In all likelihood, Gov. Roy Cooper will have a competitive race for reelection in his bid for a second term in 2020. Despite his consistently strong showing in Civitas Polls, races tend to tighten when there is credible and well-financed opposition. Likely nominee Lt. Gov. Dan Forest certainly fits that mold. After all, Forest received more votes than President Donald Trump in North Carolina in 2016.
To his credit, Cooper showed political deftness for winning the race in 2016, given that overall, Republicans did well in North Carolina that year. For what it’s worth, Politico recently rated the governor’s race a toss-up. However, if one is betting the house, the incumbent Cooper is undoubtedly the favorite today.
One of the issues at the forefront of the campaign will be teacher pay and the seemingly never-ending issue of raises. Cooper made sure of that this year when he vetoed the 3.9 percent raise for teachers over two years passed by Republican legislators. He vetoed raises in the budget and then for a special mini-budget package, citing the raises as “paltry.” Cooper allowed for raises for other state employees in the mini-budgets, given their pay is not tied to his election strategy. For political purposes, Cooper made a decision that zero was superior to 3.9 percent.
It’s a gamble and it’s clear he wants to keep the issue front and center, given that Cooper emailed traditional public school administrators to disseminate a partisan letter to teachers on December 5.
When the news initially broke of his second veto of teacher pay increases, I felt that it was a shrewd move by Cooper. Despite very popular sentiment for school choice in North Carolina, Cooper continually wins on the education issue. Traditionally, the issue favors Cooper and Democrats. And despite most citizens not knowing how much is spent on a per-pupil-basis, they are generally for more spending. Getting the NCAE continually worked up over education spending and the issue of compensation has seemed to work to his political advantage over and over again.
However, Civitas Policy Director Bob Luebke makes a great case that the Democrat Party is cracking up, at least to some degree, on the education issue. We see this in other states, especially Florida, where school choice is more ingrained into the culture of the state. Republicans are making inroads with minority voters there and elsewhere largely because of the issue of education. It hasn’t really materialized yet at the ballot box in North Carolina, at least in a noticeable way, but it feels like North Carolina will reach a tipping point on this issue in the next decade. Perhaps even earlier. This is probably why Cooper and Democrats are aggressively gambling on throwing so many of their chips on more government control, oversight, and spending on public education. The education status quo still has considerable cache in North Carolina.
The big question is how many times can Cooper go to the political well on the teacher pay raise issue without any consequences? It’s a question Republicans keep asking. In a December 6 email, NC Senate Republicans fired back once again: “His strategy is to block all teacher raises, then convince teachers to blame Republicans,” read a portion of the email.
It echoes Senate Leader Phil Berger’s statement from last month:
Governor Cooper uses teachers as pawns, blocking their pay increases then trying to convince them it’s all the Republicans’ fault. At some point, they’ll see his cynical ploy for what it really is.
Cooper’s big fear is that this issue recedes from the news cycle. Thus the letter to teachers. Because the longer it goes on without a raise to his theoretical liking, he loses political capital and control. Most teachers are then apt to ask the obvious question: “How is nothing better than something?”