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Will NC choose a president and a governor from different political parties?

Buckle up, North Carolina. We’re about to get a lot more attention this political season.

After the March 5 primary election, you can expect the spotlight to be even brighter on the Old North State, not just because of the presidential election but because of the race for governor, too.

The front-runners — Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein and Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson — have already raked in millions of dollars and far outpace their opponents. The primary isn’t over yet, but the big battles of the general election are already taking shape.

North Carolinians can expect even more money flowing in, plus attention from the Republican Governors Association and Democratic Governors Association, which was recently led by outgoing Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

Will issues carry the election? Or who wins the top of the ballot? It’s all still to be determined. This time in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic, which threw everything off, had not yet arrived in the state. So there are still unknowns.

Here’s what we know is coming.

The presidency and North Carolina

North Carolina’s reputation as a swing state gets the most attention in a presidential election year because, experts say, Republicans need to win the state to win the presidency. Voters here have split the top of their ticket, most recently in the 2020 election — a squeaker with 1.3% more voters in North Carolina choosing former President Donald Trump, who lost the election to President Joe Biden. Trump faces several criminal charges over his attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

Trump received 2,758,773 votes, or 49.93%, and Biden received 2,684,292 votes, or 48.59%, according to State Board of Elections results. In the governor’s race that year, Cooper defeated his Republican challenger, then-Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, by a larger spread.

In the days leading up to North Carolina’s primary, Trump planned visits here, as did his Republican primary opponent, former S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley, and Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris.

“I think you’ll see Biden/Harris here often,” said Democratic strategist Morgan Jackson, a Stein adviser. There’s “hardly a week that’s gonna go by that you’re not going to have either a Democratic principal in state or Republican principal in state. I think that’s because North Carolina is going to be incredibly competitive.”

President Joe Biden takes a selfie with Wolfspeed CEO Gregg Lowe on Tuesday, March 28, 2023, in Durham, N.C.
President Joe Biden takes a selfie with Wolfspeed CEO Gregg Lowe on Tuesday, March 28, 2023, in Durham, N.C.

Republican Dallas Woodhouse, the state director of conservative organizing group American Majority, said past elections show that Stein is the slight favorite to win in November.

The largest factor, he said, is the top of the ticket.

“Republicans can’t win the White House without North Carolina,” Woodhouse told The News & Observer in an interview.

Culture wars and the politics of personality

Jackson credits changing demographics in the state and increased populations in metro areas for Trump doing worse with North Carolina voters in 2020 than 2016. Robinson has aligned himself with the MAGA wing of the Republican Party, and joined Trump for a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago in December.

Jackson said that with candidates like Trump, Robinson and the Republican attorney general candidate, U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop, “it is like spraying repellent on college-educated voters in the suburbs, the voters that you need to win an election. Because those guys fight — all they do is fight culture wars. ... When you hook your axle to the crazy train of Trump and Robinson and Bishop, you drive it off the cliff, with voters who don’t want to fight culture wars.”

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and former President Donald Trump share the stage during a rally in Selma Saturday, April 9, 2022.
Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and former President Donald Trump share the stage during a rally in Selma Saturday, April 9, 2022.

Both campaigns see a stark contrast between the gubernatorial candidates, two statewide elected officials who serve together on the Council of State. Stein has had a much longer career in office, serving in the state Senate and working in the attorney general’s office before that, when Cooper was attorney general. Robinson, on the other hand, did not run for office until his 2020 win for lieutenant governor.

Robinson spokesperson Mike Lonergan said Robinson is “a conservative outsider who’s working hard to take on the radical left and make North Carolina a better place to live, work and start a business. He’s not a career politician. He’s almost the polar opposite of Josh Stein, who is the epitome of a career politician who’s been in politics since the late 1990s. And his only career has been far-left politics.”

Lonergan described Stein as a “rubber stamp for Biden’s failed agenda,” raising taxes and increasing spending. He also criticized Stein’s endorsements from groups that have supported the idea of defunding the police, including the Sierra Club, which signed a letter in 2020 supporting divestment of police department funding in favor of other programs, and Planned Parenthood, which also supported defunding and divesting from police in 2020. Stein himself has called for increased funding and raises for state law enforcement.

Robinson is endorsed by the National Rifle Association, and rose to political fame after a speech on gun rights at a Greensboro City Council meeting.

