What happens if Josh Stein is elected to the US Senate

Attorney General Josh Stein briefs media from the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh. Photo via N.C. Dept. of Public Safety

RALEIGH — Attorney General Josh Stein would seem to be the ideal candidate for North Carolina Democrats to choose for the U.S. Senate race in 2022.

But Stein, narrowly elected again in his second term for the state’s top prosecutorial job, is seen as more likely to follow predecessors Mike Easley and Roy Cooper and run for governor in 2024. The AG-to-governor route is well-worn for ambitious state Democrats.

Stein’s predecessor, Cooper, held the office for 16 years before becoming governor in 2016. Turning down opportunities at various times to run for governor and U.S. Senate, Cooper built a statewide profile in his work as attorney general — even running without Republican opposition in 2012.

Stein and Cooper share a close relationship, with Stein working as a senior deputy attorney general in Cooper’s justice department.

Mike Easley, the state’s governor from 2001 – 2009, also spent eight years as attorney general after unsuccessfully running in the state’s Democratic U.S. Senate primary in 1990. He was elected in 1992 and 1996 before defeating then-Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker for the gubernatorial nomination in 2000.

Prior to Easley, Rufus Edmisten, the state’s attorney general from 1975 – 1985, lost to Republican Jim Martin in 1984’s election for governor.

Still, should Stein decide to run for Senate and win, Cooper would appoint a new attorney general. The state’s constitution gives authority to the governor to fill vacancies within the Council of State.

From the state constitution:

If the office of any of these officers is vacated by death, resignation, or otherwise, it shall be the duty of the Governor to appoint another to serve until his successor is elected and qualified. Every such vacancy shall be filled by election at the first election for members of the General Assembly that occurs more than 60 days after the vacancy has taken place, and the person chosen shall hold the office for the remainder of the unexpired term fixed in this Section. When a vacancy occurs in the office of any of the officers named in this Section and the term expires on the first day of January succeeding the next election for members of the General Assembly, the Governor shall appoint to fill the vacancy for the unexpired term of the office.

The last vacancy occurred in 2003 when Meg Scott Phipps, the Democratic agriculture commissioner, resigned following federal fraud and extortion charges.

Easley appointed Britt Cobb to fill the role until the 2004 General Election in which Cobb was defeated by Republican Steve Troxler.

Under the state’s constitution, if any Council of State office is vacated, an election must be held during the next General Assembly election. If Stein or any other Council of State member leaves office in the next 16 months that seat would be added to the 2022 ballot for the remaining term.