By John Trump
Carolina Journal News Service
RALEIGH — North Carolina Republicans can take a breath, even if their signature red is mixed with myriad shades of blue.
They keep control of the N.C. Council of State, 6-4, albeit with narrow margins in all the races. The results remain unofficial. Elections officials are dealing with 41,000 provisional and 94,900 outstanding absentee ballots, which either will be counted or removed from the rolls.
“Clearly North Carolina remains a very deep purple state,” said Andy Taylor, N.C. State University political science professor. “Republicans were extremely competitive down the list of Council of State races, winning the open seats at labor, Public Instruction, and in the lieutenant governor’s office.”
Taylor said the races for governor and attorney general were closer than anticipated.
“I think this is an expression of the frustration many have with the state’s leadership and its handling of the pandemic,” he said. “This dissatisfaction is not necessarily just with the administration’s policies, although I suspect many small business owners were highly motivated to vote against Gov. Roy Cooper. I think it has as much to do with Cooper’s vacillations and the incoherent and arbitrary nature of his policy promulgations.”
Overall, it’s good news for the GOP, as well as for their policy and ideological goals. Things such as limited government, school choice, and accessible and affordable health care.
“After all is said and done, the names will change while the parties will maintain control of the Council of State positions they hold today,” said Mitch Kokai, political analyst at the John Locke Foundation.
“Incumbents win, while the council welcomes three new Republicans. That has to mean good news for the GOP.”
The governor, however, remains the same.
Cooper, a Democrat, beat Lt. Gov. Dan Forest by about 241,000 votes, or a little more than 4%. Some polls had Cooper winning by double-digit margins, as of late October.
Some Council of State races remain agonizingly close.
Attorney General John Stein leads Republican Challenger Jim O’Neill by some 11,000 votes. O’Neill, Forsyth County district attorney, isn’t conceding, the Winston-Salem Journal reports.
O’Neill, the newspaper stated Nov. 4, had plans to file a complaint with the State Bar and to pursue criminal charges against Stein over a political ad accusing O’Neill of mishandling a backlog of untested rape kits. “O’Neill,” the story stated, “has said the ad is false and represents Stein’s misunderstanding of how rape kits are processed in the criminal justice system.”
Stein, viewed in some circles as the Democratic front-runner for U.S. Senate in 2022 or governor in 2024, said in a statement that he remains “confident.”
Republican Mark Robinson, a political newcomer from Greensboro with strong traditionally conservative views, has beaten Yvonne Lewis Holley, a Wake County Democrat who has served in the N.C. House since 2012. The gap was about four percentage points.
Forest vacated the seat to run against Cooper.
“It will be interesting to watch as Mark Robinson decides what role he wants to play in the state’s political debates,” Kokai says.
Kokai said Robinson, with strong grassroots support, was a forceful speaker on the campaign trail. Democrats for Holley wildly outspent Robinson, by about seven to one, political strategist Brad Crone said during a post-election event sponsored by the N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation.
“If he maintains that focus and intensity in his new job, he could serve as an effective counterweight against Governor Cooper’s mandates and restrictions,” says Kokai. “It’s also likely that Cooper and Catherine Truitt could butt heads at times given their drastically different approaches toward the importance of school choice.”
Truitt, a Republican and chancellor of West Governors University N.C., got about 51% of the vote in the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction. Truitt, a strong advocate for school choice, beat Jen Mangrum, a proponent of traditional public schools.
“Mangrum was on a mission to dismantle North Carolina’s public and private school choice programs,” says Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation. “Truitt trusts parents to select the school that best meets the needs of their children.”
Her first order of business, Stoops says, is ensuring DPI is prepared to address challenges associated with school-building closures and other coronavirus mitigation measures — including health and safety concerns, learning loss, and fiscal impacts.
“Truitt ran a smart campaign on a shoestring budget. I expect she’ll run the Department of Public Instruction with similar skill.”
Josh Dobson is the third new Republican on the council. A four-term member of the state House, Dobson ran on a support of North Carolina’s right-to-work laws, deregulation, and economic reopening. Dobson’s lead was about 1.7 percentage points over Democrat Jessica Holmes.
“It’s not clear that Dobson will have as many opportunities to cross swords with the governor,” Kokai said. “But he is replacing ‘Elevator Lady’ Cherie Berry, who never shied away from criticizing a Democrat who seemed to be playing overly partisan games with state policy.”
While both championed workers’ rights, Holmes offered the liberal counterweight. Holmes had the support of labor unions. Measures such as the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, which passed the U.S. House, adds to conservatives’ anxiety. The act would weaken “right-to-work” laws in 27 states, including North Carolina, that allow employees to forgo participating in and paying dues to unions, The Washington Post reported.
Republicans Mike Causey, Steve Troxler, and Dale Folwell will keep their seats on the council. Causey, the incumbent insurance commissioner, beat Democrat Wayne Goodwin by more than three percentage points. Goodwin, head of the state Democratic Party, conceded the race Thursday, Nov. 5.
Folwell, the state treasurer, has taken a relatively conservative approach to the state’s finances and is pushing for added transparency in medical billing. Folwell was outraised, yet he still beat Ronnie Chatterji, an economist and professor of business and public policy at Duke University, by about five percentage points.
“The results reflect that voters of all persuasions wanted to keep the best treasurer money can’t buy,” Folwell says in his victory message. “Every major newspaper, the State Employees Association of North Carolina, and other important groups endorsed our culture of competence and transparency on behalf of those who teach, protect and otherwise serve and taxpayers like them. As the keeper of North Carolina’s public purse there is no Republican, Democrat or Independent money at the Treasurer’s Office. It’s all green!”
Troxler, commissioner of agriculture, defeated political newcomer Jenna Wadsworth in a relative blowout, some seven percentage points. A farmer by trade, Troxler has overseen North Carolina’s biggest industry since 2005.
The department has thrived under Troxler. He has sought and found markets for N.C. farm products, including a vibrant international trading program, promoting the use of plants such as corn, grapes, and sweet potatoes in North Carolina vodkas, whiskeys, and wine, for example.
The N.C. State Fair, an economic behemoth, was canceled this year because of the pandemic. Troxler’s emotions seeped into his statement announcing the decision.
“We waited as long as we could, hoping the numbers would take a turn and we’d be able to continue with our planning, but each day brought more challenges than solutions,” he said at the time. “I can think of a thousand places I’d rather be today than here delivering this news.”
Four incumbent Democrats will likely return to the council. Auditor Beth Wood and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall were defeating their Republican challengers, Tony Street and E.C. Sykes, respectively, by just two percentage points. Marshall is the first woman to be elected N.C. secretary of state. She has served in the role since 1996, when she beat NASCAR legend Richard Petty. Wood was first elected auditor in 2008.
The new COS presents an interesting dynamic. The relationship between Cooper and the Republicans on the council is tense, at best. The Republican legislature had passed bills to establish the 10 elected members of the Council of State as a check on the governor’s power. Cooper vetoed them all. Cooper’s critics call his executive orders and lockdowns because of COVID-19 repressive and draconian.
Going forward, N.C. State’s Taylor says, facts on the ground will play a role. Republicans may be emboldened, given slightly increased majories in the General Assembly.
“Cooper will still try to regulate the pace of reopening, but he’ll feel extra pressure to move forward,” Taylor said. “Does he interpret Democratic failings and his own unexpectedly narrow margin of victory to discontent about how he’s managed the coronavirus response? Does he see it as an expression of the anger of voters, particularly small business owners? Or was it just Trump and the outcome was not really a referendum on coronavirus?”