President Donald Trump has found his convention scapegoat: North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper.
The Democratic executive, narrowly elected for the first time in 2016, came under fire from the Republican President on Monday morning, when Trump turned to Twitter to pressure him to guarantee Republicans will allow the convention in Charlotte to be “fully occupied” in August despite coronavirus concerns and threatened to move the convention if assurances cannot be made.
The strategy from Trump is clear, according to a Republican operative familiar with the convention process: Trump is attempting to force Cooper “to be the bad guy,” the operative said, so if changes have to be made to the convention, it can be blamed on the Democratic governor, not the Republican planning committee.
A source familiar with Trump’s thinking told CNN that the President’s goal with his tweet was to try to force Cooper to define what the rules of the road will be for the convention, and underscored that Trump does not want to pull out of North Carolina.
It’s a notably public spat for a Democrat who has kept a relatively low national profile for much of his career.
Cooper is a lifelong North Carolinian. Raised in Nash County – which is near Raleigh – the would-be governor received both his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Cooper quickly got into politics following his graduation. He was first elected to the North Carolina House of Representatives in 1986 and was first appointed and later elected to the state’s Senate starting in 1991. He rose to be the Democratic majority leader in the state Senate.
This quick rise made Cooper a highly sought-after statewide candidate among Democrats. He won his first statewide race in 2000, for North Carolina attorney general, a role that he would hold for four terms. Cooper was recruited to run for a host of other statewide positions during his tenure but decided not to make the jump to another office until 2016, when he opted to run against sitting Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.
The race was hotly contested and was seen as being closely tied to the presidential campaign between Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
On Election Day, however, thousands of North Carolina voters backed Trump for president and Cooper for governor, leading the would-be governor with a narrow lead over McCrory as Clinton lost the state by less than 4 percentage points.
North Carolina Republicans challenged the election results, however, and without providing evidence, McCrory and others claimed Democrats oversaw “an absentee ballot fraud scheme” and “hundreds of fraudulent Cooper ballots.” Neither claim was ever substantiated and McCrory, nearly a month after Election Day, conceded his bid for reelection.
Cooper eventually won by just over 10,000 votes, making McCrory the first North Carolina governor in history to lose a bid for reelection.
Cooper’s win was a silver lining for Democrats in 2016. The party took a drubbing across the country on Election Day, including elsewhere in North Carolina, where Democrat Deborah Ross lost to incumbent Republican Sen. Richard Burr.
Before Cooper even officially became governor, though, Republicans in the state’s General Assembly moved to curb the Democrat’s power. After the bill passed the legislature, McCrory signed legislation removing state and county election boards from Democratic control, slowing legal battles’ path to the state Supreme Court – where a majority of justices were appointed by Democrats – and making the state Supreme Court elections partisan rather than nonpartisan.
Cooper and the North Carolina General Assembly have been in a state of nearly constant conflict since the Democrat was elected, leading to a series of vetoes and veto overrides between the two sides on everything from judicial nominations to the state budget.
Trump’s decision to go after Cooper on Monday is a low point in a relationship that has otherwise been cordial, especially compared with how Trump has handled other Democratic governors.
Trump and Cooper have worked together on storm relief, like Hurricane Florence in 2018, and the Republican President has included the Democrat in some of his work, including when he nominated Cooper to be part of his White House task force on combating the ongoing opioid crisis.
But Cooper is up for reelection this year, set to run against Republican Dan Forest, the state’s lieutenant governor, in a state that both Democrats and Republicans believe will be important to Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in November.
Trump has repeatedly slammed governors who he feels are moving too slowly to reopen states in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. But Monday’s tweets blindsided party officials and convention organizers, who have long said health and safety will come first when planning the convention, an argument that is undercut by Trump’s tweets.
“State health officials are working with the (Republican National Committee) and will review its plans as they make decisions about how to hold the convention in Charlotte,” Dory MacMillian, a Cooper spokesperson, said after Trump’s tweets on Monday. “North Carolina is relying on data and science to protect our state’s public health and safety.”
Cooper, in an interview with CNN before Trump’s tweets, said there is still plenty of time to worry about the Republican convention.
“The good thing is that this is three months away and it’s too early to tell where North Carolina will be,” Cooper told CNN. “But we are looking at these objective measures that everybody can see, that the public can examine.”
CNN’s Ryan Nobles, Jeff Zeleny, Betsy Klein, Dana Bash and Eric Bradner contributed to this report.