In the runup to the Nov. 3, 2020 election, voters in North Carolina will be consumed with a bitterly contested presidential race and a vote for US Senate that will shape the direction of the country for generations to come. 

And smothered under the marquee federal races, candidates for governor and state legislature will be fighting for oxygen.

The ideological outlines of the governor’s race are clear, and there will be little incentive for partisans on either side of the divide to break ranks.

The history of vetoes by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the budget impasse in the recent legislative session signal exactly what’s at stake. Cooper can show voters that he took a stand for expanding Medicaid, while the Republican nominee, whether it’s Lt. Gov. Dan Forest or Rep. Holly Grange, will charge that Cooper’s failure to sign a budget denied pay increases to teachers.

On highly charged social issues, notably reproductive rights and immigration, Cooper’s record of vetoes is likely to equally galvanize base voters on either side. The Republican nominee is likely to charge that Cooper’s veto of the so-called Born Alive Abortion Survivors Act amounts to abetting murder, while the Democratic nominee can show that he refused to abide a campaign to intimidate pregnant women and their physicians through GOP efforts to conjure up a phantom practice based more on supposition than evidence. Likewise, with his veto of the “Remove Foreign Citizens from Voting Rolls” bill, which will give rise to Republican howls that Democrats are inviting massive fraud by “illegals,” while Cooper can show that he took a stand against intimidation and harassment. And no doubt, the Republican nominee will charge that Cooper’s veto of the bill requiring sheriff’s to honor ICE detainers has resulted in “flooding” the streets with “criminal aliens,” while Cooper can justifiably claim that he blocked an unconstitutional law that would have violated the Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure by forcing sheriffs to hold prisoners without a valid warrant.

Whatever your position on these issues, there’s no question that the election will be consequential.

Put a Republican in the Governor’s Mansion, and all those bills passed by the Republican majority in the General Assembly can become law. (Likewise, put a Democratic majority in the General Assembly, and we can provide healthcare to an additional 365,000 people through Medicaid expansion.) 

These appeals to the base are likely to be amplified all the more because of North Carolina’s competitive status. Dan Forest or Holly Grange will likely relish the opportunity to share the stage with President Trump, and no Republican candidate can afford to shun him. The calculus will probably be more complicated for Cooper, depending on how far left the Democratic nominee goes, and considering the history of state-level candidates keeping the national party at arm’s length.

All indications point to the 2020 election coming down to which gubernatorial candidate is most effective at turning out the base in November.

But for the benefit of the small cohort of voters who aren’t dialed in to the partisan attacks and who are searching for markers of integrity and character upon which to base their decision, the two campaigns can be expected to level dueling charges of corruption at each other.

Forest launched the first volley in November by calling on the FBI to investigate Cooper following a report by a private investigative firm to a joint legislative commission that concluded that Cooper improperly used the authority and influence of his office to extract a promise from Duke Energy and other partners for a “Mitigation Fund” in exchange for approving the permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline through eastern North Carolina.

The Mitigation Fund — equivalent to what Dominion Energy ponied up for the Virginia section of pipeline — includes money for environmental repair, economic development and renewable energy projects. Simultaneous to negotiating the permit and establishment of the Mitigation Fund, Cooper nudged Duke Energy to settle a dispute with solar-energy producers that opens a path for them to distribute power through the energy grid, investigators said. And while Cooper owns property near the pipeline, investigators uncovered no information indicating he “would personally, directly benefit from” the solar settlement, or that he or his family members own any facilities that are in the queue to sell solar energy to the grid. Still, the report concluded that “the information suggests that criminal violations may have occurred. An investigative agency with the authority to compel cooperation and the production of documents could potentially obtain additional information to identify violations of criminal statutes.”

A spokesperson for the governor riposted by saying that Forest “has taken more than $2 million from a donor indicted for bribing an elected official, and he has even more facts wrong about this than the Republicans’ investigators did.”

WRAL has reported that Greg Lindberg, a Durham insurance executive under federal indictment for bribery, donated $2.4 million to groups supporting Forest in his 2020 run for governor. One recipient is the Truth & Prosperity independent political action committee, and by law the candidate cannot direct it to return the contributions. But the other recipient, WRAL reported, is the Republican Council of State Committee, which was controlled by Forest and Mark Johnson, the current superintendent of public instruction who is running for the lieutenant governor seat Forest is vacating. The officials have so far declined to return the funds to Lindberg.

Lindberg faces federal charges for bribing Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey in a scheme to remove a troublesome regulator. Causey cooperated with the FBI in the investigation. Robin Hayes, then the chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, was indicted along with Lindberg for lying to the FBI. Hayes has pled guilty and is now cooperating with the prosecution.

The messaging to voters in the middle from the two campaigns is likely to be that they can’t trust the other guy. And who they believe is likely to come down to tribal loyalties.

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