Top 1 Magazine

Top One Magazine

The GOP’s new electability problem: North Carolina

Republicans are on the verge of wiping out what remains of Democrats’ political power in North Carolina.

The only thing they need is for the likely nominee for governor to not blow it up.

On Saturday, when the state’s lightning rod Republican lieutenant governor, Mark Robinson, formally announces his gubernatorial campaign, polls suggest he will instantly become the frontrunner for the nomination. He’ll saddle the GOP with a laundry list of his past public controversies — from agreeing with antisemitic remarks about the global economy to homophobic musings that children shouldn’t learn about “homosexuality or any of that filth.”

In a state where surveys show a majority of voters favor keeping abortion legal, he has compared the procedure to murder. And even some Republicans in North Carolina see him as a liability.

“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,” said Paul Shumaker, a Republican consultant in the state.

But as he launches his campaign in rural Alamance County, Robinson will need to do what many high-profile, controversial Republicans failed to accomplish in last year’s midterms — overcome his past comments that could be deeply unpopular with general election voters.

It is a critical test for the GOP in the post-Trump era, after a slate of problematic nominees cost Republicans a number of winnable governor and U.S. Senate races in 2022.

The opportunity for Republicans in North Carolina is enormous. Democrats haven’t won a presidential or U.S. Senate race there since 2008. And with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper leaving office — a candidate who won twice as Donald Trump took the state in both 2016 and 2020 — Tarheel Democrats are staring down an election without their best candidate in a generation.

Robinson will be boosted by an existing small-dollar fundraising operation and a flurry of earned media on conservative platforms, where he has raised his profile in recent years. And he’ll have the backing of fiery grassroots supporters that dominate the GOP base in North Carolina. None of the negative headlines have so far stopped his meteoric rise in state politics, riding a viral video of him giving public comment about gun rights at a city council meeting in 2018 to being elected to the state’s second-highest office a little over two years later. And even after in-state media uncovered a past comment by Robinson — a staunch abortion opponent — that he and his wife had terminated a pregnancy decades ago, his standing remained virtually unchanged, Raleigh’s WRAL found in a survey.

Still, he could face a potentially bruising challenge in the primary — largely focused on other Republicans’ concerns that he is not electable in the fall.

Mark Walker, a former Greensboro-area congressman who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for Senate last year, is publicly mulling a run, and is expected to enter the race in the coming weeks.

Walker acknowledged in an interview that most political observers in the state see Robinson as the “strong favorite” to win the GOP nomination, but he repeatedly suggested that Robinson would not be a good general election candidate because of baggage he carried. Walker, who is being advised by National Public Affairs, a political consulting group run by Bill Stepien and other Trump alumni, said he was “disappointed that [Robinson] would not be honest with the people of North Carolina about all different things,” declining to elaborate further.

Walker’s criticism carries a bit of irony since he helped launch Robinson’s political career by sharing that 2018 viral video on Facebook. He insisted there was “nothing personal” about potentially running against Robinson, only that Republicans needed to nominate a winning candidate for the fall.

Even if Walker does not get in, Robinson is facing other challengers in the Republican primary. Already in the race is Dale Folwell, the state treasurer first elected in 2016, who cast himself as an alternative to Robinson in part because he is “not a gamble on the ballot.”

But any challenger to Robinson faces a tough path. Members of North Carolina’s Republican legislative leadership are largely supportive of Robinson’s primary bid, according to four state GOP insiders. Legislative leaders gave him an unusually prominent perch earlier this year, tapping Robinson to give the response to Cooper’s state of the state address — a spot where Robinson tried to shed at least some of his usual bomb-throwing persona.

And Republican legislators are expected to be among those supporting Robinson at his announcement Saturday.

Early polling on the general election race shows it’s likely to be a dead-heat. Carolina Forward, a progressive advocacy group, released a survey this fall that showed state Attorney General Josh Stein — who Democrats have coalesced around — at 44 percent support, compared to Robinson’s 42 percent. But among independents — a key voting bloc in North Carolina — Robinson was up slightly.

“You’re going to have two absolute juggernauts from either party, with Robinson and Stein raising, I predict, more money than we’ve ever seen in a governor’s race in this state,” said Conrad Pogorzelski III, Robinson’s top political strategist.

While it remains to be seen how Robinson’s past scandals and history of heated rhetoric will play out under greater scrutiny this election cycle, those close to the lieutenant governor have advised him to proceed as if the primary is already over — and to focus more on the general electorate than dishing out more red meat to the base. Saturday’s rally could be an early sign of whether he’ll actually embrace that advice.

Robinson — the state’s first Black lieutenant governor, who worked a manufacturing job up until his recent political career launch — has sought to emphasize his relatability to average people when confronted with past news coverage about his personal financial mismanagement and other missteps.

“It’s a quasi-populist message that’s about going after the elites, and that’s what Trump was able to channel very effectively when he carried the state of North Carolina twice,” said Jonathan Felts, a Republican strategist who most recently advised Sen. Ted Budd’s midterm campaign. “It’s not just a fringe-right phenomenon — it’s something that percolates across the political spectrum and something that pollsters and the D.C. consultant class have gotten wrong since 2016.”

If he wins the primary, Robinson’s traits will be contrasted with the mild-mannered persona of Stein, a Dartmouth and Harvard-educated lawyer who has served two terms as the state’s top prosecutor. But it’s one that Democrats eagerly embrace.

“You couldn’t have a bigger contrast between these two candidates,” said Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist who advises both Cooper and Stein. “Mark Robinsion is the most far-right extreme candidate who has ever run in the history of North Carolina.”

The race comes at a dire moment for the Democratic Party in North Carolina.

The state was supposed to be the swing state of the future for Democrats, after then-candidate Barack Obama won a squeaker in 2008 and Kay Hagan won an open Senate seat by over 8 points that year. But Democrats have not won a statewide federal race since then — losing a string of close Senate and presidential contests that have thrown into question the true tossup nature of the state.

Democrats have fared far better on the statewide level. Republicans have won just one governor race in the last 30 years, and there has been a single Republican attorney general in the last century. Even so, Cooper, the most successful Democrat in North Carolina in any recent history, is term-limited out. And Republicans hold supermajorities in both state legislative chambers.

“This could be the culmination of 15 years of [Republican] work, in the sense of a consolidation of power by any means,” said Democratic state House Minority Leader Robert Reives.

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