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In gubernatorial race, Mark Robinson exposes Republican fault lines


by Joe Killian, NC Newsline
March 29, 2024

When Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson won the Republican nomination for governor this month, it set up more than just a battle to November with the Democratic nominee, Attorney General Josh Stein. In many ways, say longtime North Carolina political observers, it set the stage for the inevitable state GOP clash between traditional, socially and fiscally conservative Republicans and former President Donald Trump’s MAGA movement of bombast, vitriol and conspiracy theory.

“This is not a completely new thing,” said Pope “Mac” McCorkle, veteran Democratic political consultant and professor of Public Policy at Duke University. “There are precedents for it.”

McCorkle points to struggles between old-line, New South business Republicans and the more confrontational, race and culture-war fueled politics of Jesse Helms.

History repeated itself in the aughts, McCorkle said, with the rise of “Tea Party” Republicans challenging GOP incumbents, some of them long-serving, in local, state and federal contests up and down the ballot and across the state. These self-styled populist candidates tended to be short on governing experience and long on bluster, condemning both Democrats and fellow Republicans they found insufficiently hardline. They also began a slow but steady embrace of fringe right-wing elements the state GOP once kept at an embarrassed arms-length.

By 2012, when Pat McCrory became the state’s first Republican governor since 1988, the moderate former mayor of Charlotte spent his one tumultuous term fighting with his own party’s majority in the legislature before ultimately being pulled down in large part by controversy over the “bathroom bill,” HB2.

“Without HB2, I think McCrory probably wins another term,” McCorkle said.
Pope “Mac” McCorkle (Image: Duke University)

Left to his own devices and allowed to appeal to the entire state, McCorkle said, McCrory would have been an unlikely face for an accelerating culture war. But in the boundary-pushing GOP arms race that would soon propel Donald Trump from tabloid and reality TV fame to the White House, the divisive politics McCrory avoided for most of his career came to define him.

This year, Republicans swept into office by the initial Tea Party wave more than a decade ago are finding themselves crowded out by new, more radical MAGA GOP candidates or subsumed into their campaigns. For many, the choice of their political lives has become apparent: adapt or die.

N.C. House Republican Deputy Whip Jon Hardister announced his early resignation from the legislature this week after losing the GOP primary for Labor Commissioner to Luke Farley, a Trump-inspired political newcomer who has promised to “Make Elevators Great Again.”

Former Congressman Mark Walker, a Trump loyalist who saw the former president endorse his opposition in several different races in the last few years, dropped out of a potential 6th Congressional District run-off with Trump-endorsed political novice Addison McDowell earlier this month. The reason? Trump offered Walker a job with his campaign to recapture the presidency, clearing the way for McDowell, who will face no Democratic opposition in November.

“It happens with Democrats too,” McCorkle said of intra-party conflicts that tend to accelerate once a party has a solid majority and begins to fight over how to exercise its power. “But right now, in North Carolina, we’re seeing it more with the Republicans.”

The battle has called to mind for some observers the fictional Peter Clemenza’s observation regarding mob wars in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: “This has gotta happen every five years or so, ten years. Helps to get rid of the bad blood.”

A MAGA wave and growing divide

Michael Bitzer, professor of history and political science at Catawba College, said that dynamic has long been obvious and could be coming to a dramatic head this year.

“It has always felt like there has been a growing divide between what I would call the establishment, Chamber of Commerce Republicans — the Thom Tillises and Pat McCrorys of the Republican party — versus what I would designate the MAGA Trump Republicanism,” Bitzer said. Professor Michael Bitzer (Photo courtesy Catawba College)

Robinson and other MAGA-inspired candidates swept Republican primaries this month, after which Trump hand-picked state party chair Michael Whatley to lead the Republican National Committee. As state chair, Whatley worked alongside Robinson with explicitly Christian nationalist groups to bring more hard-right religious conservatives to state office. The state GOP chose Trump-backed Jason Simmons to succeed Whatley as state chair.

It was all enough to lead the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, which has a long history of supporting GOP candidates, to raise a red flag in its statewide newsletter.

“Tuesday’s primary election results were a startling warning of the looming threats to North Carolina’s business climate,” the Chamber wrote in the letter. “While we celebrate the victories of Chamber-backed candidates, many of the races we were watching turned for candidates that do not share our vision for North Carolina.”

Without naming Robinson or any other candidate specifically, the Chamber expressed its concern about “populist candidates” winning so many GOP primaries.

“In many instances, previously unknown candidates defeated sitting legislators and elected officials with stronger qualifications, pristine voting records, and significantly more funding,” the Chamber wrote.

