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North Carolina Republicans Fret Over Their Gubernatorial Frontrunner
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North Carolina Republicans Fret Over Their Gubernatorial Frontrunner

Few in the state GOP want to incite a costly primary battle against Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson.

North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson speaks in 2022 in Raleigh. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

North Carolina Republicans continue to feel uneasy about their party’s current gubernatorial frontrunner, firebrand Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson. But no coherent strategy yet exists to knock him out in a primary.

Those with concerns about Robinson fear his controversial views, as well as his checkered personal and campaign finance history, will alienate suburban and independent voters in 2024 as Republicans try to flip the the gubernatorial seat of term-limited Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. 

And many Republicans know Democrats have amassed an opposition research file that could be leaked at any time. Even Robinson seems worried about more potentially damaging revelations.

“I know there’s probably a lot of stuff out there swirling around … People are trying to put doubt in the air about our campaign, about me, but none of that stuff is true, I guarantee you,” Robinson said in a voicemail he left for a prospective Republican donor on Thursday, obtained by The Dispatch. “We’re ready to take this challenge on. And I believe that we are the candidate.” 

Robinson rose to prominence in 2018 during a town hall speech about gun rights before riding celebrity to victory in the state’s nine-way Republican primary for lieutenant governor two years later. His grassroots fundraising and statewide name recognition—he is also the first black lieutenant governor in North Carolina’s history—have all but secured his frontrunner status in the primary against state Treasurer Dale Folwell or former GOP Rep. Mark Walker.

But reporters in North Carolina have already published stories about Robinson’s history of delinquent tax bills and questionable campaign-related expenses. And Robinson has a history of controversial comments, including comparing gay people to “what the cows leave behind,” calling Parkland High School shooting survivors-turned-activists “spoiled little bastards” and “media prosti-tots,” and assailing Marvel’s Black Panther as a film “created by an agnostic Jew and put to film by satanic marxist” made to “pull the shekels out of your Schvartze pockets.” (The current Democratic gubernatorial frontrunner, two-term Attorney General Josh Stein, is Jewish.)

All that will add up to a rush of Democratic donors propping up Stein’s campaign, similar to 2016 when a since-repealed transgender bathroom bill, HB2, helped tilt the governor’s race in Cooper’s favor, Robinson’s GOP critics say.

“Mark Robinson will become the No. 1 targeted priority of many liberal activist groups across the country,” said veteran Raleigh-based GOP consultant Paul Shumaker, who hasn’t signed on to any gubernatorial campaign this cycle yet. “If Robinson’s the nominee, it will be 2016 on steroids.”

But many Republicans seem to consider Robinson’s primary victory as a foregone conclusion and are focusing on keeping North Carolina red in the 2024 presidential race and investing in down-ballot statewide races.

Plus, Democrats’ statewide winning streak—North Carolina has had just three Republican governors and one attorney general in the past 100 years—has made some North Carolina Republicans see opportunity in Robinson. They hope even if he turns off some independent and suburban voters, Robinson could significantly outperform other GOP candidates in black communities. 

“There’s a certain bit of desperation here that’s like: Well, why don’t we just try something new, and try something different?” said one senior adviser to a North Carolina state senator.

The dynamic among Republicans resembles last year’s Republican Senate primary in Georgia, when no GOP candidate was seen as a potential contender against former football star Herschel Walker for the nomination.

“Most of the legislators I’ve spoken to about this have essentially told me: ‘He’s gonna get the nomination. So what am I going to do, stand in the way?’” added the adviser, who said that concerns about Robinson’s general election viability have grown quieter. 

Many elected Republicans avoid commenting on the gubernatorial primary entirely. Three North Carolina House Republicans—Reps. David Rouzer, Greg Murphy, and Virginia Foxx—declined to publicly comment on Robinson’s chances when asked by The Dispatch how they see the primary shaping up.

Robinson and his lead political strategist, Conrad Pogorzelski III, both declined to comment for this article.

Others in the lieutenant governor’s camp insist that anti-Robinson sentiment is confined to a marginal cohort of the North Carolina Republican political class and is out of touch with the grassroots.

“My gut reaction is that the hesitancy about Robinson is significantly overblown,” said North Carolina GOP consultant Jonathan Felts, who advised first-term GOP Sen. Ted Budd last cycle. “It’s a small number of armchair quarterbacks who aren’t on the team. And they are desperately irrelevant. And they’re the ones talking about the electability issue more than anything else.”

Last year’s Republican Senate race in North Carolina is a better comparison for this year’s gubernatorial primary, Felts says. Rock-ribbed conservative Budd beat former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory by 34 points in the primary and went on to defeat Democrat Cheri Beasley by 3 points in the general election even though reporters had focused on Budd’s general election viability.

“Electability has never been a winning message in any primary, in my opinion, but certainly not in the era that we live in right now,” Felts said. “It’s the grassroots who decide these elections.”

Polling is sparse this early in the campaign season but suggests that Robinson may actually be the GOP candidate best positioned to defeat Stein. One Cygnal survey of 610 likely North Carolina voters conducted in late May on behalf of the conservative John Locke Foundation found Robinson narrowly defeating Stein by less than a point in one hypothetical head-to-head. Stein, meanwhile, defeated Folwell and Walker in separate hypothetical match-ups by 5.6 and 2.6 points, respectively.

At this point in the race, conventional wisdom among Republicans is that it would take tens of millions of dollars and a united front among North Carolina’s elected Republicans to substantially challenge Robinson in a primary, let alone beat him. 

“The juice just isn’t worth the squeeze to try to take Robinson out,” one seasoned Republican operative said.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.