In many ways, North Carolina is an outlier when it comes to executive offices. The state has ten different popularly-elected executive offices – all statewide – that collectively comprise the Council of State. Elections for the Council of State are held every four years, coinciding with the presidential election. The Council of State is distinct from the Cabinet, which is unelected and directly appointed by the Governor. It retains some executive authority, especially in the management of property, and meets monthly.
Currently, the Council of State has a 6-4 Republican majority following the 2016 elections, the first Republican advantage since 1900. However, many of its members are either retiring or seeking different offices. This, combined with the state’s swingy political nature and ticket-splitting tendencies, has made the Council of State elections a tossup going into the 2020 elections.
- Incumbent: Roy Cooper (D)
- Challengers: Dan Forest (R), Steven J. DiFiore (L), Al Pisano (C)
- Previous election: Democrat by 0.2% (10,277 votes)
- Rating: Likely Democratic
The 2016 gubernatorial election was a brutal contest that resulted in popular Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper unseating incumbent Republican Pat McCrory by a minuscule margin. This time, Cooper appears well-set to win re-election. The most recent poll from Monmouth found Cooper leading with 51% of the vote among likely voters compared to 42% for incumbent Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest.
Cooper’s agenda has been stifled by the Republican-dominated legislature. The Governor of North Carolina is one of the weakest in the country, leaving Cooper with limited abilities in the face of a hostile legislature. He has opposed further tax cuts, vetoed teacher pay raises he felt were insufficient, and advocated for Medicaid expansion.
Forest, the son of popular former Charlotte Mayor and Representative Sue Myrick, easily won re-election in 2016. However, that support doesn’t appear to have translated to his gubernatorial campaign. Forest has campaigned on traditional conservative issues as well as on reopening North Carolina, especially the school system. The race has narrowed in recent months, but Forest remains the underdog.
- Incumbent: Dan Forest (R-retiring)
- Contenders: Mark Robinson (R), Yvonne Lewis Holley (D)
- Previous election: Republican by 6.5% (300,135 votes)
- Rating: Tossup
With incumbent Dan Forest running for Governor, North Carolina will have a new Lieutenant Governor following the 2020 elections. Regardless of who wins, history will be made as either would be the state’s first African-American Lieutenant Governor. The Lieutenant Governor’s office might be the least powerful in the Council of State, but its reputation as a stepping-stone to the Governor’s office makes this a fairly high-profile contest.
Robinson, a veteran and businessman from Greensboro, easily cleared a crowded nine-candidate primary. He recorded 32.5% of the vote, nearly 18 percentage points more than his closest opponent, State Senator Andy Wells. His strong pro-gun and conservative stances and appealing backstory have made him a popular figure among state Republicans.
Holley is a State Representative for the 38th district, which is based entirely in urban Wake County. She finished first in the primary but failed to clear the 30% threshold to avoid a runoff. Her closest rival, State Senator Terry Van Duyn, however, opted not to call for a runoff. Holley advocates for criminal justice reform, an assault weapons ban, mandatory firearms licensing, and a more environmentally-conscious LG office.
Republicans are excited by Robinson, and the three polls that have been conducted have shown a small lead for him. However, like in many of North Carolina’s down-ballot races, the result may come down to ancestral, ticket-splitting voters in both parties.
- Incumbent: Josh Stein (D)
- Challenger: Jim O’Neill (R)
- Previous election: Democratic by 0.6% (24,605 votes)
- Rating: Leans Democratic
Josh Stein narrowly defeated Republican nominee Buck Newton in the 2016 contest and seems to be in a much better position this time. That being said, Republicans have a credible nominee. Jim O’Neill is the District Attorney of Democratic-leaning Forsyth County, and a far better nominee than Stein faced in 2016.
Stein is the latest in a long line of Democratic Attorney Generals and has aspirations to follow Roy Cooper’s path to the Governor’s office. As Attorney General, Stein has aimed to reduce the state’s large rape kit backlog that accumulated under Cooper’s tenure. He’s also worked to reach a settlement with drug companies over the opiod crisis and has defended the Affordable Care Act.
