Well, my 2023 predictions are off to a good start. Kevin McCarthy became speaker of the House after a very ugly battle. Now, North Carolina Attorney Josh Stein has announced his candidacy for governor, though a bit earlier than I anticipated.
Stein’s announcement is designed to both clear the field of serious potential primary opponents and define the terms of the 2024 election, assuming Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson is the GOP nominee. According to his press release, Stein already has $4 million cash-on-hand and a list of endorsements that lets everyone know he’s locked up both the political and fundraising establishments in the state. His supporters include leaders from both the past and present including former Governor Jim Hunt and most of the current Democratic Congressional delegation. He’s got law enforcement and mayors. He’s got a strong contingent of African American leaders including former Congresswoman Eva Clayton, former Congressman G.K. Butterfield, Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, and House Minority Leader Robert Reives. He’s not leaving a lot of oxygen for a serious primary contender.
Stein’s announcement video quickly contrasts him with Robinson. Stein sets up the race as a clear choice between those who want a more inclusive society and those who use hate and discrimination to divide the country. He uses images of the bombing of his father’s law office in Charlotte in 1971 when Adam Stein and his law partners, Civil Rights icons Julius Chambers and James Ferguson, were fighting to end segregation in public schools to establish himself as a progeny of the civil rights movement. Then he uses images of Charlottesville and January 6 to imply that the fight is not over and that the sentiments that led to the bombing are alive and well today, exploited by politicians like Robinson.
Stein’s depiction of Robinson is brutal, not because of what the attorney general says about the lieutenant governor, but because of what Robinson says himself. The video uses clips of Robinson making unabashedly hateful, hurtful, and discriminatory remarks. Robinson proudly lets the people of North Carolina know that he will not be a governor of all people and that he believes certain people, especially women and members of the LGBT+ community, inferior and not fit for leadership.
It’s a powerful contrast and establishes the race as a contest between differing values and world views. Stein understands that North Carolina, despite narrowly supporting Trump, has traditionally rejected extremism at the state level. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Democrats held the governor’s office, in part, because Republicans nominated the more extreme of their primary candidates. Their only victory in this century came about when Pat McCrory ran as a pro-business, country club Republican in 2012. Once he let himself be defined by HB-2 and the more extreme legislature, he lost re-election to then-Attorney General Roy Cooper. In 2020, Cooper won re-election relatively handily after Republicans nominated another extreme lieutenant governor, Dan Forest.
Lieutenant governor has proven a difficult office to use as a launching pad for the Governor’s Mansion. The only two lieutenant governors who have moved up in the last 50 years were Jim Hunt in 1976 and Bev Perdue in 2008 and Perdue only served a single term. Dan Forest, Walter Dalton, Dennis Wicker, Jim Gardner, Robert Jordan, Jimmy Green, and Pat Taylor all lost in their attempts to move up. In contrast, two of the four governors in this century, Mike Easley and Roy Cooper, served as attorney general. Both won re-election.
Lieutenant governors have very little power in the state, though Robinson has done a good job of using the position as a bully pulpit, and, man, has he been a bully. Attorneys general, in contrast, have the power to make differences. Stein has established himself as a consumer advocate, voting rights proponent, supporter of clean energy, and somebody willing to hold pharmaceutical companies responsible for the opioid epidemic, all positions that should offer a solid platform for those who believe in platforms.
Finally, Stein’s announcement sets off a flurry as the top three Council of State slots will all be open in 2024, assuming Robinson announces. In addition, if Treasurer Dale Falwell challenges Robinson in a Republican primary, that’s another consequential position that will be open. Commissioner of Labor Josh Dobson has announced that he won’t run for re-election and there’s speculation that Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler may retire as well. Both parties have talented benches right now with lots of experienced legislators who could move up. Watch for crowded primaries even if Stein has done a good job of clearing the field of potential opponents.