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Southern Democrat vs. MAGA Republican: Why NC governor race is a defining contest for 2024

On Super Tuesday, Democrat Josh Stein and Republican Mark Robinson are party frontrunners. Abortion looms as a top issue in the 2024 governors race.

RALEIGH, N.C. – Heading into the 2024 campaign, North Carolina will serve as the battleground for a marquee gubernatorial race: a likely faceoff between a Southern Democrat and a GOP candidate who is popular with Donald Trump's base.

Once a reliable Republican stronghold − long associated with the southern fried conservatism of the late Sen. Jesse Helms − the Tar Heel State has become more competitive largely because of .

"I believe that the road to the presidency is going to go through North Carolina," Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who is term limited, told ˽ýӳ in an interview.

"And I believe that we can win this state for Joe Biden when you look at the momentum that's occurring right now, and you look at how outrageous Donald Trump has become, even more so since his presidency."

People wait in line to vote at a polling place on November 8, 2022 in Fuquay Varina, North Carolina, United States. After months of candidates campaigning, Americans are voting in the midterm elections to decide close races across the nation.

As millions are flocking to the polls for Super Tuesday, primary voters in North Carolina have a sharp contrast in the two party's leading contenders to fill Cooper's seat: Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein and Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson.

Prep for the polls: See who is running for president and compare where they stand on key issues in our Voter Guide

They are polar opposites in more than just policy positions and campaign styles, but personal backgrounds. 

Where Robinson is a firebrand known for making controversial remarks, Stein is a career politician attempting to ride Cooper's popularity coattails. Their race for leader of the state is expected to hinge on the economy and reproductive rights.

North Carolina Democrats, led by Cooper, who has endorsed Stein, have won the governor's mansion even with Trump at the top of the ticket in past cycles. They are looking to follow Georgia, another southern state that has turned blue because of changing demographics, pointing to its frontline battles on abortion and razor-thin margins in the past two presidential contests.

But Republicans, who control the Legislature, also want to win back the state after .

Currently with North Carolina voters, according to an Emerson College poll released in February.

Coupled with anxieties over the economy and immigration, GOP campaign officials and strategists believe the 2024 governor's seat can be flipped.

Jonathan Felts, a longtime GOP consultant in the state who is executive director of Patriots First, a pro-Robinson super PAC, said conservatives are eager to send Biden and the country a message.

"You got a strong fighter in former President Trump versus an incumbent president who looks weak and feeble in terms of standing up to the challenges of the job, but also standing up for working families," he said.

Robinson, he added, is running as an outsider, much like Trump.

"He is a fighter," Felts said. "So, yes, North Carolina is definitely going to resemble the national election."

Who can flip North Carolina first?

Gov. Roy Cooper prepares to veto the abortion ban bill before hundreds of supporters on Bicentennial Mall Saturday, May 19, 2023 in Raleigh, N.C.  Hundreds of abortion-rights activists and voters watched on a plaza in the capital as Cooper affixed his veto stamp to the bill. The veto launches a major test for leaders of the GOP-controlled General Assembly to attempt to override Cooper’s veto after they recently gained veto-proof majorities in both chambers.(Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP) ORG XMIT: NCRAL101

Of the 11 gubernatorial races this year, North Carolina is one of just two (along with New Hamsphire) at the University of Virginia, which forecasts elections.

"It's going to be the marquee state race," said J. Miles Coleman, an associate editor at Crystal Ball.

North Carolina is still thought of as a slightly Republican state when it comes to federal elections, he said.

But he points out how Democrats have fared better when it comes to the governor’s seat. They have won seven out of eight contests going back to 1992, for instance.

Democrats have tried mightily to cast North Carolina as a swing state after then-candidate Barack Obama won it in 2008.

In each presidential election since, the state been decided by less than 4 percentage points. The 2020 election saw Trump defeating Biden by less than 1½ percent.

“(Democrats) always fall a little short,” Coleman said.

Stein vs. Robinson: The ‘incredibly stark’ potential match-up

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein speaks at the MLK, Jr. Prayer Breakfast, January 13, 2024.

If all goes as predicted on Super Tuesday, then voters will have two very different candidates in the fall.

One is an Ivy-league-educated Democrat whose father was a famed civil rights attorney who leans into liberal causes.

The other a Republican factory worker who turned into a right-wing populist with brash rhetoric about culture war issues.

Stein, who is Jewish, and Robinson, who is Black, would break barriers if either won in the fall.

Democrats’ front-runner and hopeful successor to Cooper, Stein gained name recognition in North Carolina as the state’s attorney general since 2017 and a state senator before that.  

Herman Gaskins, 74, who lives in Washington, North Carolina, said he has supported Stein for governor since he and his wife began thinking about the 2024 election two years ago when they met the attorney general for lunch.

He said they left that meeting solidly in Stein’s corner. 

Gaskins, a private attorney who knew Stein's father, said the Democrat “comes from a line of lawyers that have stood up for equality, for all races, for all sexes. And he has shown a tendency to do that,” in his political career so far.  

Mark Robinson, Lieutenant Governor of North Carolina, speaking during the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2024, at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center.

“And I am just shocked by who the Republicans are apparently going to nominate,” Gaskins said. 

Stein’s likely opponent, Robinson, grew up poor as one of 10 children in Greensboro. He joined the political scene in 2020, when he became North Carolina’s first Black lieutenant governor. 

But he captured attention two years prior, when his fervent defense of gun rights at a Greensboro City Council meeting went viral in spring of 2018. 

“The police can barely enforce the law as it is,” Robinson said at the time.

