May 16, 2022 - Politics

Gov. Roy Cooper's campaign to squash a dissenter

Photo illustration: Allie Carl/Axios. Photo: Charlotte Observer/Getty Images

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper has crafted a reputation as a patient, pragmatic dealmaker and former Sunday school teacher from rural Nash County. But in this year's primary, he's showing another side: political ruthlessness.

What's happening: Cooper — a rising star in the Democratic party — and his allies have spent around $175,000 to defeat incumbent Democratic state Sen. Kirk deViere from Fayetteville. That's based on newly released campaign finance reports.

  • Cooper's crew believes deViere has aligned "himself with Republicans," participated in "backroom dealings" with them and ultimately thwarted the governor's ability to achieve one of his top political priorities: Medicaid expansion.
  • DeViere denied that allegation saying "I aligned myself with the people of my community and the state."

Details: DeViere was one of just four Democrats who were in talks with legislative leaders about what should be included in the budget, but he disputes that he ever undermined the governor.

  • "I supported the budget because I felt that it was a compromise — a good compromise, not a great compromise, but a good compromise — and the governor also asked us to support it," deViere told Axios. "All along I said, 'Governor, we need to find a compromise. We can’t not have a budget.'"
  • Still, the governor and some of his supporters zeroed in on defeating deViere, whose county ultimately received some $400 million as part of the budget package.

The same day Cooper signed the bill into law, some voters were polled on their support for several potential candidates for deViere's seat, records obtained by Axios show.

  • In an interview with Axios, one of Cooper's top advisors, Morgan Jackson, denied that the poll was commissioned by his firm, Nexus Strategies.
  • "It is very alarming that our parties are polarizing to the point that you can't have a state senator who puts his district first rather than his party," said Brad Crone, a longtime operative for both Democrats and Republicans.

Why it matters: This unusual public dispute shows the lengths Cooper is willing to go when people in his own party cross him.

  • It serves as a warning to Democratic lawmakers, who regularly face pressure to support the governor’s position on legislation.
  • And it sends a message that Democrats should think twice before they vote to override the governor’s vetoes in the future.

Democrats reached by Axios declined to comment on Cooper's involvement in deViere's race, saying they could not get in the middle of the "fight" because they need to be united when the legislature goes back into session this month.

  • Others are up for election this year and will rely heavily on Cooper's support and fundraising network to win.

"What the governor is looking for is people who come to Raleigh that will fight for Medicaid expansion, that will fight for school funding, that will stand united so that we can get things done in Raleigh," Jackson said. "[DeViere] did not do those things."

State of play: Some of Cooper's longtime supporters have made dozens of donations to deViere's opponent, Val Applewhite — likely a result of the governor's endorsement in the race.

  • Jackson's firm, which fired deViere after the budget saga, now runs Applewhite's campaign.

Worth noting: Though Cooper's endorsement is expected to carry some weight with voters in this district, Applewhite may have more of an advantage over deViere, who is white, in that she is a Black woman running in a heavily African American district. More than 40% of the district's residents are Black, according to Dave's Redistricting.

One outside group, run by longtime Cooper donor Dean Debnam, has also flooded the district with at least $45,000 in TV and radio ads backing Applewhite. The group's campaign finance report is not yet available on the North Carolina State Board of Elections site, so the total amount spent in the race is unknown.

In an interview with Axios, Cooper steered clear of discussing deViere — who he has previously supported in elections — but said he believes in Applewhite.

  • "She will bring a unique and important perspective to the state Senate and I'm strongly supportive," he said. "I believe she should win and I want her to win."

The big picture: Cooper has been flagged as a potential presidential candidate in 2024. As one of the few Democrats to win statewide office in North Carolina, he’s also well-positioned to run for the U.S. Senate in 2026.

  • With just two years left in his final term and an upcoming election that's predicted to be favorable to Republicans, Cooper is running out of time to pass Medicaid expansion. He could run on that success if he’s able to accomplish it.

What's next: North Carolina's primary election, which is Tuesday, will determine whether the governor’s involvement in the race was worth it.

  • DeViere's term ends in December, so he'll still have opportunities to vote for or against Cooper’s agenda, regardless of the outcome.
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