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Carolina on my mind for November

Gubernatorial race might have significant effect on the presidential race

The state flag of North Carolina is seen in the Senate subway tunnel. The state's gubernatorial election might have an outsize effect on the presidential election, give the unique electorate.
The state flag of North Carolina is seen in the Senate subway tunnel. The state's gubernatorial election might have an outsize effect on the presidential election, give the unique electorate. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When Mark Robinson won North Carolina’s Republican nomination for governor last week, it not only improved the chances that Democrat Josh Stein could win the state’s governorship in November, it also boosted Joe Biden’s reelection prospects in the state.

An uncompromising and unapologetic conservative, Robinson, 55, has been a controversial figure ever since he entered the political scene. His incendiary comments could provide plenty of fodder for Democrats in the state.

Robinson and Stein

According to Robinson’s official state biography, “As a child, Mark was the ninth of ten children and grew up extremely poor. His father was an alcoholic who routinely abused his mother. However, she was a strong woman of faith who valued hard work.”

He held many jobs, but “became a household name in 2018 when he delivered an incredibly strong address to the Greensboro City Council defending the 2nd Amendment. This speech went viral and … has been viewed over 200 million times online.”

“Following this speech,” the bio continues, “Mark began traveling to spread a message of common-sense conservatism: Protecting the life of the unborn, defending the 2nd Amendment, giving control over children’s education back to parents, standing up for law enforcement, addressing veterans’ care, and enacting election reform.”

Robinson attended North Carolina A&T and the University of North Carolina Greensboro but never earned a degree.

Over the years, Robinson has repeated a long list of antisemitic comments, denied the Holocaust, called homosexuality “filth,” and generally branded his opponents as socialists and Marxists.

He also acknowledged “some of his past financial struggles — which include criminal convictions for writing bad checks, plus multiple bankruptcies and liens for tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes, rent and car payments,” according to WRAL.

Even with that record, Robinson won a crowded, nine-person Republican primary for lieutenant governor in 2020 — finishing just over the 30 percent mark to avoid a runoff. 

That November, Robinson won a competitive general election. He defeated Democratic state Rep. Yvonne Lewis Holley, 51.6 percent to 48.4 percent, while the incumbent governor, Democrat Roy Cooper, was winning reelection. Robinson became the first Black lieutenant governor in the state’s history. (Holley is Black as well.)

This year, Robinson won about two-thirds of the GOP primary vote for governor. Robinson’s opponent in the 2024 governor’s race is Stein, who served in the state Senate and spent two terms as North Carolina attorney general.

Stein is Jewish and attended Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School.

His 2016 and 2020 races for attorney general were true squeakers. He won the 2016 open seat contest by about 20,000 votes out of 4.5 million cast. Four years later, he won reelection by less than 14,000 votes out of 5.4 million cast.

Tightening races  

Statewide races in North Carolina have been competitive for years.

Slightly more than 1 in 5 voters in the state is Black, but unlike many other Southern states, North Carolina includes a considerable number of highly educated, affluent whites who vote Democratic. That’s why Democratic nominees won seven of the last eight gubernatorial elections in the state. 

But while Tar Heel voters have no problem voting Democratic in state races, the GOP has a narrow but consistent advantage in presidential and Senate contests. 

Six of the state’s last nine senators have been Republicans, and Republican presidential nominees carried the state in 10 of the past 11 elections. Barack Obama was the only Democrat to carry the state since Jimmy Carter in 1976, but Obama lost it narrowly four years later when he ran for reelection in 2012.

The most recent Senate contest, in 2022, was tight. Incumbent GOP Sen. Richard Burr, an establishment conservative, opted against running for reelection. 

Republicans nominated conservative Rep. Ted Budd, while Democrats nominated the former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, Cheri Beasley, the first Black woman to serve on the state’s highest court.

Budd won the race with 50.5 percent to Beasley’s 47.3 percent — another close margin.

Presidential politics

A look at the last three presidential elections shows just how evenly divided the state is, and how relatively few swing voters there are.

In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney won the state with 50.4 percent of the vote to Obama’s 48.4 percent. The Republican’s margin was just over 92,000 votes.

Four years later, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton 49.8 percent to 46.2 percent — a victory of about 173,000 votes. And four years after that, Trump narrowly defeated Biden in the state 49.9 percent to 48.6 percent, by a margin of about 74,000 votes.

Biden carried eight of the state’s 10 largest counties, while Trump did best in rural areas and outside the largest metropolitan areas.

This year, Republicans have nominated Trump for president and Robinson for governor. There is no Senate race on the ballot.

The two GOP hopefuls appear to be in sync with each other. They’ll do well in white rural areas which are filled with MAGA voters, but both Republicans appear out of step with Blacks and highly educated whites.

The big question is whether Trump and Robinson combine to turn off so many urban and suburban voters that they hand both the governorship and the state to Stein and Biden. That certainly is possible, though it is not guaranteed.

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