Taylor Batten

The 2020 race for NC governor just got kick-started

With a dig at Roy Cooper and Pat McCrory, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest all but announced his bid for governor on Thursday.
With a dig at Roy Cooper and Pat McCrory, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest all but announced his bid for governor on Thursday. cliddy@newsobserver.com

A big piece of North Carolina’s 2020 race for governor fell into place Thursday when Dan Forest gave his clearest signal yet that he’s running. This raises a number of questions, including: Who is Dan Forest? What has he accomplished that makes him qualified to serve as governor? And what’s next for Pat McCrory?

Forest is North Carolina’s lieutenant governor and a Republican. On Thursday, he issued a statement reacting to the latest news on the I-77 tolls project.

“The I-77 toll road contract was a colossal mistake started by the Perdue administration, signed by the McCrory administration, punted by the Cooper administration and would be fixed by a Forest administration,” he said.

The lack of subtlety made the statement Forest’s unofficial entry into the 2020 governor’s race against incumbent Democrat Roy Cooper. Actually, Forest’s unofficial entry into the race came when he decided to run for lieutenant governor in 2012, since the only purpose of that job is to give aspiring governors a perch from which to run for higher office.

So Forest has instant credibility, even if he hasn’t actually accomplished much notable in public life. In fact, Forest has less of a resume than any previous N.C. governor of the past 40 years or more. Roy Cooper had been attorney general for 16 years before being elected governor. Pat McCrory was mayor of the state’s biggest city for 14 years. Bev Perdue had been a state legislator for 14 years and then lieutenant governor. Mike Easley had been a district attorney, then attorney general for eight years. Jim Martin had been a congressman for 12 years and a county commissioner. Jim Hunt had been, well, Jim Hunt, and served a record four terms as governor.

Forest, by contrast, has done little besides wear the lieutenant governor title (first won in 2012 by 7,000 votes out of 4.3 million cast) and be former U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick’s son. That’s not to say he isn’t capable of being governor; he just can’t yet point to a long list of tremendous accomplishments.

Even so, though the election is more than two years away, Forest instantly becomes the front-runner for the Republican nomination by default. The question is whether other Republicans will bow to him and let him coast to the nomination, or whether big, well-funded names will put up a fight.

The best-known name of all is currently a radio talk show host for an hour each weekday morning in Charlotte. Pat McCrory lost narrowly to Cooper in 2016 and has been biding his time, using WBT to keep his profile visible. He hasn’t been shy on the air about weighing in on politics and state affairs, regularly criticizing Cooper’s performance. He could very well be plotting a comeback, and Forest’s statement Thursday takes the gloves off, firing a shot directly at one of McCrory’s weak points, the tolls debacle that many believe cost him reelection in 2016.

Others could jump in, of course, but what would a Forest-McCrory primary race look like? Forest has staked himself out on the far-right end of the spectrum, frequently touting his Christian conservative bona fides, and that would surely be his strategy for 2020. So which McCrory would oppose him? The moderate, practical Republican who served as Charlotte mayor for 14 years? Or the outspoken conservative who defended HB2 and went along with an out-of-control legislature?

It could be a tough primary for McCrory, which seems a bit odd for a former governor. It will be hard for him to out-Forest Forest. Forest knows who he is, McCrory is famously waffle-y and in a Republican primary in 2020, the rock-ribbed conservative is sure to have an edge.

Email: tbatten@charlotteobserver.com