That description certainly fits Robinson, a candidate who is in many ways a culmination of decades of intra-party GOP struggles in North Carolina.

Newsline reached out to the Robinson campaign by phone and email this week, but messages were not returned.

A political unknown whose perspective and persona were forged in social media political fights and right-wing conspiracy forums, Robinson ascended to conservative celebrity through a viral YouTube clip of his fiery pro-gun speech at a Greensboro City Council meeting. When he leveraged that sudden spotlight into a run for political office, he didn’t eye a city council seat, a place on his board of county commissioners or his local school board. Instead, he ran for  lieutenant governor — a position of little actual authority or responsibility in state government, but a high-profile base camp from which to ascend to greater political heights.

State Treasurer Dale Folwell, one of Robinson’s rivals for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, criticized Robinson’s absences from candidate forums and political debates. But he said that was in line with his absences from his few job responsibilities during his one term as lieutenant governor.

“He presided over the Senate, which the constitution says is his number one responsibility,” Folwell said in a radio interview last month. “He missed 90 percent of the votes.”

During many of those absences, the lieutenant governor was instead crisscrossing the state speaking at churches and to conservative groups, building momentum for a gubernatorial run widely seen as inevitable from the day he took office.

As lieutenant governor, Robinson has essentially no record on which to run. He has passed no legislation, shaped no policy and cast no deciding votes. Neither can any of those things be effectively wielded against him. He has, however, amassed a record of culture-war stoking speeches, repeated explanations for a checkered past of political and ethical contradictions, and blisering public criticism of Democrats and fellow Republicans alike.

“This is how he made his mark,” Bitzer said. “It goes back to the Greensboro City Council speech. It goes back to his style of campaigning being deeply ingrained. He feels it has worked for him and it’s oftentimes hard to break out of that approach when you’ve done it a lot.”

Trump, who has endorsed Robinson, is an obvious political influence. Both men, Bitzer said, share a strong sense that their over-the-top rhetoric is a feature, not a bug — even when it pushes the limits and verges into endorsements of violence or predictions of divine retribution for their political enemies.

In a January interview with WBT radio, McCrory, the state’s last Republican governor, called Robinson “Trump on steroids.” Robinson has “no filter,” McCrory said, which can be a strength or a weakness — but he predicted a Stein victory in November.

McCrory is one of a number of prominent Republicans in the state who have yet to endorse Robinson — including Folwell and Robinson’s other GOP primary opponent, Bill Graham. Both men’s denouncements of Robinson as unfit for office and “trying to rise to power through hate” leave little post-primary wiggle room.

North Carolina’s governor’s office may be one of the weakest in the nation — a situation exacerbated by the GOP-dominated legislature repeatedly stripping it of powers it did have. Bitzer and McCorkle agreed, however, that one of its most powerful and important functions is as a face of North Carolina to its own people, the business community and the wider world.

In a crisis, legislative or otherwise, the governor can either unite people or divide them. Robinson’s record as lieutenant governor leaves little doubt which outcome is most likely, McCorkle said.

In 2021, when the COVID-19 vaccine became widely available, the effort to get people vaccinated brought Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, together with state House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, the state’s most powerful Republicans. All three appeared in a video encouraging vaccination as the best method of ending the deadly and economically crippling pandemic.

Robinson responded with a speech in which he said any politician who encourages people to get a COVID-19 vaccine should “be voted out of office.”

Last year, when the legislature finally approved the widely popular expansion of Medicaid after years of political gridlock on the issue, both Democratic and Republican legislative leaders took public bows. Robinson said he was “dismayed” by it and hoped it failed.

Moore and Berger, both of whom have embraced Trump and avoided being felled by MAGA-aligned primary opponents, have nonetheless both endorsed Robinson.

Late last year Robinson, speaking at a Republican party event in Davie County, added his own religious flavor to Trump’s trademark complaints about insufficient loyalty.

“I don’t have to listen to those in my own party who have watched as my back has been whipped by our enemies, who refuse to stand up with me because they’re cowards,” Robinson told the crowd. “I don’t have to worry about it because one day, Jesus Christ is going to ride back to this earth on that white horse. When he does, he’s going to bring his vengeance.”

That sort of combative rhetoric, landing blows on political foes and allies alike, might succeed in a primary. But even many of Robinson’s fellow Republicans doubt how well it will play in a statewide general election.

“I think going into November, we always have to remember that in modern general elections the margin of victory is on the knife’s edge,” Bitzer said. “You’ve got such a slim percentage of a general electorate that is potential swing persuadables.”

