RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) – Now that the 2022 election is all but official, we know that Republicans have taken a firm grasp on determining public policy in North Carolina, at least for the foreseeable future. There is only one last hurdle in that control: the governor.

The GOP on Election Day took majority control of the state Supreme Court for the first time, expanded its control of the state Court of Appeals, took a supermajority in the state Senate and missed by one vote in doing so in the state House. That makes it very possible that legislators could override a veto from Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat.

GREENSBORO, NC - APRIL 14: North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper is seen before President Joe Biden speaks to guests during a visit to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University on April 14, 2022 in Greensboro, North Carolina. Biden was in North Carolina to discuss his administration's efforts to create manufacturing jobs and alleviate the impacts of inflation. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

With the expected support of the courts, GOP-led legislators likely will take dead aim at drawing new election districts – which can be done without any threat of veto – and rethinking any number of decisions on issues such as abortion rights, schools and social topics.

The only real stumbling block in the GOP’s immediate future is Cooper, who has two more years to serve and has proven to be a popular governor in the purple reaches of North Carolina.

But you can bet that Republicans statewide are setting their eyes on returning to the governor’s mansion to expand their control, too, and you likely have been hearing about likely candidates for that job.

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson of Greensboro, the highest elected Republican in state government, has all but thrown in his hat, and Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, is long thought to be planning a run. But nothing has been announced.

Panel of insight

But they may not be the nominees, and there certainly will be others in the race. So in an effort to be ahead of the conversation, WGHP reached out to a panel of experts – elected officials and government observers – for a very early poll on who might be the frontrunners for 2024. We asked them to rank the top three for each party (dabbling in rank-choice voting!) and awarded points for placement.

We promised we would keep their names quiet and not attribute their thoughts (because of conflicts that could be called).

We nominated for them five names for each party but asked them to suggest people we had not. This is not an individual voicing support for a candidate, but more a handicapping of options.

The elected officials surveyed were divided equally among Republicans and Democrats and members of the House and Senate. One declined the opportunity, saying the election was too far off. One other person declined to participate and a couple did not respond.

We even offered panel members the option to choose themselves. No one did.

Here are our top 3 Republicans and Democrats who could run for governor:

Republicans

North Carolina Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson speaks at a Senate Education Committee hearing on Wednesday, July 14, 2021, in the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh, N.C. Robinson is facing calls to resign from elected officials and LGBTQ advocacy groups over comments he made in June in which he criticized teachings in K-12 public schools and likened peoples' sexual orientation to “filth.” (AP Photo/Bryan Anderson)
North Carolina Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson (AP Photo/Bryan Anderson)

1. Mark Robinson, lieutenant governor

He was named first on every ballot, which would fit with his almost certain candidacy. A businessman from Greensboro, Robinson attended UNC Greensboro, and he emerged from obscurity after he addressed the Greensboro City Council in 2018 about gun rights. Since taking office, he has spoken at many national rallies, including CPAC, and is known for being outspoken on people and issues. He has appeared often with former President Donald Trump. He also published his memoir this fall.

State Treasurer Dale Folwell talks about recovery from COVID-19
State Treasurer Dale Folwell

2. Dale Folwell, state treasurer

Another gold star for UNC Greensboro, from which Folwell, a native of Forsyth County, graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He worked in personal finance before pursuing public office. He has served as state treasurer since 2016 and before that spent 2005-2013 in the state House of Representatives. He might be seen as a more moderate candidate than some others. His intentions had been speculated, and he said he was considering entering the race in September.

Mark Walker (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

3. Mark Walker, former U.S. representative

Walker, a resident of Greensboro – do we have a trend here, with three GOP frontrunners from a largely Democratic area? – served three terms in the 6th Congressional District before deciding in 2020 to eschew re-election in a redrawn district that favored Democrats. He sought the nomination for the U.S. Senate, and many thought he might be Trump’s choice. But Rep. Ted Budd won that backing and, ultimately, the seat to replace Richard Burr. Walker finished third. He has been spurious when asked if he plans to run, but he was active in helping judicial candidates statewide.

Democrats

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein (AP Photo/Hannah Schoenbaum, File)

1. Josh Stein, attorney general

Just like Robinson, Stein was named on every survey. Unlike Robinson, he wasn’t first on all of them (being named second on a few). Stein is seen as an ideological continuity of Cooper, having followed Cooper as attorney general in 2016. Before that, he served from 2008-2016 in the state Senate District 16. His degrees are from Dartmouth and Harvard Law School. He has been aggressive in dealing with controversial issues – most recently abortion – and has not shied away from the discussions of his candidacy. A campaign ad from 2020 has caused his own legal issues.

Former NC Supreme Court Chief Justices Cheri Beasley (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP, Pool)

2. Cheri Beasley, former chief justice

You may have Beasley’s name fresh on your mind because of a recent, close loss to Budd in the race for the U.S. Senate. Even closer was her narrow loss in 2020 to Republican Richard Dietz to keep her job as chief justice. She was the first choice of all members of our panel who didn’t choose Stein. Her career is all in judicial roles, having served as a supreme court justice from 2012-2018 before being appointed chief justice in 2019-20. She also served four years on the Court of Appeals and nine as a district judge. She was educated at Rutgers University and the University of Tennessee College of Law.

14th Congressional District Rep. Jeff Jackson (D-Charlotte) (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

3. Jeff Jackson, U.S. Representative

You also may be familiar with Jackson, a resident of Charlotte who last week was elected to represent the newly drawn 14th Congressional District. The key phrase there is “newly drawn,” because many think that Republicans will redraw congressional maps and do so in a way that provides a path to DC for state House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland). Jackson was a candidate for the U.S. Senate before stepping aside to support Beasley. He served in state Senate District 37 in 2012-2020. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Emory University and a law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He also could be seen as a replacement for Stein.

Other thoughts

Here are some of the names (and comments) of others who might be in the race:

  • Senate Leader Phil Berger Sr. (R-Eden): “Why would he?”
  • Moore: He has talked about the U.S. House.
  • Republican Senator Thom Tillis: Former state House speaker, he would be a moderate choice.
  • Democrat Cal Cunningham: He came close to beating Tillis in 2020.
  • Democrat Robert Reives: Recently re-elected to represent state House District 54.
  • Democratic Natalie Murdock: Re-elected to a third term in state Senate District 20.
  • Democrat Sydney Batch: Recently elected to a third term state Senate District 17.