O’Neill has served as Forsyth County District Attorney since 2009. He highlights his record on dealing with sex offenders and violent crime as well as his success with an opioid withdrawal program for inmates. He’s said his priorities as AG would be to clear the rape kit backlog, deal with the opioid crisis, and defend death penalty cases.
As of the second quarter, Stein has a staggering fundraising advantage. That being said, lower-level statewide offices typically see a ton of ticket-splitting, making a Republican win very possible under the right circumstances.
- Incumbent: Beth Wood (D)
- Challenger: Anthony Wayne Street (R)
- Previous election: Democratic by 0.14% (6,042 votes)
- Rating: Likely Democratic
Three-term Auditor Beth Wood seemed like a viable Republican target following her incredibly narrow win in 2016. Despite that, Republicans suffered a massive recruiting failure in their primary. The Republican primary was won by Anthony Wayne Street, who has an extensive criminal record. It goes without saying, then, that Wood is the prohibitive favorite in November. It’s not impossible that Street could win given the obscurity of the office, but his record simply isn’t one Republicans will defend.
Commissioner of Agriculture
- Incumbent: Steve Troxler (R)
- Challenger: Jenna Wadsworth (D)
- Previous election: Republican by 11.12% (505,573 votes)
- Rating: Likely Republican
Since winning a narrow and controversial race in 2004, Steve Troxler has had a lock on the Agriculture Commissioner’s office. He was the best-performing Republican candidate in 2016 and even managed to win Wake County, which Hillary Clinton won by over 20 percentage points. Troxler has strong support from the agriculture and pork industries. This gives him a solid base of support in ancestrally-Democratic eastern North Carolina.
His opponent, Wake County Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor Jenna Wadsworth, has aimed most of her efforts at digital platforms like Tik Tok. A progressive, Wadsworth supports Medicare for All and aims to become the first LGBT statewide officeholder in North Carolina.
Neither candidates have stellar fundraising totals in this race. As an uncontroversial incumbent in an office that historically elects Republicans, Troxler is likely to win. This is probably the safest bet of the 2020 Council of State elections. However, it’s unlikely Troxler’s margin will be as high as it was last time.
Commissioner of Insurance
- Incumbent: Mike Causey (R)
- Challenger: Wayne Goodwin (D)
- Previous election: Republican by 0.8% (35,888 votes)
- Rating: Tossup
Mike Causey’s victory over incumbent Wayne Goodwin came as a surprise to many. Prior to his 2016 win, Causey had run for the office in four of the last six elections. This led Goodwin to controversially label him a “perennial candidate” even though he currently holds elected office.
Causey has highlighted his confrontations with insurance companies and crackdowns on insurance fraud. Given the obscurity of his office, many of his selling points seem small: hiring new fraud and abuse investigators, clearing a backlog in inspections of fire departments, and reforming the Rate Bureau.
For his part, Goodwin strongly contests these claims and argues that insurance rates have risen under Causey’s tenure. He is running on his record as Insurance Commissioner: confronting insurance companies and securing the lowest auto insurance rates in the country.
The relative anonymity of the office masks one of the most contentious races in the Council of State elections. Goodwin hopes to use his residual name ID to reclaim his old seat, while Causey wants to continue to hold an office he spent decades fighting to win. At the moment, like many races in North Carolina, it seems like a coin flip.
Commissioner of Labor
- Incumbent: Cherie Berry (R-retiring)
- Contenders: Josh Dobson (R), Jessica Holmes (D)
- Previous election: Republican by 10.49% (476,401 votes)
- Rating: Tossup
The surprise retirement of Cherie Berry, North Carolina’s beloved “Elevator Queen”, set a scramble for an office Democrats have long sought to regain. Berry was the only Republican to win a lower-level statewide office in the 20th century, winning her first race in 2000. Since then, she became notable for the inclusion of her image in every elevator in the state. Democratic attempts to critique her handling of the office generally fell on deaf ears as she became a living meme.
