Gary Pearce: What’s Gov. Roy Cooper’s secret?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 3, 2021

By Gary Pearce

A national reporter recently wrote a flattering article about Governor Roy Cooper, but seemed flummoxed by Cooper’s political success.

In “What Does This Man Know That Other Democrats Don’t?” in The Atlantic, Edward-Isaac Dovere wrote, “The governor is 16–0 in primary and general elections over the past three and a half decades—in good years and bad years for Democrats, in the North Carolina of his youth and in the very different place his state has become.”

Even after interviewing the Governor, he wrote, “Cooper doesn’t know why he keeps winning in North Carolina while other Democrats keep losing.” He added, “The secret to Cooper’s victories may be hard to replicate.”

Actually, there’s no secret here. Dovere touched on most of the explanations. But he underestimated some of them, and he missed a big one.

Cooper’s first key to success, the article noted, is “Make sure voters can see you running a competent and effective government.” Yep. The governor’s handling of the COVID pandemic played a big part in his reelection last year.

Dovere mentioned “his identity as a white man (which) may have enabled him to hold on to moderate voters.” It’s more than that; Cooper comes across as what he is: a small-town boy from rural North Carolina who has worked his way up.

The article noted, in a master stroke of understatement, that Cooper has “built up his own fundraising apparatus.” In fact, the Governor raised more than $42 million for his reelection last year. His opponent, Dan Forest, raised about $5 million. Cooper outspent Forest 10-1 on TV. In 2016, Cooper outraised an incumbent Governor – a rare feat.

Dovere said Cooper “also established (and largely funded) a political operation (that) gave him centers of political support around the state.” Actually, he’s been building a network since he was a student at UNC.

Through 35 years in politics, Cooper has built a stable and experienced team of governmental and political advisers; some have been with him since he ran for attorney general in 2000.

The article adds, “Then there’s Cooper’s aggressive messaging.” Again, that’s an understatement. In his one debate with Forest last year, Cooper – unlike most incumbents – hit his opponent hard from his opening to close.

After all that, Dovere missed what may be the biggest factor in Cooper’s success: He has won because he has run against the legislature.

Thanks to a fluke off-year election in 2010 and gerrymandering since, Republicans run the legislature. They’ve cut corporate taxes, cut spending on public schools, pushed private schools, stopped Medicaid expansion, cut unemployment relief and cut health, safety and environmental regulations.

But gerrymandering doesn’t work for a statewide race. North Carolina has elected Democratic governors – with precisely the opposite priorities of our legislature – in seven of eight elections since 1992. The only exception was 2012, when incumbent Governor Beverly Perdue pulled out of the race late and left the door open to Republican Pat McCrory.

McCrory faithfully followed the legislature’s lead on most every issue. He signed the controversial “Bathroom Bill” that cost North Carolina millions of dollars in business. He promptly lost reelection to Cooper, even though Donald Trump carried the state, as he did again in 2020.

Cooper is squarely in the tradition of governors since Terry Sanford (1960-64), including both Democrats and Republicans like Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin. They focused on better education as the path to a better future. Cooper has added better health care, racial and gender equity, climate-change action and rural Internet to the agenda.

His secret is that North Carolinians evidently share his priorities.

Gary Pearce was a reporter and editor at The News & Observer, a political consultant, and an adviser to Governor Jim Hunt (1976-1984 and 1992-2000). He blogs about politics and public policy at