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North Carolina's governor race enters the homestretch after summer of coronavirus

North Carolina kicks off mail-in voting
North Carolina kicks off mail-in voting 02:28

North Carolina officially kicked off the general election on Friday as it became the first state to mail absentee ballots to voters. It's a move that comes on the heels of the president, at a campaign stop last week, encouraging North Carolinians to vote by mail and vote in person.

According to the North Carolina State Board of Elections, state law "makes it a Class I felony for a voter, 'with intent to commit a fraud to register or vote at more than one precinct or more than one time…in the same primary or election.'"

There are currently more than 7 million registered voters in North Carolina, with more than 400,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. And to date, the state has received more than 600,000 absentee ballot requests ahead of the general election, sixteen times as many as the 38,871 requests submitted at the same time in 2016. Democrats—with more than 300,000 absentee ballot requests—have three times as many as Republicans. 

The stakes are high in North Carolina this cycle. The 2020 CBS News Election Battleground tracker calls the state a toss- up for the presidential election and there's also a competitive Senate race in the state that is crucial for Democrats' ambitions to flip that chamber. 

NC Democratic Senate Candidate Deborah Ross Holds Election Night Event
North Carolina Democratic presumptive Governor elect Roy Cooper waves to a crowd at the North Carolina Democratic Watch Party as he walks on stage with his family on November 9, 2016 in Raleigh, North Carolina.  Sara D. Davis / Getty Images

But in the era of coronavirus, when the responsibility of a governor has been elevated, and the gubernatorial race has many similarities to the presidential contest. Mr. Trump and Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest have pointed to a restless economy when talking about COVID-19, urging for businesses and schools to fully open. Joe Biden and incumbent Governor Roy Cooper have looked to medical expertise as the crux for their coronavirus response. 

Cooper has slowly loosened restrictions on businesses, in-person gatherings and schools. In June, he delayed the state's reopening due to an uptick in coronavirus cases and later announced that face masks would be required in public. On September 1, Cooper announced the state was entering "Phase 2.5" and opening playgrounds and gyms at 30% percent capacity. Bars, movie theaters, and amusement parks remain closed. 

"We can do this safely only if we keep doing what we know works," Cooper said at a press conference. He added that until there's a vaccine, the state will continue to take certain precautions. 

"We know that some businesses are still closed and that people are hurting. And the more we can do to slow the spread of this virus, the faster we can turn this dimmer switch on and let everything open," Cooper added.

"Nobody likes staying home, but it's [a plan] that's based on science and based on the facts and based on numbers," said Chris Hardee, a Democratic district chair on the coast of the state.  "You're seeing across the country that governors that have a plan, Republican or Democrat aside, are perceived better."

But Forest and Republicans have criticized Cooper's approach, saying he hasn't set an end goal. The lieutenant governor has long disagreed with Cooper on a number of issues and one political scientist described their working relationship as "frosty," noting that the two have been "very much at odds with one another" since they were both sworn in in 2017. 

Forest has been an outspoken critic of Cooper's reopening approach when it comes to education, calling his suggestions for masks and half days "nonsensical." Cooper's campaign has been quick to point out Forest's missed attendance at Board of Education meetings. 

Forest also filed a lawsuit against Cooper in June, claiming his coronavirus restrictions violate the state's Emergency Management Act by not getting approval from an executive council. But a state court judge ruled in favor of Cooper, and the lawsuit was dropped. 

Virus Outbreak North Carolina
North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dan Forest speaks to members of the media during a news conference in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, June 29, 2020. Gerry Broome / AP

In a news release about the court ruling, Forest said "if Governor Cooper has 100% of the power, then he has 100% of the responsibility."

Like Biden, Governor Cooper has ceased in-person campaign events. In August, Cooper appeared at two joint fundraisers via Zoom, and his campaign held a public "Women for Cooper" event that featured Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

Forest has trucked ahead with in-person campaign events, with loose restrictions on mask wearing and social distancing. According to his campaign's Facebook page, they have held at least 10 in-person events in August alone, which the Cooper campaign has used to highlight the medical risk of in-person events through ads. On Thursday, Forest joined Vice President Mike Pence in Raleigh to participate in a rally hosted by Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life non-profit organization.

The state's Republican party has also been holding in-person events like roundtable discussions with small business owners and elected officials every Tuesday. 

"North Carolina is a big state and we've got 100 counties, and you really do need to be in touch with the people of the state in order to govern them," North Carolina Republican Chairman Michael Whatley told CBS News. "When all you do is stay in your government compound and hear from your staff, and make unilateral decisions, and you don't have transparency in the decision-making process, that's a huge problem."

The state's Democratic party chair, Wayne Goodwin, said Cooper's approach shows he's "being smart" and cares about public safety. Ricky Hurtado, a Democratic state house candidate, said Cooper's leadership "is his strongest asset right now," calling Forest's in-person events "a slap in the face for North Carolinians."

The political urgency has seemed minimal for Cooper, who has been leading Forest in polls by double digits all summer and has kept a steady approval rating throughout his tenure. A recent poll from Monmouth University showed Cooper leading by 11 points among registered voters. And the cash gap is even bigger. As of July, Cooper had over $14 million cash on hand. Forest had close to $2 million. Cooper's campaign has used it in part to run five television ads in July and August, compared to one from Forest.

The Republican Governors Association has reserved $3 million in ads for the state, and began running two anti-Cooper ads this month. 

"Cooper has loads and loads of out-of-state money and he's been raising it...when you're sitting on a big load of cash, you don't have quite as much need to get out there," said North Carolina Senator Rob Bryan, the sole Republican representing Charlotte's Mecklenburg County in the state's general assembly.

After 14 years serving in the state legislature, Cooper pulled off a narrow 10,000 vote victory against Republican Governor Pat McCrory in 2016. In doing so, he joined a small group of southern Democratic Governors, in part by out-performing Hillary Clinton,--who lost North Carolina,--by about 13,000 votes in Raleigh and Charlotte counties. 

For most of his first term, Cooper's ambitions have been stalled by a Republican-majority state legislature. Despite Democrats being able to break the supermajority in the state House and Senate in 2018, Republicans still had enough in their ranks to override any veto coming from Cooper for his first two years. 

Forest presides over the state Senate, and has served as the state's lieutenant governor since 2012, the only Republican to be re-elected for the position. A son of former Congresswoman Sue Myrick, who represented a Charlotte-area district, Forest ran an architectural firm in the city prior to making the jump to politics. 

Forest got 2.39 million votes in his 2016 bid for re-election, slightly more than Cooper's 2.3 million in his race for governor. 

Meredith College political science professor David McLennan said that both the presidential and state races in North Carolina will all boil down to turnout. He also noteds that the demographics of the state's voter registration pool has become younger, includes more people of color and out-of-towners who have moved to metropolitan areas that tend to lean Democratic. 

"North Carolina is difficult to pigeonhole, meaning that even though we have voted for Republicans quite often in recent years for president, we've had a lot of Democratic governors," said McLennan. "I don't think Dan Forest or Thom Tillis are going to depend entirely on the president's performance at the top of the ticket but if President Trump does poorly in the state, you've got to think that those other down-ballot Republicans are going to do poorly as well." 

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