“Between the governor and the mayor of Charlotte, who is also a Democrat, they really do control whether or not [the Republican convention] will happen,” said David McLennan, director of the Meredith Poll, a statewide public opinion poll of North Carolina voters.
As one of a handful of Democratic governors in a Trump-friendly state, Cooper’s handling of the coronavirus is a test of his leadership and political savvy. So far, his wait-and-see approach to reopening North Carolina has boded well for him: A late April Meredith Poll showed two-thirds of North Carolinians — including a plurality of Republicans — approve of his job performance.
Those numbers have made Cooper a slight favorite to win a second term. But his popularity surge could be short-lived if the health crisis grinds on for months. Some Republicans have pushed Cooper to accelerate statewide reopening measures as other Southern states such as Georgia, Tennessee and neighboring South Carolina are doing in the face of skyrocketing unemployment and economic stress.
But what makes Cooper’s situation unique is the authority he wields over the other party’s national convention. Trump has been adamant about having a full-scale in-person convention, but as those plans forge ahead, Cooper will have to walk a fine line between protecting and alienating his constituents.
The governor could ban such a large gathering outright. Or he could limit the number of people allowed to gather in any given place. But any moves to curb the convention could inflame Trump and his base — and prove politically costly to Cooper in November.
“It would be horrible for the governor to get out and try to clamp down on a nominating convention,” said Daniel Barry, the former chairman of the Union County Republican Party. “It would take something very dramatic for the state or the City of Charlotte to react in such a fashion and pull the plug.”
Cooper has steered clear of predictions about the fate of the convention. Aides and Democrats in the state who work closely with him say he sees the event, which was expected to inject $ 200 million into the state’s economy, as a boon to North Carolina. If he’s forced to call it off or scale it back, they said, it will be because public health officials whose advice he has heeded say it’s too dangerous.
Republican officials said they haven’t had extensive discussions with Cooper about the convention; most of the talks have been between Charlotte’s Mayor Vi Lyles, a Democrat, and GOP brass. But they said they’re not concerned that Cooper will pump the brakes on their convention plans.
On April 28, Charlotte’s Democratic-dominated city council voted 6-5 to accept a $ 50 million grant from the Justice Department to cover insurance and security costs for the convention, marking an important step forward. Opponents said holding a 50,000-person convention would be impossible to pull off and dangerous to public health.
During an April 3 Twitter town hall, Lyles hesitated to echo the GOP’s full-speed-ahead message but said the city is “proceeding in that direction” [of hosting the convention] and has a contractual agreement with the Republican National Committee to do so.
Lyles addressed growing concerns during a second online forum on April 17, saying, “I don’t have an answer to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ [about whether the convention will occur]. I have an answer to say we will be guided by the best decisions for our residents.”
Democrats in the state who want the convention mainly point to the economic lift it would provide. Republicans see it as a needed boost for Trump’s base and means of propelling Cooper’s challenger, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, in the fall governor’s race.
According to a report from the governor’s office, North Carolina is flattening its coronavirus curve. But if North Carolina sees a second wave of infections close to August, Cooper will have to make a decision on whether or not Trump’s show will go on.
Neighboring states like South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee relaxed stay-at-home orders as early as April 30, allowing residents to begin dining in restaurants and shopping in retail stores.
Cooper, by contrast, has taken a more measured approach. He’s employed a three-phase reopening strategy that allows nonessential businesses to reopen as early as Saturday but keeps a stay-at-home order in place for two to three more weeks, well beyond the edicts of other Deep South states.
“I know people want their lives and their livelihoods back,” Cooper said at an April 23 news conference at which he unveiled his reopening plans. “And I have a plan to do that. But first, we need to hit certain metrics because the health and safety of North Carolinians is our No. 1 priority.”
Cooper declined an interview request. But a senior political adviser, Morgan Jackson, said the governor “is not making any decisions based on Facebook comments and angry tweets, or signs that people are walking around carrying. He’s making them on health experts, data, science and also in consultation with business leaders and economists.”
Cooper, 62, has been a fixture in North Carolina for more than three decades, including four terms as state attorney general. In 2007, he made national news in the infamous Duke lacrosse case, declaring that three players accused of sexual assault were victims of a “tragic rush to accuse.” In 2016, Cooper defeated Republican Gov. Pat McCrory after an uproar over the state’s “bathroom” law, becoming the first person to defeat a sitting governor in modern state history.