RALEIGH, North Carolina — North Carolina's next governor's race is starting to take shape 19 months before Election Day as fault lines widen between incumbent Republican Pat McCrory and Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper.
While neither politician has officially kicked off their gubernatorial campaigns, nor particularly want to be labeled candidates right now, they're quietly raising money and energizing their base with periodic mass emails. They're also traveling extensively around the state to promote their messages.
The state Republican Party filed last month with Cooper's office extensive public records requests, presumably to look for documents with which it can entangle him, and posted an April Fool's website parodying Cooper. Cooper's campaign and the Democratic Party, meanwhile, have made social media ads and posts critical of McCrory.
"This is full-blown campaigning without a majority of North Carolinians really paying attention now," Meredith College political science professor David McLennan said. "But it's setting the groundwork, laying the groundwork for what we're going to see in the next spring and next summer and next fall."
The conventional view of the race is a fight between two well-funded political heavyweights and a referendum on the state's course since Republicans took over all of North Carolina government in 2013. While McCrory promotes an economic "Carolina Comeback" of tax cuts, unemployment debt reduction and lower jobless rates, Cooper considers McCrory's direction backward for education and the middle class.
Cooper, attorney general since 2001, signaled in the second half of 2013 his gubernatorial run and has been criticizing McCrory's policies since. Cooper's Facebook ads surfacing in recent weeks urged viewers unhappy with the governor and the legislature over education to sign a petition.
"I disagree with the governor on education policy and I want the public to weigh in too, to make sure that he and the legislature fund public education," he told The Associated Press in an interview last week.
Cooper apparently won't avoid a May 2016 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Ken Spaulding of Durham, a former legislator and state Board of Transportation member, has been an announced candidate since 2013. He said Cooper has fallen short in his attorney general duties and doesn't get the nomination just because he's next in the Democrats' pecking order.
"This race will be Spaulding vs. Cooper for the next year," Spaulding said by email.
Spaulding, whose campaign had $61,000 at the start of 2015 compared to roughly $1.5 million each for McCrory and Cooper, will have to convince fellow Democrats he's got the better chance to unseat McCrory. The Democratic Governors Association, which will be officially neutral in 2016 primaries, appears inclined toward Cooper.
"We think that Roy Cooper will make a very strong candidate," association spokesman Jared Leopold said.
McCrory wasn't available to reporters for questions at two public events last week in Raleigh, according to his gubernatorial staff, but campaign spokesman Billy Constangy said support has been "overwhelming" for the governor and his policies.
McCrory has downplayed his attention upon the 2016 elections. "My focus is still on governing," McCrory told the AP in January. "I like the governing part more than the campaigning part."
Ricky Diaz, McCrory's spokesman in his successful 2012 campaign, has joined the state GOP and said Cooper "has a long record to answer for and we intend to make him answer." Diaz and Spaulding separately cited, among other things, problems at the State Bureau of Investigation crime lab that surfaced during Cooper's tenure.
The liberal-leaning Progress North Carolina Action has filed ethics complaints against McCrory, accusing him of leaving out potential conflicts on his annual financial disclosure forms. McCrory has dismissed the allegations. Progress NC and Democrats also have been holding news conferences blaming McCrory for individual taxpayers who say they're paying more after the 2013 GOP tax overhaul law.
McCrory's "priorities have been to put more money in the pockets of North Carolina's corporations and wealthiest citizens" at the expense of middle-class families, said House Minority Leader Larry Hall, D-Durham.
For all the bickering, McLennan said, it's unlikely either of the two high-profile candidates will receive a fatal political blow this early in the race.
"No one is going to defeat Roy Cooper or Pat McCrory in 2015," McLennan said.