This North Carolina governor’s race will be fraught with drama. With a starker divide between the two likely nominees than the state has seen in modern history, a victory for either the Democrat or the Republican could reverberate across the Tar Heel state for a generation. It’s already causing anxiety in parts of North Carolina. I have my own concerns and uncertainties, which I’ll ramble about here.
The most impressive development in the governor’s race so far has been Josh Stein’s deft consolidation of Democratic support. Despite narrow victories in his two statewide races, Stein has kept intraparty dissension to minimum. The growing consensus for Stein was not foreordained to congeal. Some long-time Democrats, concerned about his small margins of victory and wedded to a traditional approach, have according to Tom Campbel expressed private misgivings about Stein’s candidacy. But these people are mistaken in their belief that a Sanford-Hunt Democrat is the only viable model for Democratic success in the state. In fact, running against Mark Robinson, it will be impossible to evade the divisive issues that old-school Southern Democrats considered their kryptonite. A confident social progressive such as Stein will be better positioned to run against this most unusual Republican.
In a state Democratic Party that depends critically upon Black voters, it’s not surprising that there has been interest in a Black candidate for the state’s highest office. Retiring state Supreme Court Justice Mike Morgan has probed the political waters in the pursuit of this niche. As I have written, a Morgan candidacy would be credible and historic, but he would enter the race as a decided underdog. Josh Stein has built a phalanx of support ranging from Jim Hunt to grassroots progressives, and Mike Morgan would have to light a fire under Democratic voters to win an upset victory. He could, however, do his state a tremendous service by running for Attorney General.
The Republican primary has yielded a mix of boredom and embarrassment. Dale Folwell’s candidacy is bewildering, as the Treasurer was practically ensured a third term in his powerful statewide seat but chose to tilt at windmills instead. He will poll in the low single digits. Mark Walker has, characteristically, put up a more spirited effort, but it’s also been a bit unfocused and I’m perplexed by his strategy. The most direct route for Mark Walker to win the nomination would be to demolish Mark Robinson. But like the hapless pretenders attempting to vanquish Donald Trump, neither Republican challenger is taking a direct stand against the frontrunner, and that will leave him unscathed and undefeated.
The looming presence, the big enchilada, the dominant factor in this race is the Large Fellow from Greensboro. And Mark Robinson is building up baggage like barnacles on a rickety man-o’-war. Since Robinson announced, it’s been reported that he used obscene language to disparage school shooting survivors. He’s seemed to deny the Holocaust. He’s run a sketchy business with his wife that involved redirecting funds from the welfare programs he denounces. This man could absolutely ride the skyrocketing rage of red North Carolina into the mansion on Blount Street, but the nervous should not overthink things when it comes to candidate quality. Mark Robinson carries more downside risk than any gubernatorial candidate in the history of the modern NCGOP.
This race will be a rollicking donnybrook. Robinson’s fire and hate are unprecedented in gubernatorial politics and will define the contours of the election going forward. Josh Stein, the likely nominee on the Democratic side, strikes me as highly underestimated. Democrats are anxious about his narrow victory margins, but the fact is that he won major statewide elections in an era in which no other North Carolina Democrat besides Roy Cooper has managed that feat. The election between Robinson and Stein will determine North Carolina’s trajectory for the foreseeable future. Get ready for fireworks.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.