North Carolina’s Race for Governor: Expensive, Closely Watched and Probably Tight

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One of the country’s most closely watched elections this year will be in North Carolina, where the race for governor will be a test of Democratic strength in a state whose narrowly divided electorate includes a crush of newcomers.

After the primaries on Tuesday, North Carolinians will likely have two sharply contrasting candidates to choose from: the mild-mannered state attorney general, Josh Stein, a Democrat whose political rise has followed a traditional path, and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a firebrand Republican who catapulted into politics after comments he made defending gun rights in 2018 went viral.

“If you went to a candidate factory and said, ‘Create me the two most different candidates possible,’ I don’t think you could do any better,” said Christopher A. Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. “They’re just radically different in demeanor, in ideology.”

Both men would break ground if elected: Mr. Robinson, 55, would be the first Black governor of North Carolina if elected, while Mr. Stein, 57, would be the state’s first Jewish governor.

The race will be closely watched in part because of the potential national implications: Both candidates are planning to portray each other in politically extreme terms, which could boost turnout not only for their elections, but also for the presidential race in the hotly contested state.

Mr. Stein, like the current term-limited Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, has tried to avoid culture war issues. Mr. Robinson appears eager to dive into many of them, disparaging L.G.B.T.Q. people, posting comments that were widely perceived as antisemitic and calling Michelle Obama a man. He has also quoted Adolf Hitler on Facebook and embraced former President Donald J. Trump’s false claims about election fraud in 2020.

Mr. Stein supports access to abortion and has been endorsed by abortion rights groups, which are mobilized after the Republicans used their new supermajority in the legislature last year to ban most abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy. Mr. Robinson supports a so-called heartbeat law, which would ban the procedure after about six weeks of pregnancy, when many women have yet to realize they are pregnant.

His campaign spokesman said that Mr. Robinson supports exceptions for rape, incest or when the life of the mother is in danger, but he did not specify at how many weeks those protections would apply.

Mr. Robinson has dismissed the criticisms, casting them as smear jobs orchestrated by liberals and the news media. He has also insisted to reporters that he has never been antisemitic, pointing to a trip he took last fall to Israel and outreach he has made to Jewish organizations as evidence.

Even as Democrats have won seven of the last eight elections for governor in North Carolina, they have consistently lost federal races: The only Democrat that the state has picked for president in almost 50 years was Barack Obama in 2008.

At a rally in Greensboro on Saturday, Mr. Trump said that Mr. Robinson — who worked in furniture manufacturing before turning to politics — had his “complete and total endorsement.” Polls have consistently shown Mr. Robinson far ahead of his Republican primary rivals, Dale Folwell, the state treasurer, and Bill Graham, a personal injury and wrongful death lawyer.

Mr. Stein is leading four other Democratic primary candidates in polling, including Michael Morgan, a former North Carolina Supreme Court justice.

Mr. Robinson has painted Mr. Stein as a boring, Biden-aligned political insider who is out of touch with the general public.

Mr. Stein has pointed to Mr. Robinson’s numerous statements around culture war topics as evidence that the lieutenant governor is focused on polarizing social issues instead of challenges that most voters care about, like improving education.

With North Carolina being a key swing state this year, the race will likely draw millions of dollars in fund-raising, especially if polls continue to show the candidates neck and neck.

Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., said that outside the presidential election, the North Carolina governor’s race will probably be the most expensive and most divisive in the country. And Mr. Robinson, he added, could drive much of that attention.

“Robinson is very much willing to say what he thinks, and at times he kind of tries to tiptoe around his past comments,” Mr. Bitzer said. “But he is very much in the vein of Trump-style politics and the fact of resentment — an ‘us versus them’ mentality.”

Mr. Trump won the state in 2020 by 1.3 percentage points, while Mr. Cooper beat his Republican opponent that year by more than 4 percentage points. Mr. Stein’s victory for attorney general in 2020 was more tenuous, with 50.1 percent of the vote, a margin of 13,000 votes.

Still, Democrats are counting on Mr. Robinson’s past comments and polarizing approach to motivate voters who want to defeat him.

The question that some Republicans have is whether Mr. Robinson’s style will be too extreme for swing voters, who make up between 3 and 5 percent of the electorate. They could include many of the several hundred thousand people who have moved to North Carolina since 2020, many of whom settled in the suburbs and exurbs of Charlotte and Raleigh, the state’s largest cities. President Biden won the counties that contain those cities but lost many of the surrounding areas.

Jonathan Felts, a Republican strategist running a super PAC supporting Mr. Robinson’s campaign, said that the candidate’s image as a “conservative fighter” and political outsider would appeal to the working-class Trump base that dominates conservative North Carolina, much of which is rural.

Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist who advises both Mr. Stein and Mr. Cooper, said that residents have historically shown they like a balance in their government, with a Democratic governor who will keep the Republican legislature in check.

Mr. Jackson said that Mr. Stein will let his experience speak for itself and will talk on the campaign trail about his work fighting the fentanyl crisis, putting child predators in jail and keeping communities safer.

Both Mr. Stein and Mr. Robinson have prioritized education issues in their campaigns.

Some Republicans, like Mr. Robinson’s rivals in the party’s primary, have worried that Mr. Robinson’s rhetoric could cost conservatives the executive mansion.

Paul Shumaker, a Republican consultant in the state and chief strategist for Mr. Graham, said that he believes Mr. Robinson “will become a liability” for Mr. Trump. In a memo that Mr. Shumaker sent to other consultants this year, he wrote that Mr. Robinson would “create a toxic red tide for Republicans” that could have repercussions down the ballot.

At the 2024 Conservative Political Action Conference, Mr. Robinson spoke about how his name was always mentioned “in conjunction with social issues.”

“According to them, I hate everybody,” he said, before adding that what he was doing was not about hate. “We should be operating because of what we love.”

Mr. Stein recently told The News & Observer that Mr. Robinson’s beliefs were not those that “a leader of a thriving, growing, diverse state can hold.”


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