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There Are Actually Two Democrats Campaigning To Be Governor

Ken Spaulding is a Democrat from Durham running for Governor. Political scientists, polls and campaign finance reports indicate he is a long-shot. Spaulding continues to campaign across the state, believing he can win a primary contest against Roy Cooper,

Nine months from now voters will cast ballots in what is expected to be one of the tightest gubernatorial races in the country.

Republican incumbent Pat McCrory and Democratic challenger Roy Cooper are already clashing on the campaign trail. Both have primary opponents. The initial challenge for Cooper on the Democratic side is Ken Spaulding.  And the other Democrat’s candidacy will continue for the next six weeks, even if Cooper isn’t paying it much attention.

"It is time for our state to work for everyone – not just the few; that’s why, today, I am announcing that I am a candidate for Governor of North Carolina," Roy Cooper told a crowd in Rocky Mount last October.

Cooper was first elected to political office 30 years ago. He has been the state’s attorney general since 2001. And during that announcement he confirmed one of the worst-kept secrets in North Carolina politics. Prior to that announcement Cooper was already out-raising the Governor – collecting millions of dollars in donations.

"The truth is Governor McCrory has the wrong priorities for North Carolina," said Cooper, who has regularly called out Governor McCrory by name in speeches.

"Giving away the store to those at the top; at the expense of the middle class and our schools; he won’t find a way to keep good teachers, but he finds a way to pass tax giveaways to big corporations."

As the challenger, Cooper has actively gone after McCrory, purposefully distancing himself from president Obama, while virtually ignoring his primary competitor – Ken Spaulding.

"I’m not the establishments candidate. I’m not the money candidate," said Spaulding, an attorney from Durham – running for governor as a Democrat.

Spaulding officially entered the race 25 months before Cooper. Spaulding has about $50,000 in the bank compared to Cooper’s nearly five million cash-on-hand. He has far fewer endorsements, less name recognition and has been asking, scheduling, pursuing a debate for months.

"If you put me on the stage with Roy Cooper, and we’re there together the people of this state will be able to see who will be best qualified, whose best prepared to represent our interests in the Governor’s chair."

Spaulding is a Howard graduate with his own law practice. He served in the General Assembly during the late 1970s and early 80s. Spaulding has called his competition a Republican-Democrat, and a career politician. Cooper hasn’t responded – either with rhetoric or by scheduling a debate, or by talking to WUNC.

"He is already running against Pat McCrory, and for obvious reasons," said David McLennan, a professor of political science at Meredith College. He says almost every poll conducted shows Cooper with a substantial lead.

"There is no reason for him to mention his opponents by name, or get in a back and forth, because unless something significant happens there is very little that is going to make a difference for a challenger to Roy Cooper."

Rather than any acknowledgment of the undercard, McLennan says Cooper’s focusing his energy on the main event with McCrory; and also on carefully maneuvering a plum colored political path. In this state, meandering too far left can mean trouble. So, in recent months, Cooper has asked for a pause on Syrian refugees coming to the state, while also calling for expanding gun regulations.

"So in many ways what I see him doing is embracing many of the positions that Barack Obama holds, but not necessarily embracing Barack Obama – and that’s understandable," McLennan says.

Spaulding criticized Cooper for pandering to the masses when it came to the Syrian refugee story. He says it points to the fact that Cooper is more establishment than he is progressive.

"I don’t position myself. You know that’s what politicians do – that’s especially what my opponent does, Roy Cooper. It’s not about positioning, it’s not about trying to poll and find out the best approach. You know you got to stand for things, you got to believe in things; you have to have conviction; you have to have principal," Spaulding said.

With six weeks until the primary Ken Spaulding’s two year campaign is now in a sprint – driving across the state, fighting for attention, and votes. Meanwhile, Roy Cooper is trotting along with his sights set on McCrory. One man’s marathon concludes in March; the other’s, must march through November.

Jeff Tiberii covers politics for WUNC. Before that, he served as the station's Greensboro Bureau Chief.
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