrats. He got over 2.8 million votes; his margin was 4.5%, a landslide in today’s politics.
(Only one candidate ran stronger: Republican Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. He won over 2.9 million votes and a margin of 7.7%.)
Two questions arise about the future. First, what will the winning model be – for both Democrats and Republicans? Second, who can govern successfully?
North Carolina needs candidates who can speak to both rural and urban residents, as well as to all races, creeds and backgrounds.
We need leaders who can bring us together, not just politicians who drive us farther apart.
We need to find them, and they need to step forward.