Some people are asking if North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper might be the Democrats’ best presidential candidate in 2024.
Not likely, you say, Joe Biden is president. And every first-term Democratic president in modern times has run for re-election.
There have been no serious challenges for Democratic incumbents seeking their party nomination, with one exception. In 1980, U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts challenged Jimmy Carter. There has been no other serious intraparty challenge to a sitting Democratic president for the nomination.
Although Biden has not announced his candidacy, it would be fair to assume that he will run and will be the Democratic nominee.
Even so, people are talking about other possibilities.
In an article titled “There Has to Be a Backup Plan” in the June 5, 2022 edition of New York magazine, Gabriel Debenedetti wrote about a gathering of the national Democratic establishment held in North Carolina at Pinehurst in April. He called the attendees an “unsettled cross section of the Democratic Establishment.”
Debenedetti wrote that “the lobbyists, donors, staffers and elected officials were gathering for the spring policy meeting of the Democratic Governors Association, and the scheduled sessions concerned such topics as health care and diversity in governance.”
But there was also talk about politics, including worried conversations about the midterm elections in November.
Conversations shifted from “grim — the midterms — to grimmer.” The grim refers to the prospects for this fall’s elections. The “grimmer” for them was “the state of the party’s planning for 2024, when Biden will stand for reelection on the eve of his 82nd birthday.”
Although there was no serious question raised about Biden’s intention to be a candidate for re-election in 2024, some of those gathered in Pinehurst were “calculating contingencies: If Biden’s health turned, or if his polling truly collapsed, which of the party’s governors might step up and save them from electoral ruin — and the nightmare of a Trump comeback?”
“Roy Cooper — the conference’s host, who had twice won North Carolina in the same years the swing state was carried by Donald Trump — was the most frequent topic of shadow-campaign chatter,” wrote Debenedetti.
Other governors were mentioned, too: Phil Murphy, from New Jersey; J.B. Pritzker, Illinois; Jared Polis, Colorado; Gavin Newsom, California; and Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan.
Bernie Sanders sent word that he also might be available for another run. And there are plenty more, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, Senators Amy Klobuchar, Corey Booker, Elizabeth Warren and California Rep. Ro Khanna.
Many more are in the wings.
But Cooper has something the other possible contenders lack.
He is a Southerner. And Democrats will remember that, beginning with Harry Truman, and until Barack Obama, every winning Democratic presidential candidate, minus John Kennedy, had a Southern connection: Harry Truman (1948), Lyndon Johnson (1964), Jimmy Carter (1976), and Bill Clinton (1992). Include Al Gore if you count his popular vote victory in 2000.
How do you explain their success? First, they learned to respond to the challenges in their states with pragmatic rather than doctrinaire solutions that did not frighten conservatives. Second, they learned to gain the support of Black voters and open doors with opportunities for them.
Democratic governors of Southern states are a vanishing breed.
Two other Southern governors, John Bel Edwards of Louisiana and Andrew Beshear, of Kentucky, join Cooper in this small group.
Like Cooper, they must work with Republican-dominated legislatures. Edwards, has a progressive record, but because he signed a very restrictive abortion law, he probably would lose the support of many Democrats.
Andy Beshear is up for a tough re-election battle in Kentucky in 2023, one that will almost certainly preclude his preparing for a presidential run.
Thus, if Biden is not a candidate for re-election in 2024 and the Democrats want to try their winning Southern governor formula again, they have one choice: Roy Cooper.
D.G. Martin, a lawyer, served as UNC-System’s Vice President for Public Affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s North Carolina Bookwatch for 20 years.