North Carolina Governor: 2024’s Marquee Matchup
May 2, 2023 · 10:15 AM EDT
Mark Robinson’s first campaign rally announcing his run for governor of North Carolina was more notable for what he didn’t say than what he did say. At a racing track in Alamance County last weekend, the Republican lieutenant governor hit on a number of tried-and-true conservative talking points on taxes, education and law enforcement — for the most part avoiding the cultural issues and bombastic rhetoric that have defined his political career.
Robinson is on track to become the Republican nominee in what is likely to be the most competitive gubernatorial contest in 2024. If he becomes the party’s standard bearer, the GOP will be saddled with a candidate known for his inflammatory comments. Robinson has called homosexuality “filth,” echoed anti-semitic conspiracies theories, and said that Christians are called to be led by men rather than women.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper is term-limited, and the open seat leaves Democrats in a more vulnerable position next year. Despite the state’s purple hue, Democrats have held the governor’s mansion for 26 of the last 30 years, interrupted only by Gov. Pat McCrory’s four-year term from 2013 to 2017, and Republicans are eager to regain control.
At the federal level, North Carolina Democrats have struggled over the past 15 years. The party’s last presidential and Senate victories were in 2008, when Barack Obama narrowly won the state and Democratic state Sen. Kay Hagan defeated Republican U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
The stakes in the Tar Heel State are particularly high next year, as Republicans now have super majorities in both legislative chambers after a Democratic lawmaker switched parties last month. And the state will go through yet another round of congressional redistricting this year, a process that now has few guardrails preventing Republican state legislators from drawing a map that could give them the ability to flip as many as four U.S. House seats.
By framing a Democratic governor as the last line of defense against total Republican control, Democrats hope they can hold together the coalition of voters that propelled Cooper to victory in 2016 and 2020.
Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein is a natural successor to Cooper, who also served as the state’s chief legal officer for 16 years before he unseated McCrory in 2016. Stein was widely expected to run for governor long before formally launching his campaign at the beginning of this year.
North Carolina Democrats have quickly coalesced around Stein, who has a slew of endorsements from the vast majority of Democratic state legislators, five out of seven Democrats in the congressional delegation, and two former Democratic governors. He’ll have access to many of the same donors who have backed Cooper, and as of December of last year, Stein had stockpiled $3.8 million for what could be the most expensive gubernatorial contest in the state’s history.
The 56-year-old attorney general has closely aligned himself with the governor, a relationship that goes back more than 20 years, when Stein worked as a deputy attorney general for consumer protection under then-state Attorney General Cooper. Stein then served in the state Senate from 2009 to 2016 as he continued to practice law.
In 2016, Stein narrowly won the race to succeed Cooper as attorney general, defeating Republican state Sen. Buck Newton by less than one percentage point. He won re-election in 2020 by a similar margin against Republican nominee Jim O'Neill.
Democratic strategists believe Stein’s work on issues including the opioid epidemic and the rape kit backlog gives him broader appeal statewide. But his record as attorney general and state legislator will come under significant scrutiny from Republicans as the race heats up. According to one GOP strategist, Stein’s history of recusing himself from cases that he personally disagreed with could be a potential weakness.
The GOP Divide
Robinson’s fundraising prowess and popularity with the Republican base — he spoke at CPAC earlier this year — gives him a strong lead in the primary field. The lieutenant governor had $2.2 million in his campaign account at the end of the year, far more than any of his potential Republican opponents, and he’s garnered endorsements from Sen. Ted Budd and Rep. Dan Bishop, along with a number of state legislators.
The 54-year-old’s political career began five years ago, when he delivered a fiery pro-gun rights speech to the Greensboro City Council that went viral. Robinson, who had worked in furniture factories and owned a daycare with his wife, had no previous political experience when he decided to run in the 2020 lieutenant governor’s race. Facing eight other candidates in the GOP primary (including a former congresswoman and a state senator), Robinson won with 33 percent.
