When a Civitas Institute poll came out showing Governor Roy Cooper’s approval rating two points underwater, Republicans rejoiced. They had been predicting an imminent decline in Cooper’s public support essentially from the day he took office, and here was confirmation — albeit five years and a successful reelection campaign later — that their foe on Blount Street had seen his chickens return to the roost. But Civitas, of course, polls with an agenda: a fervently anti-Cooper agenda. And not long after Art Pope’s pet non-profit poured cold water on Cooper’s image, a pair of more credible polls surfaced showing that Roy Cooper was as popular as ever.
Cooper’s resilience should go down as one of the most impressive political feats North Carolina has seen in the 21st century. Governing a deep-purple state, Cooper has maintained public support despite radical swings in the political climate which have often been disadvantageous to his party. Because North Carolina leans slightly conservative, Cooper’s popularity has required the governor to hold onto a chunk of voters who otherwise lean toward the Republican Party. He has done this, and even more remarkable than his ability to retain crossover appeal in an era of extreme polarization is that he’s kept “Cooper Republicans” on board while battling the reactionary right at every turn.
If one were to write a tick-tock history of the Cooper administration, much of the text would concern fights with the Republican controlled/gerrymandered General Assembly. Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore declared political war on Cooper’s administration even before the Governor took the oath of office. Spiteful after a surprise defeat in 2016, the legislature stripped powers from the incoming governor in a raft of now-infamous “sore loser” laws. Since this difficult beginning, the relationship between Cooper and his rivals on Jones Street has remained bitter, thawing only with last week’s signing of the bipartisan budget — and even then, only by a bit.
Cooper has not governed as a 1980’s-style “Republican Lite” Democrat from the South. He has instead devoted himself to defending progressive priorities from Republican attacks. It was a strategic decision that entailed the risk of conservatives in the state counter-polarizing against him. But his keen sensitivity to opinion in the state and sound judgment allowed him to keep the trust of a critical chunk of GOP voters, who accounted for his solid reelection margin.
Cooper had good models for this strategy, notably the line of moderate Democratic governors who led North Carolina during its transformation into a two-party state. However, his political success did not flow inexorably from a historical tradition. Politics is now far more polarized than when Jim Hunt and Mike Easley successfully governed the state with the support of some conservatives. Cooper had to show adroit political skills to replicate Hunt’s success in an era when vast numbers of Hunt voters have swung implacably into the GOP.
As a party, Cooper’s Democrats face the challenge of spreading his political achievements more broadly throughout the ranks. Unfortunately, Cooper’s success has not so far trickled down to Democratic state legislative candidates or candidates for the Council of State. Perhaps he could become more of a firewall for the party by deliberately seeking a higher profile, and contrasting his vision for North Carolina with the reactionary creed that Pat McCrory or Ted Budd will run on in next year’s U.S. Senate race. If he does that, he may eventually become what no North Carolinian has been since the 1800s: Vice President.
Alexander H. Jones is a Policy Analyst with Carolina Forward. He lives in Chapel Hill.