Stein told The N&O in a previous interview that “the choice between me and Mark Robinson could not be starker. I am a fighter for the people. He is a fighter for the culture wars.”

Attorney General Josh Stein, a candidate in the Democratic primary for North Carolina governor, is photographed on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023, in Raleigh, N.C.
Attorney General Josh Stein, a candidate in the Democratic primary for North Carolina governor, is photographed on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023, in Raleigh, N.C.

Candidate for NC governor, Democrat Josh Stein, answers our questions

The abortion issue

When Planned Parenthood Votes! South Atlantic endorsed Stein in January, President and CEO Jenny Black called him a “champion for reproductive freedom.”

Black went on to say that Robinson “has made it clear that he wants to have control over our private health care decisions. In fact, Robinson supports a complete, total ban on abortion.”

Robinson’s campaign spokesperson said Monday that Robinson supports a “heartbeat” ban, which would be at about five or six weeks gestation, with exceptions.

Democratic Senators including Natalie Murdock of Durham County, foreground, hold signs after a vote on an abortion restrictions bill that was up for a veto override on Tuesday, May 16, 2023, at the Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C. Republicans have a veto-proof supermajority in the General Assembly, with the ability to overturn a veto from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

Durham Democratic Sen. Natalie Murdock, who is campaigning for Stein, said that Democrats will push Robinson’s stance on abortion, including recent reports of him telling a voter at a Pitt County event that he wants to do more than a six-week ban, FOX8 WGHP reported.

“We’ve got to do it that same way they rolled it forward, we’ve got to do it the same way with rolling it back,” Robinson said. “We’ve got it down to 12 weeks. The next goal is to get it down to six, and then just keep moving from there. But I think the most important work we have to do, beyond that, is the work we’re going to do with crisis pregnancy centers. The work we’ll do with our adoption, day care, all those systems.”

Republicans last year passed Senate Bill 20, a new state law restricting abortion after 12 weeks.

Robinson said during a speech at the 2023 March for Life that “abortion is not compatible with this nation, the same way slavery was not compatible with this nation. We speak of life and liberty, how can you have life and liberty if you end life in the womb, and do not give people their freedom after they’re born? This nation is built on those ideals. And so we have to stand up for life.”

In March 2022, Robinson confirmed that he and his wife, Yolanda, had once decided to end her pregnancy in abortion before they were married, saying that it was “the wrong” decision and that it is why they “are so adamantly pro-life” now.

Lonergan said that Robinson supports exceptions for rape, incest and if the life of the mother is in danger, but did not say at how many weeks those exemptions would apply.

Stein has said that as governor he would “fight for women’s right to make their own decisions about their own bodies.”

Jackson, the Stein strategist, said abortion will be on the ballot in 2024. He said the real question is determining what middle-of-the-road voters — the unaffiliated, swing and suburban voters — are thinking about this election.

“What we have seen over the last 24 months, is that they are incredibly concerned with abortion rights,” he said.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, top left, and Attorney General Josh Stein, center left, wait backstage with Democratic strategist Morgan Jackson (facing away) at a Stein campaign rally at Shaw University in downtown Raleigh on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, top left, and Attorney General Josh Stein, center left, wait backstage with Democratic strategist Morgan Jackson (facing away) at a Stein campaign rally at Shaw University in downtown Raleigh on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023.

Several other states have had successful abortion-rights ballot measures, regardless of which party controlled the state, since Roe v. Wade was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Woodhouse, a former executive director of the NCGOP, said that Robinson will have to answer abortion questions, but doesn’t see the General Assembly taking up another abortion bill.

“Here’s the biggest mistake that candidates and parties make in elections. It’s always the same. They fight the last war. They fight the last election, not the one in front of them,” he said.

Biden vs. Trump

Stephen Wiley, chair of the N.C. House Republican Caucus and managing partner of political consulting firm Fulcrum NC, said policy issues have become less and less of a deciding factor in elections as both parties have become more focused on cranking up turnout and appealing to base voters. That change, he said, is because we’re in the “age of Trump.”

“People aren’t really voting a whole lot based off of issues. They’re voting based off of personality and narrative and mood,” he told The N&O in an interview.

And voters have strong opinions on the two men expected to be at the top of the ballot in the general election.