The general election was close, with Robinson defeating then-Democratic state Rep. Yvonne Lewis Holley by a little more than 3 points. Robinson became the state’s first Black lieutenant governor, and he would be the state’s first Black governor if he’s elected next year (and the first elected Black Republican governor in the U.S.).
Though Robinson is the clear favorite, the lieutenant governor won’t have an unobstructed path to the GOP nomination. He’ll face North Carolina state Treasurer Dale Folwell, who announced his gubernatorial campaign in March; former Republican Rep. Mark Walker is likely to run as well.
Folwell, 64, has served as the state’s chief banker since 2017. The certified public accountant and investment adviser got his initial start in local politics three decades ago, when he was a member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education. After serving for four terms in the state House, Folwell ran in the 2012 lieutenant governor race and came in third place in the GOP primary. He’d previously run for state treasurer in 2008, but dropped out before the Republican primary.
Folwell acknowledges the fundraising gap between him and Robinson — the state treasurer only had $47,000 in his campaign account at the end of 2023. “We will never have as much as the other people but we’re going to have enough,” Folwell told Inside Elections. Folwell is still putting together his campaign team and told Inside Elections that he was in the process of interviewing strategists.
Walker, who previously represented a Greensboro-based congressional seat, is expected to announce a gubernatorial campaign this month.
“In a lot of ways, the North Carolina governor’s race boils down to the question, do you want to ‘own the libs’ and spike the football on social media, or do you actually want to win the election?” Republican strategist Tim Murtaugh, who is advising Walker, told Inside Elections.
But Walker’s prospects in a statewide Republican primary aren’t great. The 53-year-old former congressman finished third in the Republican primary for the open Senate seat last cycle with just 9 percent of the vote after raising $1.7 million and spending $2.4 million. He had $23,000 in his federal campaign account at the end of last year.
Some Republicans in North Carolina are holding out hope that they can find a fresh face — preferably someone with the ability to fund their own campaign — who can defeat Robinson in a primary. So far, no one has emerged.
The candidate filing deadline for the March 5 primary is Dec. 15. If no candidate is able to win 30 percent of the primary vote, the top-two candidates will face each other in a runoff.
Early primary polling affirms Robinson’s advantage. Differentiators Data, a Republican firm, conducted a poll in mid-December that showed Robinson leading Folwell by 54 points and Walker by 50 points in head-to-head matchups. At this early point in the cycle, those numbers signal how well-known Robinson is compared to the rest of the potential GOP field.
How It Plays Out
The race to control North Carolina’s governor’s seat is guaranteed to be a top focus for both parties next year — only 11 governors are up for re-election in 2024, and the majority of these contests take place in solidly red or blue states.
Republicans should have a better shot at picking up this seat than they did in 2020, when there was an incumbent Democratic governor. But the same electability problems that plagued the GOP in competitive statewide races across the country last cycle could jeopardize their chances in North Carolina.
Democrats are operating under the assumption that Robinson will win the Republican nomination, setting up a race between two dramatically different candidates. Stein’s campaign announcement video from January anticipates the matchup and contrasts his record as attorney general with Robinson’s comments about women, gay marriage, and abortion.
There are some parallels to the 2016 race that Democratic strategists point to; both contests are likely to feature a Democratic attorney general running in a race defined by divisive cultural issues. That year, McCrory’s support for the “bathroom bill” sunk his popularity as the state faced economic consequences for the controversial law.
North Carolina remains a battleground state at the presidential level, though it slightly favors Republicans. Trump won the state by 3.7 points in 2016 and 1.3 points in 2020. Like Cooper, Stein will likely have to outperform the Democratic presidential nominee.
While he may not have the advantage of incumbency, Stein should glide through the Democratic primary, giving him the ability to stockpile money and avoid the spotlight. Until March, most of the attention will be focused on the GOP’s looming primary fight.
No matter who the nominees end up being, North Carolina will get significant national attention as one of the only competitive gubernatorial elections this cycle.