Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican challenger Lt. Gov. Dan Forest faced off Wednesday night in the lone debate of North Carolina’s gubernatorial race. It was a spirited exchange over education, health care, economy and the COVID-19 crisis.
It was a civil affair, but the candidates made it clear – North Carolina voters have two very different choices in the governor's race. On the debate stage, they were separated by Plexiglas.
Here are takeaways from the debate between Cooper and Forest.
Cooper defends his handling of the coronavirus, mask mandate
Cooper has been steadfast in his belief that continued public health restrictions are needed to prevent the rampant spread of COVID-19. Polls indicate public opinion among North Carolinians generally supports Cooper's handling of the pandemic.
"When I mandated masks, our cases leveled off,” Cooper said. “But then Dan Forest lied to the public and said 'Mask don't work.'"
Forest, a conservative, said that wearing a mask should be a choice, not a mandate from the Governor. Forest also repeated widely disputed claims that masks make coronavirus transmission worse.
“It should be a personal responsibility choice,” Forest said. “We don't need a governor that treats us like 5-year-olds. We need a governor that does protect us, but not treat us like we're little kids. Masks aren't the solution to everything.”
Cooper did not hesitate in striking back.
“Really, Dan? Really? Masks don't work? Scientists say they don't?” Cooper asked. “That is just absolutely not true. You're finding that on the dark corners of the internet.”
Forest added that, in his opinion, the real danger comes not from COVID, but the economic shutdown ordered by Cooper.
"The over a million and half people that he has left unemployed. The thousands of businesses that have been shut down,” Forest said.
Forest said he would focus public health efforts on the most vulnerable populations like nursing home residents, and let younger, healthier people police themselves while engaging in a more open economy. Again, Cooper pushed back.
"Now you're not just ignoring science, you're ignoring common sense,” Cooper said. “You cannot wish the pandemic away… For the last eight months, including last night, Dan Forest has been having in-person events with no masks or social distancing. That's reckless, and it endangers North Carolinians, including the staff in this room.”
According to political science professor and Elon University poll director Jason Husser, public opinion generally supports Cooper's handling of the COVID crisis, not the attacks from Forest.
"So it's hard for me to see that this debate shifted the needle really towards Forest in any sort of way,” Husser said.
Cooper, Forest differ on economic stances
Forest routinely attacked Cooper's slow reopening. He said South Carolina has succeeded in keeping case counts steady while simultaneously reopening more parts of the economy. He also praised Tennessee and Georgia for easing restrictions while promoting safety.
“They're learning how to live with the virus and protect the vulnerable and get people back to work," Forest said. “They’re learning how to do that. We have to learn how to do that in North Carolina, too."
Cooper chastised the comparison to Georgia, noting its similar population size but 100,000 more COVID cases and nearly twice the number of deaths. He said, “That's the kind of state you'd get with Dan Forest as governor: More cases, more deaths, more deaths in nursing homes. I don't think the people of North Carolina want that, Dan."
Cooper and Forest also battled over the state budget. While vetoing the GOP-led Legislature's spending plans, the governor has castigated Forest and Republican lawmakers for favoring corporate tax cuts over more spending on education, state employee salaries and recruitment and retention in law enforcement.
"That's where we have our biggest difference,” Cooper said.
Forest pointed out that Republican budgets have provided for increases in teacher pay – though not as much as Democrats have sought – and built large cash reserves that have helped with hurricane recovery and other disaster relief.
And Forest noted another big difference between him and Cooper: federally-funded Medicaid expansion, which Cooper supports to extend health coverage to more low-income families but Forest doesn't.
"We need to continue to drive down cost and we need to drive up quality,” Forest said. “Medicaid is not the way to do that."
As Husser noted, it was a civil and substantive debate, but not one that is likely to help Forest catch the incumbent, who holds a solid lead, according to polls.
Schools, racism also discussed
Forest also attacked Cooper for not giving all K-12 public school parents the option to put their kids back in classrooms.
“Special needs kids need teachers in classrooms," Forest said. "All kids need teachers in the classroom. That's the way it's supposed to be. We've got to get back to that.”
In his closing remarks, Cooper said, "You do have a real choice tonight - you have a governor who believes in science and a candidate who doesn’t. You have a governor who believes in our public schools and a candidate that wants to shortchange them."
— WUNC (@wunc) October 14, 2020
Cooper's latest reopening guidance lets local school districts decide whether to return to daily, in-person learning for elementary school students. Middle and high school students in public schools must still remain virtual at least part of the time and do not have the option to offer daily instruction in physical classrooms. Many elementary schools still offer only partial or fully remote learning.
Forest said he would reopen all public schools without a statewide mandate for masks or physical distancing. Instead, districts would be able to set their own health protocols and continue to offer remote learning options to parents who want it.
Asked if systemic racism exists, Cooper praised peaceful protests and condemned violence but did not offer a direct response to the question of whether he believes in systemic racism. Forest gave a direct answer to the question about racism.
“No, I don’t think there’s systemic racism," he said. "There is racism. We should reject it at every single turn.”
WUNC Digital Producer Mitch Northam contributed to this story.