- North Carolina GOP Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson launched his 2024 gubernatorial campaign on Saturday.
- But some Republicans think he’s too divisive, with Democrats likely to nominate state AG Josh Stein.
- The gubernatorial contest could highlight sharp ideological divides in an already polarized country.
For years, both Democrats and Republicans have been in a political tug-of-war over the direction of North Carolina, a Southern state that had long been defined by its more moderate politics.
Democrats have dominated in gubernatorial races for decades and have successfully held on to key down-ballot positions like secretary of state and state auditor. But the party has seen its legislative strength falter during recent election cycles and the last time it won a presidential or Senate race was in 2008 when Barack Obama and Kay Hagan won their respective contests.
Democrats earlier this month faced a major setback when state Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Charlotte-area lawmaker, defected to the Republican Party, granting the GOP the power to override vetoes from two-term Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Republicans — who were once perpetually in the minority in the legislature — now have super majorities in both the state House of Representatives and state Senate.
Now even the Democrats’ control over the governorship could be under threat. The 2024 gubernatorial race could feature two major forces in North Carolina government — Democratic state Attorney General Josh Stein and Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson — in what could be the most consequential race in the state’s modern political history.
A political fight long in the making
A victory by Stein, who won in 2016 and 2020 despite then-President Donald Trump carrying the state both years, would allow Democrats to maintain their foothold in the Governor’s mansion. And depending on the outcome of the legislative races next year, Stein could offer a check on a slightly-reduced GOP majority if Democrats can pick up seats.
But a win by Robinson, a conservative whom some Republicans feel could be too polarizing to win the gubernatorial race, could give the GOP their strongest grip over state politics in recent memory, especially if they’re able to maintain their legislative supermajorities next year.
Cooper, a moderate who rose from the legislature and served as state attorney general for 16 years before winning the governorship in 2016, cannot run again due to term limits. Stein’s political trajectory is similar to ones taken by many state Democrats before him — Cooper included — and he offers some ideological continuity.
Republicans — eager to consolidate their power with an ally as governor — will be working feverishly to win next year. But they’ll first have to sort out who’ll be their nominee.
‘He will nationalize the gubernatorial race’
Robinson’s controversial comments — which have included him railing against LGBTQ people, calling homosexuality “filth,” and stating that he had AR-15s “in case the government gets too big for its britches” — have made some within the GOP worry that he’d be a major fundraising symbol for national Democrats.
Paul Shumaker, a Republican consultant in North Carolina, echoed similar sentiments about Robinson to Politico.
“Because of his comments, he will nationalize the gubernatorial race in North Carolina for the Democrats, which will open the door for them in raising tens of millions of dollars across the country,” he said.
Cooper last year sharply criticized Robinson over his gun comments.
“This is dangerous and not who we are as patriotic North Carolinians. @MarkRobinsonNC’s assault weapon threats are bad enough, but an elected official sworn to uphold the constitution advocating violent overthrow of our govt shames NC and puts our safety and our democracy at risk,” Cooper tweeted.
‘We don’t need another politician’
But as Robinson officially kicked off his gubernatorial campaign on Saturday, his strong appeal among grassroots conservatives was on full display.
“I’m running for governor because we the people of North Carolina need someone who understands us,” he told his supporters. “We don’t need another politician who’s spent their life climbing the political ladder.”
Robinson, a former factory worker, attracted a major following among Republicans for a 2018 gun rights speech to the Greensboro City Council that went viral.
Just two years later, he won the GOP lieutenant governor’s primary in a crowded field before winning the general election with nearly 52% of the vote against then-Democratic state Rep. Yvonne Lewis Holley.
But despite his meteoric rise within the GOP, Robinson isn’t running unopposed in the gubernatorial primary.
North Carolina State Treasurer Dale Folwell is already in the race, and former Rep. Mark Walker is expected to enter the contest soon.
The primary could devolve into a protracted fight over electability in a state where recent contests have been won and lost by the slimmest of margins. Since 2008, no presidential candidate has won North Carolina by more than four points, and Stein won both of his attorney general races by less than one percentage point in 2016 and 2020.
If Stein and Robinson are both nominated by their respective parties, expect a Tar Heel dogfight.
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