“You’ve got two older white guys from the Northeast, and everybody already knows exactly what they think about them. And it’s a personality-driven election these days; that’s really what it comes down to. ... It’s just not going to be an issue-based type year. At least at the national level,” Wiley said.

N.C. Central University political science professor Jarvis Hall said the personality of candidates, and the Biden/Trump factor, are as important as issues like education, abortion and immigration.

“Meaning that, when you look at it broadly, that Robinson is more Trump-like. Whereas Josh Stein, I think we can safely say is more Biden-like. I mean, outside of the ages of the candidates,” Hall told The N&O in an interview.

For Robinson, Hall cited Robinson’s “penchant toward making what most people will say are outrageous comments, especially regarding LGBTQ issues, and sort of pulling the Trump line with regard to immigration.”

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson speaks during the Council of State meeting in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024.
Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson speaks during the Council of State meeting in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024.

Murdock, the Durham senator and Stein campaign supporter, said Democrats need to look at more than just what Robinson says if they want to defeat him in November.

“I am fearful of us kind of sitting back and focusing on specific things he said. Yes, that’s harmful. But Donald Trump (winning anyway) showed that that is not enough. I think we’re going to really have to draw that contrast of, how will they lead our state? Will they make your life better or worse? And really, really driving those conversations home,” she said.

Hall said that traditionally, candidates move toward the middle after a primary. But he doesn’t see that as likely for Robinson.

“We know that North Carolina has a very large number of unaffiliated voters. And it seems to me from what I’ve observed, is that the unaffiliated voters will be turned off by the kinds of things that Robinson has talked about. ... I don’t know how you moderate yourself with regard to the positions that he’s already taken without being criticized for being you know, flip-flopping,” he said.

Education a key issue

A clear distinction Hall sees for the North Carolina gubernatorial race is on public education and the role of the legislature.

Republicans have supermajorities in both the state House and Senate. All 170 state lawmakers are also on the ballot this year, and if they retain supermajorities, or even simple majorities, a Republican governor would expedite their agenda.

In 2023, Republicans expanded private school scholarships to everyone. The start of applications for those opportunity scholarships, or taxpayer-funded private school vouchers — long-supported by most Republicans and opposed most by Democrats — has kept education at the forefront of politics, as has Leandro, the long-running case seeking greater public education funding for K-12 schools.

Robinson told The N&O in his candidate questionnaire that education is the issue he thinks he could shape the most if he becomes governor.

He said that “an unaccountable bureaucracy at the state level has our education system struggling and COVID-19 only made it worse. Students are struggling to catch up.” Robinson also said he wants to “get politics out of the classroom.”

David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College and director of the Meredith Poll, said that education, as in previous elections for governor, will be a key issue, but with a slightly different flavor this year.

“Even with education, it’s gonna be kind of a culture war ... take on education. So Robinson has been critical of how certain subject matter has been taught in the public schools, called the public schools woke and things like that. And so Stein will obviously defend the public schools, generally, but he’ll also defend the nature of having subject matter like racial history and things like that taught in the public schools,” McLennan said.

Robinson, who is the state’s first Black lieutenant governor and would be the first Black governor of North Carolina, was behind the 2021 push in the General Assembly to ban public instruction of issues related to Critical Race Theory. A similar bill showed up during the 2023 session, but House Bill 187 only passed the House, and was not taken up by the Senate.

McLennan said culture war issues will be part of the race, including LGBTQ+ issues, given Robinson frequently talks about those in his speeches. Robinson has repeatedly disparaged LGBTQ+ people, particularly transgender people. He has downplayed his past antisemitic comments, saying he has “never been antisemitic.”

Ticket splitting

Early polling from the Meredith Poll and others show Trump and Stein ahead with North Carolina voters.

“What we might see, just like we’ve seen over the past few election cycles, is ticket-splitting,” McLennan said. “We might see some people who are Trump supporters for whatever reason, they’re just Trump supporters, but they may not necessarily be in Robinson’s camp.”

“It would not surprise me at the end of the 2024 election cycle to see Trump and Stein win North Carolina.”

Candidates for governor

Democrats: Chrelle Booker, Gary Foxx, Mike Morgan, Josh Stein and Marcus Williams

Green (no primary): Wayne Turner

Libertarians: Shannon Bray and Mike Ross

Republicans: Dale Folwell, Bill Graham and Mark Robinson