Gov. Roy Cooper is running for re-election this year and, with more than $8 million raised and a little known challenger who has raised just over $1,500, he is highly likely to win his Democratic primary. The more significant contest is on the GOP side, between Lt. Gov. Dan Forest or State Rep. Holly Grange.
Forest, a former architect, is a two-term lieutenant governor and a conservative Republican who has won statewide election twice. Whereas Grange, a West Point graduate and U.S. Army veteran, has only had to win one contested election in her New Hanover County district.
Forest has the clear advantage over Grange when it comes to name recognition, according to Paul Shumaker, a longtime North Carolina GOP political operative and campaign consultant.
"It allows him, because of the office, to go out and build a statewide political network, which he's had eight years to build," said Shumaker, who helped U.S. Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis win their statewide elections and is working on Tillis's 2020 re-election campaign.
Forest has used that network to amass more than $3 million for his 2020 run. Grange has raised $55,000.
Attending a Cumberland County Republican Party meeting, Sharman Tober struggled to remember Forest's last name but said she'd vote for him to advance a conservative agenda.
"More religious values, more pro-life instead of pro-abortion," she said, describing the values she wanted in a candidate to challenge Cooper in the general election.
Tober's friend and neighbor, Angela Berry, also said she'd likely go with Forest.
"It's because he's Republican and until you mentioned that I had never looked at anything else, I didn't know there was anyone else running," said Berry.
At a GOP meet-and-greet-the-candidates event in Wake County, another voter, Hannah Chan, said she supports Forest 100%, especially his views on education, which include private-school vouchers for families of all income levels. Chan said that even though she lives in Cary's top school district she sends her daughter to private school.
Wayne Hicks also attended the Wake County GOP event. He said he hadn't paid much attention to the gubernatorial primary yet but wanted a good strong conservative candidate who, like Forest, supports cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.
Hicks said he would study up on the candidates ahead of primary election day, on March 3. Dan Forest's ubiquitous lawn signs--which quote a popular movie starring Tom Hanks--have clearly left an impression on Hicks's wife, Carolyn.
"Run, Forest, run," she said, with a laugh.
Carolyn Hicks said she hadn't heard much about Holly Grange and then said she'd keep an open mind.
Luckily, the candidate herself had been standing nearby and overheard Hicks's comments. The couple chatted amiably with the candidate, noting that their son lived in Wilmington, Grange's hometown. Grange then told the Hickses she would love to have their support.
Grange might have picked up a couple more votes but still has a vast funding and name-recognition gap to overcome with virtually no time to do it.