“That’s what I see, we demonize the police, criminalize and vilify the police, and we make the criminals into victims. And we’re talking about restricting guns? How are you going to do that?” 

Gubernatorial candidate Mark Robinson speaks at rally at Freedom Christian Academy on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024.

Following his rise to fame in conservative circles, Robinson has made waves for several comments made since, including endorsing antisemitic conspiracy theories and enraging Black voters when he said that “so many freedoms were lost” during the Civil Rights movement. 

"The choice for the voters of North Carolina is going to be incredibly stark,” Stein said last Monday after a campaign stop along the coast in the deep red area of Beaufort County. 

“They can choose a vision that is forward looking, positive and optimistic, that's about being inclusive and growing,” he added, “versus the lieutenant governor's vision, which is weak and angry and divisive.” 

Stein said he is confident about his chances, as well as Robinson’s, in next Tuesday’s primary. 

What will matter most to North Carolina voters?

Abortion rights protesters are removed after becoming vocal, Tuesday, May 16, 2023, in Raleigh, N.C., after North Carolina House members voted to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's veto of a bill that would change the state's ban on nearly all abortions from those after 20 weeks of pregnancy to those after 12 weeks of pregnancy. Both the Senate and House had to complete successful override votes for the measure to be enacted into law. The Senate voted to override the veto earlier, and the House also voted to override. (AP Photo/Chris Seward) ORG XMIT: NCCS114

Early voting began on Feb. 15, and those who showed up were fully aware of the national spotlight that is ready to shine on their state and the significance of their choice in the context of the presidential race.

Republican Dewey Baker, 52, of Princeton, said that played heavily on his mind when he voted for Robinson.

"He’s for Donald Trump; he believes everything Donald Trump believes, which is everything I believe," he said. 

Monica Pittman, 67, and Gerald Pittman, 72, Republicans from Kenly, said they hope Robinson will be their next governor. Both said they like how the candidate has pushed back on criticisms of his positions, including on abortion.

“The person I want in any office is the one that votes their conscience and what they really feel is best for our country or our state,” Gerald Pittman said, after casting an early vote for Robinson.

“I think as lieutenant governor he has again spoke his mind even when he realized that the majority of people would not have felt that way," he added. “And I feel like he’s probably going to do the same on anything else, whatever he felt was best, he’s not going to back down.” 

But that is exactly what worries 65-year-old Wayne Penn, who moved to Belhaven six years ago.

“(Robinson's) just so extreme and so off base to me that I can't imagine why anyone would vote for him,” Penn said. 

Penn said he hopes Robinson’s “extreme” nature will dissuade independents and tip the election in Democrats’ favor. 

“We're definitely a purple state now. Used to be red, but it's definitely purple now," he said.

The Emerson College survey, which was released Feb. 21, shows North Carolina voters remain evenly split ahead of the primary.

Head-to-head, 47% back Trump while 44% support Biden in a poll with a 3% margin of error – a virtual tie. The remaining 10% are undecided.

Its findings on the issues bode well for the GOP, however, with 36% of voters saying the economy is the top issue, an area Republicans generally score well on with voters. That far exceeds the 6% who ranked threats to democracy and 5% who said abortion access was their chief concern.

Abortion, immigration could dominate North Carolina race

Biden, Trump visit border on same day as polls show voter concern over immigration

Across the country Republicans are expected to hammer Democrats on immigration, which the survey found ranks as the top issue with 10% of respondents.

The GOP is likely to pounce on Stein's previous positions, such as when he who challenged the Trump administration’s plans to rescind DACA, the Obama era executive order that protected from deportation undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

The poll also found 47% of voters think "things in North Carolina are on the wrong track" compared with 32% who believe the state is headed in the right direction.

But reproductive rights are what Democrats are betting will galvanize a significant portion of the electorate, given the battle last year between Cooper and the GOP-controlled Legislature that resulted in dueling vetoes and override votes over a 12-week abortion ban.

"The anti-choice wing controls the Republican Party, and the (state) Republican leadership has said they're coming back to do more," Cooper said. "So the people of North Carolina know that they've got to go to the polls. This is going to be a significant issue in November."

Protesters on both sides of the issue hold signs as North Carolina House members debate, Tuesday, May 16, 2023, in Raleigh, N.C., on whether to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's veto of a bill that would change the state's ban on nearly all abortions from those after 20 weeks of pregnancy to those after 12 weeks of pregnancy. Both the Senate and House had to complete successful override votes for the measure to be enacted into law. The Senate voted to override the veto earlier and the House also voted to override.

During the 2020 election, Robinson said, "there is no compromise on abortion," but in recent months he has softened his position.

Sloan Duvall, 21, who chairs Students for Stein, the official statewide student campaign for the Democratic candidate, said that won't fool voters this fall.

"Women in North Carolina are facing one of the greatest threats they've ever seen in Mark Robinson,” she said.

"I'm looking forward to post-graduation, where do I want to live, and I don't want to live in a state where Mark Robinson is governor," Duvall added. "He's a threat to women in this state."

Accusing Robinson of fearmongering, Duvall said the Republican “wants to pick up every culture war he can find and fight it.” 

"He wants to make people afraid and just fight these culture wars that are just going to divide our state,” she added. 

Even GOP rivals say Robinson goes too far, hinting at possible hesitance with more moderate residents in a state where every vote matters.

North Carolina Treasurer Dale Folwell, one of Robinson's opponents in the primary, lambasted the lieutenant governor for straying from what he said are fundamental Republican Party values. 

“He is history's latest example of someone who's trying to rise to power by selling hate,” Folwell said.

"He somehow thinks ... that selling hate and rage is somehow going to build the Republican Party. And it's not."

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