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Why North Carolina is set to host the biggest governor's race of 2024

Tuesday's primary is expected to officially set up a clash between two statewide officials, Democrat Josh Stein and Republican Mark Robinson, in the battleground state.
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson.
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson.AP

Even before Tuesday’s primary votes are tallied, North Carolina is gearing up to host the most pivotal — and most expensive — governor’s race in the country this fall.

Leading in the polls and in fundraising, two statewide elected officials, Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein and Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, are expected to advance to the general election to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

The stakes are high for North Carolina. With Republicans in solid control of the state Legislature, they have an opportunity to win a trifecta come November.

The stakes will also be high nationally. Of the 11 gubernatorial elections on the ballot this year, just two are occurring in presidential battleground states: North Carolina and New Hampshire.

But North Carolina’s is expected to receive the most attention from national party figures and groups. As the larger state of the two, campaigns are more expensive to run in North Carolina. And voters in New Hampshire cast ballots for governor every two years rather than four.

The prospective matchup between Stein and Robinson is poised to feature many of the same themes that will define the national 2024 campaign.

Republicans are prepared to tie Stein to President Joe Biden, whose approval ratings are deeply underwater in the state. Democrats are eager to paint Robinson as as an extremist on reproductive rights, education and LGBTQ issues, utilizing a lengthy paper trail of controversial public statements he’s made over many years.

This confluence of factors — in addition to the state’s significant number of split-ticket voters — is already scrambling the race. The state has voted for Republican candidates in 10 of the last 11 presidential elections, but over that same period, just two Republicans have served as governor.

“The funny thing about North Carolina is that we elect Democratic governors,” said Gary Pearce, a Democratic strategist in the state.

Democrats to brand Robinson as ‘divisive, chaotic, hateful’

North Carolina Democrats have anticipated a general election matchup between Stein and Robinson for months, already ramping up attacks on Robinson’s past controversial and incendiary statements.

Among them are Robinson saying at a campaign event last month that he’d work to eventually abolish abortion rights in the state if elected governor.

“We got it down to 12 weeks. The next goal is to get it down to six, and then just keep moving from there,” he said.

Robinson also recently suggested that transgender women should be arrested if they use women’s restrooms, adding at a campaign event last month that people who “are confused” about their gender should “find a corner outside somewhere to go” to the bathroom. Robinson has also described the LGBTQ community as “filth.”

In addition, opponents point out that Robinson has slammed public school teachers as “wicked people” and has cast doubt on whether the Holocaust occurred, writing on Facebook in 2017 that "Hitler disarming MILLIONS of Jews and then marching them off to concentration camps is a bunch of hogwash.” In 2022, he said he owned assault rifles so that he’d be prepared if “the government got too big for its britches.”

“He’s much more extreme than any of my Republican opponents either in 2016 or 2020 were,” said Cooper, who has served as North Carolina governor since 2017. “It’s impossible to overstate his very long history of divisive and damaging statements.”

“It will be important for the Stein campaign and the Democratic Party to let people know who Mark Robinson is,” Cooper said.

Sam Newton, a spokesperson for the Democratic Governors Association — which will spend in the general election but didn’t endorse in the primary — added that Democrats are planning a full-court press in painting Robinson as “divisive, extreme and dangerous.”

“There’s just been a very divisive, chaotic, hateful focus from him,” he said.

In an interview, Stein said he’d make abortion rights a “central issue” of his campaign, adding that North Carolina voters will have a “crystal clear” choice between “someone who fights for them, or someone who fights the culture wars.”

Robinson campaign spokesperson Michael Lonergan said in a statement to NBC News that Robinson supported legislation restricting abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detected and didn’t respond to questions about the candidate’s other controversial remarks.

Sharing the ballot with Biden could challenge Stein

For Stein, sharing a ballot with an unpopular Biden in a state that Donald Trump has won twice could prove tricky. And it’s a challenge Republicans are already looking to exploit.

“We know it’s going to be an issue for him and it’s going to be awkward,” a GOP strategist involved in the race told NBC News.

Trump endorsed Robinson during a rally in North Carolina on Saturday, calling him “Martin Luther King on steroids.”

“If President Trump is hanging out in North Carolina, guess who is gonna be right there with him — Mark Robinson — and that will be a plus,” the strategist added.

Stein, who did not appear with Biden when he visited the state in January, told NBC News in an interview that he would “certainly” campaign alongside the president when he comes again.

“His agenda is the right agenda for North Carolina,” Stein said. But he added, “the voters of North Carolina understand we’re a state historically that seeks balance and are very comfortable splitting tickets.”

Previewing their messaging on the issue, Lonergan, the Robinson campaign spokesperson, slammed Stein in a statement as “a rubber-stamp for President Biden’s failed agenda.”

Many North Carolina Democrats, however, have urged Stein to embrace Biden, saying that the two candidates could end up enjoying a mutually beneficial arrangement.

“It’s incumbent on Democrats to help deal with his weaknesses — the fact that people don’t know a lot about what he’s done, and the concerns about his age. You’re not going to make that better sort of hiding from it. You’re better off to embrace him,” said Pearce, the Democratic strategist based in Raleigh.

“The other reason to do that is practical,” he added. “Democrats want the Biden campaign to play hard and spend a lot of money here.”

Biden’s re-election campaign has signaled that it is likely to do just that.

“I believe that the president can win North Carolina and he’s going to target it,” said Cooper, who endorsed Stein. “That being said, the governor needs to run his own campaign.”

“I don’t know that they will necessarily differ on issues, but I do know that they’re going to be unified and working to get out and vote for progress for North Carolina and against two very extreme right-wing candidates,” Cooper said.

Split-ticket voters play a unique role

North Carolina political observers point out that the state’s races for governor often buck political trends — and conventional wisdom.

Since 1980, the state, which holds its gubernatorial races in presidential election years, has voted for the Republican presidential candidate in every election but one: Barack Obama in 2008, who won by just 14,000 votes.

Over the same time span, all but two of the governors elected by the state’s voters have been Democrats (James Martin served two terms from 1985 to 1993 and Pat McCrory served one term from 2013 to 2017).

Even in recent cycles, voters have split their ticket in ways that political scientists in the state find baffling.

In 2020, Robinson was elected lieutenant governor, Stein was re-elected attorney general, Cooper was re-elected governor and Trump won the state as he lost his bid for a second term. All but Trump won with more than 50% of the vote.

The extent of that ticket-splitting makes polling in tight races tough to evaluate beyond the fact that the contests will be close, political observers in the state said.

Recent polls show Trump leading Biden by a small margin in North Carolina. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report has rated the race for governor as “Lean Democratic.”

Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College near Charlotte, noted that among the same voters, Robinson outperformed Stein on the 2020 ballot 51.6% to 50.1%, despite Robinson having already accrued a long list of controversial public comments.

“That is the potentially worrisome dynamic for Democrats,” he said.

Those results also revealed, Bitzer explained, a notable number of Trump-Cooper voters whom the Democratic governor was able to keep in the fold. Cooper won 51.5% of the vote in 2020, an almost identical share to Robinson.

“One of the big questions in Democratic Party politics for this race is, can Stein replicate the very successful pattern that Roy Cooper has played: A fairly moderate Democrat who can still play well in rural North Carolina,” Bitzer said.

“What advantage [Stein] may have is indeed Robinson’s rhetoric and a kind of extremism that North Carolinians, generally, tend not to reward, particularly in the race for governor,” Bitzer added.