AG Roy Cooper outdrawing Gov. Pat McCrory in fundraising

Attorney General Roy Cooper
Attorney General Roy Cooper cseward@newsobserver.com

Attorney General Roy Cooper has raised more money than Gov. Pat McCrory this year, signaling that his largely quiet, officially unannounced campaign will pose a significant challenge to the governor’s re-election.

There has been little question that Cooper, a Democrat, would run, even though he has not yet formally kicked off the campaign. But the finance reports filed Friday, which cover the first half of this year, were a highly anticipated measure of the strength of the attorney general’s candidacy against the first-term Republican governor.

The reports show Cooper raised $2.2 million through June 30, which left him with $3 million cash on hand. McCrory raised $1.3 million and had $2.4 million on hand.

That nearly $900,000 advantage in fundraising gave Democrats something to cheer about on Friday – for good reason, according to longtime GOP strategist Carter Wrenn of Raleigh.

“You very seldom see a challenger outraising an incumbent when it’s a governor or senator,” Wrenn said. “This is a really good sign for Roy Cooper. He’s outraising a sitting governor. I don’t know when the last time that happened.”

Wrenn said if it had been Cooper who pulled in $1.3 million to McCrory’s $2.2 million, it would be considered a strong showing for a challenger. “But when you flip them, it’s really unusual,” he said.

Cooper’s campaign was elated.

“People across North Carolina are responding to Roy Cooper’s positive vision for the state’s future,” said Morgan Jackson, Cooper’s campaign strategist. “We’re pleased that so many have weighed in with their encouragement and support so early. It’s clear that people are ready for a change in Raleigh.”

The message from the McCrory camp was that it’s still a long way to the election in November 2016.

“This is a good start, but we’re just now getting started,” said Billy Constangy, director of The Pat McCrory Committee. “While Gov. McCrory is focused on doing his full-time job as governor of North Carolina, our growing network of supporters will ensure we have the resources necessary to show how North Carolina is moving forward and creating jobs under his leadership.”

David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh, says it is too early for the donor gap to mean much, but it’s still a warning sign for the governor.

“It should show that McCrory is going to have a little bit of trouble fundraising because of his unpopularity – not just his approval rating, but within the Republican Party,” McLennan said. “He seems too moderate by some and not enough of a leader by others. If he doesn’t pick up the pace beyond the end of this year, it could be a real concern.”

McCrory is well known across the state. His visibility comes from years as the mayor of Charlotte, his unsuccessful 2008 campaign against then-Gov. Bev Perdue, and the past 21/2 years in office navigating contentious issues with members of his own party in the legislature, over both social and economic goals.

Cooper still has to overcome the fact that not as many people know him across the state, even though he has been a part of the political establishment since he was elected to the General Assembly in 1986 and has served as attorney general for 15 years.

A survey by the liberal Public Policy Polling last month found 45 percent of those surveyed didn’t know enough about Cooper to have an opinion about him. The poll showed the candidates virtually in a dead heat, as did a survey by the conservative Civitas Institute in June.

Durham attorney Ken Spaulding, a former member of the General Assembly, is running against Cooper in the Democratic primary. He raised $44,000 so far this year, and has $51,000 cash on hand.

Friday’s reports only capture what the candidates’ committees have raised. Outside groups, which are increasingly inflating the spending on campaigns, are likely to form in support of McCrory and Cooper, and spend further millions of dollars before the general election.

The governor’s campaign committee disclosed his fundraising totals Friday afternoon in a news release. The full report was not available through the State Board of Elections by Friday evening. The governor’s campaign said that 98 percent of this year’s donations to McCrory were from North Carolinians, and 60 percent of all contributors gave $200 or less, as a measure of grass-roots support. More than one-third of them were new donors to McCrory, according to the campaign.

Cooper’s contributors included a number of lawyers, politicians and other prominent figures in North Carolina, as well as small-amount donors, according to the report his campaign filed with the Board of Elections Friday.

GOP strategist Chris Sinclair of Cary, who has worked on McCrory’s campaigns this year and previously, said the governor is a “prolific” fundraiser, who will close that gap.

Sinclair also said Cooper’s early advantage isn’t surprising, because Cooper has made his intentions clear for two years now, and because Democratic donors don’t have other options, since there is no declared Democratic candidate for U.S. Sen. Richard Burr’s seat so far. Burr, a two-term Republican senator, has received slightly more than Cooper and McCrory combined this year.

“They are pinning everything on (Cooper’s) campaign,” Sinclair said.

McCrory’s fundraising is on a pace with his campaign for governor four years ago and close to Perdue’s campaign at the same time, before she dropped out of the race at the last minute and left then-Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton to scramble to raise money in a losing contest. Cooper is outpacing Perdue’s fundraising from that period.