On the Republican side, State Representative Josh Dobson won a three-way primary; like Berry, he resides in western North Carolina. Dobson cites his legislative experience and proudly touts Berry’s endorsement. On the Democratic side, Wake County Commissioner Jessica Holmes hopes to translate her experience as a labor attorney into the office. She cites endorsements from the AFL-CIO, NCAE, and former President Barack Obama.
Jacob Smith, a political scientist, wrote an academic study on the impact of Berry’s elevator photographs. It found a clear correlation between the number of elevators per 1,000 people in a given county and Berry overperforming. With her retiring, neither candidate will have that advantage here, setting up what may be one of the most competitive of the Council of State races.
Secretary of State
- Incumbent: Elaine Marshall (D)
- Challenger: E.C. Sykes (R)
- Previous election: Democratic by 4.52% (204,906 votes)
- Rating: Leans Democratic
Elaine Marshall is an institution in North Carolina politics. Her first race, against NASCAR legend Richard Petty, was back in 1996; she became the first woman elected to a statewide executive office in the state.
She’s barely broken a sweat since, winning five re-election bids with ease. However, her most recent bid in 2016 was her closest yet. Much of the rural support in eastern North Carolina that she is famous for either lessened or evaporated. However, counties like Columbus, Wayne, and Lee remained in her column.
Republicans like their nominee, E.C. Sykes, a Raleigh businessman running on a campaign centered on his socially conservative stances. The GOP hopes this can peel away the rural support that has helped Marshall stay in office for years. Marshall has the edge in fundraising, however, and retains a slight edge in her bid for a seventh term.
Superintendent of Public Instruction
- Incumbent: Mark Johnson (R-retiring)
- Contenders: Catherine Truitt (R), Jen Mangrum (D)
- Previous election: Republican by 1.2% (53,880 votes)
- Rating: Tossup
First-term incumbent Mark Johnson opted to run for Lieutenant Governor, so this is an open seat. Given the major statewide battles over education, this is one of the most important races. It will pit Catherine Truitt, a former teacher and chancellor of Western Governor’s University in North Carolina, against UNC Greensboro associate professor Jen Mangrum. Both candidates have promised to provide a better classroom environment for teachers and students alike. The candidates differ on Governor Cooper’s legislative priorities for education, with Mangrum aggressively supporting higher teacher pay and smaller classroom sizes.
Truitt has been endorsed by the State Employees Association of North Carolina (SEANC) and the North Carolina Police Benevolent Association (NCPBA), while Mangrum has support from the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), Communication Workers of America, and EMILY’s List. Given how close the last election was, it wouldn’t be a surprise if this is one of the closest of the cycle.
- Incumbent: Dale Folwell (R)
- Challenger: Ronnie Chatterji (D)
- Previous election: Republican by 5.4% (243,260 votes)
- Rating: Leans Republican
Dale Folwell romped to a five-point victory in 2016 in large part due to the failures of his predecessor, Democrat Janet Cowell. By the end of her tenure, the Democratic-leaning State Employees Association of North Carolina (SEANC) was calling for her resignation. Upset over her mismanagement of the state pension fund and membership on several corporate boards, the SEANC endorsed Folwell over his Democratic rival.
As Treasurer, Folwell has adopted a fiscally conservative approach to the pension fund, eschewing the more risky investments that Cowell favored. Even with the COVID-19 pandemic causing financial strain, the fund has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. But Democrats are excited about Ronnie Chatterji. An economist at Duke University, he has pledged to account for climate change and social justice when making investments.
Chatterji is endorsed by the AFL-CIO and the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE). Crucially, SEANC has endorsed Folwell for a second term. While it’s not an absolute given that Folwell wins, having support from state employees provides a strong opportunity for crossover votes. The Treasurer’s office might not be the most well-known office in the Council of State elections, but make no mistake, the result has huge implications for the future of North Carolina’s pension fund.
Last time, five out of the ten Council of State races in North Carolina were decided by under 1.5% of the vote. If 2016 is any indication, many of these races may be just as close if not closer. Moreover, some winners might rely on unusual coalitions that differ from the national ones. But regardless of how things turn out, the Council of State elections have a chance to be the most interesting set of statewide races in the country.