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Analysis: Forest ran too far to the right for pandemic voters

North Carolina voters largely supported Republican candidates in the 2020 elections, from President Trump to Senator Thom Tillis. But Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, the Republican challenger in the gubernatorial race, was a notable exception. He lost to Gov. Roy Cooper 51.5% to 47%.

In a purple state made up of a relatively moderate electorate, Forest proved to be too conservative and strident for many voters. And he was facing an uphill battle: Forest lacked the power of the incumbency, and Cooper had been prominently in the public’s eye since March due to the pandemic.

Ultimately, Forest lost because of the issues he chose to emphasize. He often took an inflammatory stance on North Carolina’s coronavirus response, a central topic in the race, by questioning the efficacy of safety measures like face masks and social distancing. While claiming “unity” as one of his platform’s pillars, Forest was a divisive candidate who fired up his base but lacked broad appeal. 

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest won rural counties (shaded in red), but Gov. Roy Cooper prevailed in the most populous counties, including the urban centers.

“Forest just wasn’t the right kind of Republican for this race,” said Rob Christensen, an author and political reporter who studied North Carolina politics for 45 years. “His position was in line with the most conservative wing of his party, and that was not a very popular position to take.” 

Forest aligned himself closely with Trump, and even shared a stage with the president at a rally in Gastonia. But Trump won in North Carolina and Forest did not.

North Carolina has a long history of electing Democratic governors, Christensen said, while simultaneously choosing Republican presidents and senators. This is because gubernatorial elections often deal with a different set of issues than do races for a federal office.

“North Carolina governor races tend to be less ideological and more focused on things like running the schools and building roads,” Christensen said. “When North Carolina does elect a Republican governor, and it does from time to time, they tend to be moderately conservative.”

Those who did support Forest were primarily Republicans looking for a change in leadership or tired of Cooper’s cautious, measured reopening of the state. Forest offered a more libertarian approach, promising to lift the face mask mandate and reopen schools.

Cooper’s win showed that many voters remain concerned about the pandemic and prioritize public health over individual freedoms. Forest often cast doubt on guidance from public health experts, and undermined their advice by holding in person campaign events without masks or social distancing.   

The election “ended up being a referendum on science and medical expertise,” said Nathan Boucher, a professor of public policy at Duke University.

Still, it was far from a landslide. 

“Forest had a message that resonated with a lot of folks, which was ‘they’re not going to tell us what to do and we’re going to protect our freedoms,’” Boucher said, “and you have these huge, loud factions of the state that detest Cooper.” 

Yet relying on the polarization of North Carolina voters wasn’t a successful strategy for Forest.

“The United States and our state require a moderate leader,” Boucher said. “It needs someone who can walk down the middle.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct Nathan Boucher’s title. He is a professor of public policy at Duke, not political science.

Caroline Petrow-Cohen