WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) — Lt. Gov. Dan Forest intensified his campaign for governor on Saturday, pledging at a rally to pursue a vision for the state that includes economic and educational opportunity, human dignity and social unity if elected next year.
Holding a kickoff event geared with both an in-person and social media audience in mind, the 51-year-old Republican from Raleigh said he would "run a campaign that appeals to your aspirations, not your fears." Still, he framed the current divisive climate as part of a moral struggle, promoted "family values" and criticized those who eschewed the American capitalist system.
"We refuse to divide people into categories and put them in boxes," Forest told a crowd of roughly 1,000 at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds, while lamenting what he called the spread of identity-based politics. "Instead, we're going to unite our state as one North Carolina."
An architect by trade, Forest has been a favorite of the conservative Christian wing of the Republican Party since ascending to the state's second-highest executive branch position in 2012. He has taken a more prominent role in state politics since Democrat Roy Cooper became governor in 2017. Cooper will be the likely opponent of the winner of the GOP primary in March.
Forest won narrowly in his first run for elected office and was reelected four years later by a larger margin — becoming a favorite to secure the party's gubernatorial nomination. Through years of speeches at political events and churches, Forest has assembled an extensive base of supporters under the "Run Forest Run" banner — a play on the "Forrest Gump" catchphrase — and endorsements.
"He has a set of base principles that are rooted in conservative principles that will lead North Carolina forward," said C.B. McKinnon, a Cherokee County commissioner attending the rally. "He's a good Christian man. He supports those values."
Despite Saturday's support, Forest faces challenges both from Cooper and within his party. Cooper's campaign had $5.6 million in the bank at the start of the summer compared to $1 million in Forest's coffers. Meanwhile, state Rep. Holly Grange of Wilmington entered the GOP primary last month, denying Forest a clear path to the nomination. Grange is considered by many a moderate alternative.
Forest tried to create a "sense of inevitability" as the nominee, said Andy Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Nonetheless, Taylor called Grange "a serious challenger." As for the general election — should Forest win the primary — Forest's chances will depend on whether a left-leaning Democratic presidential nominee drags down Cooper and the rest of the ticket, Taylor said this week.
"Cooper has an advantage in that he has his own independent record," Taylor said, but "the presidential race is really going to obviously shape the gubernatorial race."
His call for unity comes even with his history of carrying the torch for right-leaning social issues, capped by his strong support for the 2016 "bathroom bill." The Republican-penned law barred local governments from approving LGBT anti-discrimination ordinances and required transgender people to use the public restroom that corresponded with the sex on their birth certificates.
The law also known as House Bill 2 itself was partially repealed in 2017, despite his attempts to retain it. He didn't mention that fight to his audience Saturday, but Democratic groups piling on him before the event highlighted his role in the law, which led to canceled sporting events and concerts and lost economic activity.
"Forest can run but he can't hide from his extreme record," Democratic Governors Association spokesman David Turner said in a news release.
Forest, the son of former U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, attempted to single out Cooper on a couple of occasions Saturday, identifying Cooper's veto of a "born-alive" abortion measure this year. The Republican-controlled legislature didn't have enough votes to override the veto.
The veto, Forest said Saturday, "is the opposite of human dignity and runs counter to North Carolina values." He said he would work to ensure school choice and protect taxpayer-funded scholarships for children to attend K-12 private schools. Cooper opposes the program.