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First in Fight: North Carolina braces for a governor’s race that could mirror likely Trump-Biden clash

By Gregory Krieg, CNN

(CNN) — In the Republican corner: a right-wing firebrand with a loyal following to match the loathing of partisan rivals.

For the Democrats: a moderate with a diverse coalition of support, promising to safeguard democracy and what remains of state abortion protections.

The race to become the next governor of North Carolina is likely to mirror the choice facing voters on their presidential tickets in November. Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein are the heavy favorites in their respective Super Tuesday primaries to make the fall ballot, as are former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden.

North Carolina is once again shaping up to be a crucial battleground in 2024. Biden and Democrats are hoping to flip the state, which Trump narrowly won in 2020, while also keeping a grasp on power in Raleigh by passing the torch from term-limited Gov. Roy Cooper to Stein. Stein is viewed by many as a rising star and the party’s last best hope to slow, if not stop, state Republicans’ march.

Few US electorates are as narrowly divided as in the Tar Heel State, where a Republican legislative supermajority – clinched not by voters, but with a turncoat legislator’s dramatic defection to the GOP last year – has been in constant conflict with Cooper over issues ranging from the state’s new 12-week abortion ban to taxes and regulations.

There is not expected to be too much drama on Tuesday when both parties go to the polls for their primaries. Stein is the overwhelming favorite to win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, while Biden is expected to sweep the delegates without any Michigan-style drama. On the Republican side, Trump is again a shoo-in for his third consecutive presidential primary victory in the state, and Robinson is polling ahead of his two rivals for the GOP gubernatorial nod.

Trump on Saturday endorsed Robinson during a rally in Greensboro, calling the lieutenant governor, who is Black, “Martin Luther King on steroids” and a “great, natural speaker.” In a statement, Robinson sought to tie Stein to Biden, ridiculing the “Biden-Stein agenda of the Democrat Party” and declaring, “We need more bold fighters like President Donald Trump.”

North Carolina Democratic Party Chair Anderson Clayton proffered a similar connection between Robinson and the top of the GOP ticket.

“It’s no surprise that the Lieutenant Governor, who seeks a total ban on abortion with no exceptions would receive the endorsement of Donald Trump, who brags about appointing the justices that overturned Roe v. Wade,” Clayton said in a statement. (Robinson has voiced opposition to abortion without exceptions, but his office has said he supports legislation that could ban abortion after a “heartbeat” is detected — but with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.)

‘The left is wrong’

What comes next, though, could be the most hotly contested governor’s race in the country – with a glaring distance between the candidates. Robinson, 55, is a darling of the GOP’s MAGA wing and a regular on the conservative speaking circuit. He brings to the race a reputation for contentious and often bigoted statements, along with a heavy dose of news media criticism.

“The left is wrong. They are wrong on every topic, on every issue,” Robinson said at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month. “They have nothing to stand on, because they do nothing right.”

The media, in Robinson’s telling, ignores the failures of Democratic state leaders and focuses instead on the positions he – and Trump – have taken on divisive political matters.

“Whenever they mention my name, they always mention my name in conjunction with social issues and how I hate everybody,” Robinson said. “According to them, I hate everybody. I hate people who walk and talk and walk upright. I hate people who drive cars. I don’t hate anybody.”

A vocal supporter of expanding gun rights, an issue that helped launch his political career, Robinson is also ardently anti-abortion. At a 2021 March for Life event in Raleigh, shortly after conservative Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the bench, he compared abortion to slavery.

“We allow the murder of the most innocent human beings on Earth, and we do it with impunity,” Robinson said. “If we do not purge abortion from our shores for the cause of life the same way we purged slavery for the cause of liberty, this nation will not continue to stand.”

When it was revealed that Robinson had paid for an abortion for his girlfriend (and now-wife) in 1989, he asserted that it was “because of this experience and our spiritual journey that we are so adamantly pro-life.”

Other comments have hit harder, and have even prompted calls for his resignation. After he described “transgenderism” and “homosexuality” as “filth” in June 2021 in a clip that went viral months later, Democrats from the Statehouse to the White House slammed Robinson.

Faced with those rebukes, the lieutenant governor doubled down.

“The language I used, I am not ashamed of it,” he told Raleigh TV station WRAL that fall. “I will use it in the future because, again, it is time for parents in this state to take a strong stand for their children.”

More recently, old social media posts in which Robinson downplayed the atrocities of Nazi Germany and argued that socialism was a greater, more timely threat drew more condemnation.

“We often speak of the ‘appeasement’ of Hitler. But the biggest ‘appeasement’ of ALL TIME is how we turned a blind eye to the clear and present danger of MARXISM,” Robinson wrote in 2019.

In the opinion of a range of North Carolina political operatives and observers, Robinson’s incendiary rhetoric, paired with his conservative social policy agenda, provides Democrats with a prime opportunity to keep hold of the governor’s mansion should he be the GOP nominee.

Cooper told CNN recently that Robinson’s persona would threaten the state’s growing economy.

“He is a culture warrior. I think North Carolinians have been pretty clear that they don’t want a cultural warrior in the office of governor,” Cooper said.  “I think you’d have a great candidate in Josh Stein and you have a candidate (in Robinson) that would be a disaster for North Carolina” and its appeal to industry with business-friendly tax policies.

Pushing back against GOP gains

Stein, 57, followed Cooper into the state attorney general’s office after Cooper won the governor’s mansion in 2016. Cooper had done the same years earlier, when he succeeded newly elected Democratic Gov. Mike Easley as attorney general in 2001.

Since taking office in 2017, a few weeks before Trump was sworn in as president, Stein has been an active member of an unofficial alliance of Democratic attorneys general from around the country seeking to push back against conservative gains in the courts.

At the end of January, he and colleagues from more than 20 other states filed a brief with the Supreme Court opposing a federal appeals court decision that threatens the availability of abortion drugs.

“No woman should ever have to worry about whether she can get the medication she needs,” Stein said in a statement. “I will continue to do everything in my power to stand up for women’s reproductive freedoms.”

He took similar action in 2018, when the Affordable Care Act came under the high court’s scrutiny, made headlines a year later for suing e-cigarette maker Juul, and, in 2023, was among the more vocal elected critics of the abortion ban passed by the state’s GOP legislative supermajority.

Since entering the race in January 2023, Stein has been preparing for a general election showdown with Robinson – who featured prominently in his campaign kickoff video.

“Robinson wants to tell you who you can marry, when you’ll be pregnant, and who you should hate,” Stein says in the video, shortly after a series of clips showing White nationalists marching on Charlottesville, Virginia; the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot; and a reel of some of Robinson’s most polarizing remarks. “I believe the fights we choose show who we are and determine what kind of state we will become.”

Fast forward to the beginning of this month, days before North Carolina goes to the polls for its primaries, and Vice President Kamala Harris was in Durham – her second trip to the state in 2024 – appearing alongside Cooper and US Treasury Deputy Secretary Wally Adeyemo in the city’s historic “Black Wall Street” district.

Harris, a longtime ally of Cooper – who, she said, noted that this was her 10th visit to the state since becoming vice president – touted the Biden administration’s spending to boost small businesses in the state.

And she wasn’t the only big name to touch down in North Carolina ahead of Super Tuesday. Trump stopped in Greensboro on Saturday, while former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, his last remaining major primary rival, was in Charlotte on Friday and Raleigh on Saturday.

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