by Michael Bitzer
With Democratic North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein’s official announcement to seek the office of state chief executive, comparisons are being made to the current incumbent’s performance and how Stein can replicate those two successful runs for governor.
In 2016 and 2020, Democrat Roy Cooper was able to unseat an incumbent governor (49 percent to Republican Pat McCrory’s 48 percent) and successfully defend (with a 51.5 percent reprieve) his re-election against Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest. In those same elections, Stein was able to secure the AG office, but in 2020, he did so with the slimmest margins of victory of any executive officer on the Council of State (50.13 percent). In 2016, Stein won his first candidacy with 50.3% of the vote.
As Miles Coleman has noted, the North Carolina gubernatorial race will be one of the few in the nation in the presidential election, and it will be the “marquee” contest. La Bola de Cristal de Sábato has already classified the contest as a ‘shot’.
Much has been made about whether Stein can and will strategically follow Cooper’s approach to gathering votes in the November 2024 general election. By looking at the performance of both candidates in the 2020 election, we can get an idea of where things might be crucial in Stein’s possible replication of Cooper’s victory, or perhaps take a slightly different strategic approach.
As a highly competitive state, North Carolina’s state elections tend to fall in the range of winners who get 50 to 53 percent: The most popular state executive candidate in 2020 was Republican Steve Troxler, who polled just under 54 percent in his re-election as Agriculture Commissioner. But the competitive and divisive nature of state politics is masked by the regional alignments of both parties, as is evident in the chart below comparing Cooper to Stein.
|Data collected from the North Carolina State Board of Elections election precinct voting methods file and analyzed by the author.|
By dividing the state into four distinct regions—the central cities, the urban suburbs, the surrounding suburban counties, and the rural counties—partisan differences in three of the four regions are clearly evident.
The core cities—Charlotte, Raleigh, Asheville, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Durham, and the like—are predominantly Democratic in our current environment. A typical 70-30 split between Democrats and Republicans is the norm, with Stein meeting that norm and Cooper exceeding it by three percentage points.
By contrast, Republicans rule the suburban counties surrounding those urban counties: Typically, those counties are 63 to 65 percent Republican, though in 2020 Forest barely got more than 60 percent of their vote. The other major Republican region is rural counties, though Republican influence is muted by several majority-minority counties in the eastern part of the state that help keep Democrats typically at 40 percent outside of that region.
As I’ve noted in other posts before, the most competitive region in North Carolina is the urban suburbs: those areas outside of the central city limits, but within the urban county. In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton tied Donald Trump 50-50, while four years later, Trump expanded Republican control in that area to 53 percent. But Cooper managed to keep the Democratic losses to just 2 points, while Stein saw a typical 53-47 loss in that area to Republican Jim O’Neill.
As is meant, past performance isn’t necessarily indicative of future possibilities, but in North Carolina’s now rigid and calcified voting patterns, it’s a good bet on how things will play out. The combined percentages of Republican votes from the results of the 2020 US President, US Senate, and North Carolina Governor elections in all 100 counties accounted for 98 percent of Republican Ted Budd’s victory in the US Senate two years later, in 2022:
Of course, what may be different in 2024 that we can’t predict right now (sorry) is ‘who shows up’ in November. And that’s something both sides can, and should, focus on now to lay the groundwork for the battle royale that will be the gubernatorial showdown.
We may have seen the first indication of Stein’s strategy in his announcement video: He clearly wants to define what he perceives as his likely general campaign opponent, Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson, as extremist and outside the mainstream of state politics.
And highlighting Robinson’s rhetoric, the likely target audience is those in competitive urban suburbs. Keeping that region competitive, perhaps by removing some votes from surrounding suburban counties and boasting to Democratic voters in central cities, could be seen as the potential path to another skin-of-your-teeth victory. But the warning signs are also all too obvious, as evidenced by key turnout mistakes in the Democrat’s 2022 US Senate campaign.
Now we’re all waiting for the second shoe to drop at this fest of gubernatorial fights: Robinson’s anticipated response and announcement of his candidacy, along with any other potential candidates to throw their hats into the ring.
Let the 2024 Governors Games really begin.