Roy Cooper’s Wager

November 3, 2022

Charles McKellar is sitting on a folding chair in the sparse Cumberland County Democratic Party offices, surrounded by papers and the refuse of a Zaxby’s meal, explaining that outsiders don’t know as much as they think they do.

“This is different here,” the retired Air Force veteran and local party treasurer said. “I’m not going to say the people aren’t friendly to strangers, but I don’t think people are very accepting of strangers, especially if you come in and start trying to dictate how we should do things here.”

“They’re smarter in Orange County and Durham County, you know?” Sharon Johnson, the local party chair and retired U.S. Treasury special agent, chimes in sardonically. “Don’t forget Mecklenburg.” 

The sentiment is common here—the people of Fayetteville don’t much appreciate what the rest of North Carolina has to say about them—but as the general election nears, there’s a pointed subtext. McKellar, Johnson, and other Fayetteville Democrats have been hearing the same arguments about one of their state Senate candidates since March. 

What’s happening in District 19 is very local, but started with a very notable outsider: Gov. Roy Cooper. After the current Senator, Democrat Kirk deViere, broke ranks with his party during last year’s state budget process, Cooper made the unusual choice of publicly backing his challenger in the May primary, Val Applewhite. 

Applewhite won by 20 points, but now she’s facing a tough election against Republican Wesley Meredith, who represented the district for four terms before deViere unseated him in 2018. Some Democrats fear the seat is vulnerable. 

Though no public polling has been released, the money spent on this race says a lot: Applewhite had raised $229,000 by the end of June (the most recent report available)—nearly four times more than the Democratic candidate in neighboring District 21, which is a toss-up on paper, according to data from Dave’s Redistricting. And after Michael Bloomberg gave $1 million to the North Carolina Democratic Party last week, the party poured an additional $355,000 into Applewhite’s campaign.

“Elections are won and lost in the last week or so,” Applewhite said. “It’s going to be a very close race.”

Many have puzzled over why Cooper would risk complicating the District 19 race at a time when Republicans are only two seats away from a supermajority in the Senate. 

“I don’t know what transpired between Kirk and the governor,” Johnson said. “I would love to know. I asked. He didn’t tell me.” 

Cooper said he endorsed Applewhite because she “isn’t afraid to stand up to Right Wing Republicans.” 

But now his veto power—the key to his governing strategy—is at stake, and District 19 might make the difference.

Read the rest at The Assembly.