Facing the difficult task of unseating an incumbent governor whose popularity has risen during the coronavirus pandemic, North Carolina Republican Dan Forest is doubling down with the kind of move that appeals to a GOP base that’s balked at public health restrictions.
As a resurgent coronavirus pandemic continues to stress southern states and worry health officials, the lieutenant governor is pushing forward with a lawsuit targeted at public health executive orders from Gov. Roy Cooper.
The pending lawsuit comes just after the Democrat moved to pause the state’s reopening and announced a new statewide mask requirement due to officials fretting that their state’s numbers were “moving in the wrong direction” as hospitalizations and new cases in the state increased, according to the governor’s administration
The lawsuit is a move that Forest’s allies contend is necessary to rein in what Republicans see as executive overreach by Cooper, while Democrats dismiss the move as the kind of tactic that a candidate takes to try and boost a struggling campaign.
“It sounds like a political stunt to me,” North Carolina House Democratic leader Darren Jackson said. “I think Forest is just, I don't know, swinging at pitches to try to find some way to be relevant.”
Across the aisle, the GOP base, “wants something done,” Republican state Rep Michael Speciale said.
“I'm sure it appeals to the base, but I’m also convinced that that’s not why he did it,” Speciale said. “He did it because he knew that he could in the position that he’s in.”
Governors across the country have experienced what observers see as a “rally around the flag” style surge in approval during the pandemic with the state leaders generating a great deal of daily media and public attention with briefings that focus on health but have also helped to boost the profiles of those running for re-election this fall.
Cooper is no exception. A High Point University poll released last month showed Cooper with a 60 percent approval rating, a little over a year after a survey from the same outfit found him at 41 percent approval in the state.
That’s meant candidates looking to gain traction have struggled to find political oxygen. And in the case of Forest, talking about suing the governor means a round of his name being in the national news cycle. Since announcing his intention to sue Cooper’s administration last week, Forest has appeared on both Fox News and Fox Business to publicize his push.
The Republican leader attempted to downplay the political aspect of the lawsuit during a press conference Monday, acknowledging that “some people will say this is political what we're doing.”
“There’s nothing politically expedient about suing the governor, ever,” Forest said. “It doesn’t politically work in your favor. But my office motto, my team motto’s always been always do the right thing no matter what the cost or the consequence.”
The lieutenant governor said the lawsuit is “not interested in the substance,” of the orders, but was instead challenging the governor’s authority to “shut down North Carolina without the concurrence of the council of state,” which includes state leaders. The complaint from Forest, according to a social media post, centers on the Republican’s claim that the governor’s administration is “violating the Emergency Management Act.”
“Gov. Cooper has not followed the law,” Forest told reporters.
But by challenging the executive orders during the pandemic, Forest may be putting himself in a difficult position as he tries to oust the popular incumbent governor, appealing to the GOP’s antipathy towards restrictions at a time where the coronavirus is showing a resurgence in the south.
“I think the risk is that he might be getting out ahead of public opinion as far as what people want to do as far as opening the state back up,” said Tom Birkland, a public policy professor at North Carolina State University.
Frustration toward Cooper from Republicans has been mounting during the pandemic, with the governor’s refusal to allow Trump the packed RNC arena he desired because of public health concerns, triggering dismay from GOP legislators. That caused the RNC to move the president’s nomination acceptance speech to Jacksonville, Florida. That state is now experiencing spiking cases weeks ahead of the planned August event. And Jacksonville announced on Monday that a new mandatory mask requirement has been put in place “for public and indoor locations, and in other situations where individuals cannot socially distance,” according to a Facebook post from the city.
Yet Cooper’s executive actions have continued to roil Republicans in the state who are still sour at the governor for his role in the president pulling the RNC’s marquee event out of Charlotte.
“The governor is in self-destruct mode, which is for Republicans, that’s great,” said Mark Brody, North Carolina’s national GOP committeeman who also serves as a statehouse lawmaker.
Despite North Carolina being considered a potential swing state in the presidential election, and incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis’s race billed as a toss up that could help determine which party holds the Senate, the race between Forest and Cooper isn’t considered as being so close.
Both the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics list the North Carolina governor’s race as favoring the incumbent Democrat.
State Senate Democratic Whip Jay Chaudhuri told The Daily Beast the lawsuit “is just another act of desperation for a campaign, frankly, that's been flailing since he announced his candidacy.”
Like many Republicans in the Trump era, Forest has been faced with either embracing the president or creating distance in politically fought moments. And at times during the pandemic, Forest hasn’t taken the approach practiced by other GOP governor candidates whose political fates will be decided in November.
He told The Daily Beast in March that the “challenge could be our moonshot, our version of the Apollo mission.” The president later abandoned the timeline, and some state’s that reopened in recent weeks like Arizona, Texas and Florida are now seeing alarming spikes that are worrying public health officials.
And despite the attempt by Forest to distance the lawsuit from politics, he showed a willingness to use the latest executive move he was deriding from Cooper to boost his campaign, this time in an effort to sell campaign merchandise.
The lieutenant governor posted on Facebook Friday “since masks are mandatory Get your Dan Forest for Governor masks only in our online store.”