“If you alienate that small swing voter set, you’re probably going to lose,” Bitzer said. “But it’s within four points at the max, probably. The way I read the North Carolina general electorate now, both sides have got 46% or 47% of the vote locked up. That’s done. You don’t have to persuade them, you just have to mobilize them.”

The question this cycle, Bitzer said, is what becomes of the 5 to 6 percent of the electorate who voted for Trump for president in 2020 but also voted for Cooper for governor. “The question in my mind is, is this the year we see the absolute demise of those swing voters, that we will basically have straight party voting? I think that that’s a more likely than not probability.”

That makes mobilizing the base on which you can count a priority, Bitzer said, and could lead Republicans to conclude Robinson’s brawling style of political rhetoric is what will get the job done. That could be a miscalculation, he said.

“The rhetoric will certainly mobilize, but it will mobilize on both sides,” Bitzer said, potentially driving Democrats and moderate unaffiliated voters to the polls in opposition to Robinson as much as in support of Stein.

Some Republicans are hoping Robinson’s status as the state’s highest-ranking Black elected official will give a state GOP new inroads with Black voters, with whom they have traditionally struggled.

In a state with just one Black Republican lawmaker, Bitzer said that seems unlikely.

“I need to see evidence, more polling,” Bitzer said. “But if you are looking for a fundamental racial realignment in this state? I don’t see him doing it.”

“Somebody they can use”

In Robinson’s hometown of Greensboro, Melvin “Skip” Alston isn’t shy about his assessment of Robinson.

“When you look at it from an African-American standpoint, our philosophy is, ‘All skinfolks are not kinfolks,’” Alston said.

Alston, a Democrat, has been a fixture in Piedmont Triad politics and Black political life in the state for decades. He’s the current chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, a past president of the state NAACP and an executive board member of its Greensboro branch. With former state House member Earl Jones, Alston co-founded the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in downtown Greensboro, at the site of the Woolworth’s at which four N.C. A&T students desegregated a whites-only lunch counter in 1960 and ignited the sit-in movement.
Melvin “Skip” Alston (Image: Guilford County)

Robinson didn’t bother to visit the museum until last year, Alston said, when his gubernatorial campaign led him to try to atone for past demeaning statements about the American Civil Rights movement. Robinson, who grew up in a city heavily identified with the movement, has called it a communist plot to subvert free choice and capitalism, characterized the Woolworth’s sit-in as “a ridiculous premise” and called the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. both a communist and “ersatz pastor.”

Those comments weren’t anomalies. Robinson has also blamed Africans for the Transatlantic slave trade, has said he doesn’t want to be considered part of the African-American community, and that Planned Parenthood and “Black gang murderers” are more evil than the Ku Klux Klan.

The museum granted Robinson’s request to tour the museum, which he turned into a media event. But they denied his request to do a press conference inside the museum, Alston said.

“I was there to make sure they didn’t make a mockery of his visit for the museum,” Alston said.

In the mouths of white Republican politicians, comments like Robinson’s would be politically disqualifying, Alston said — which explains his popularity with the GOP.

“I think [white Republicans] saw somebody that they can use,” Alston said of Robinson. “He can say the words that they can’t say. They say, ‘Look, this guy, he’s saying everything that we want to say, but we can’t say. He’s for us, but he looks like them.’ They’re using him, basically, for his color. And he knows that, but at the same time he’s living it up on that.”

“I do not see him as being our next governor,” Alston said. “It would be a disaster not just for African-Americans but for all North Carolinians.”

Jelani Favors is a history professor at N.C. A&T University and author of the award-winning book “Shelter in a Time of Storm: How Black Colleges Fostered Generations of Leadership and Activism.” Dr. Jelani Favors (Image: N.C. A&T)

The way Robinson is now distorting Black history mirrors traditional white supremacist rhetoric, Favors told Newsline this week.

“Mark Robinson is saying things that haven’t been said openly since Jesse Helms and that particular generation of leaders from the Jim Crow era,” Favors said. “What’s tragic is that this is a new trend, this development within the conservative wing of American politics where increasingly we see people leaning upon conspiracy theories, ahistorical ideas and how that’s intensifying rhetoric around racist ideas.”

There has always been a tension in the American Black community between progressive thought and activism and a certain social conservatism nurtured by the church, Favors said. Robinson appears to be exploiting this, he said. But while insults against LGBTQ people may play well with some religiously conservative Black voters, Favors said, insulting icons of the Civil Rights movement and dismissing the impact of structural and institutional racism on Black people in modern America will not.

“I’m sure it’s not lost on anyone, the irony that in North Carolina one of the greatest cheerleaders of these racist ideas is a Black man himself,” Favors said. “And I think that’s incredibly tragic.”

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.