Attorney General Josh Stein on Wednesday launched his long-anticipated 2024 campaign to succeed his fellow North Carolina Democrat, termed-out Gov. Roy Cooper, with a message largely focused on the likely Republican frontrunner: Far-right Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson.
After recounting in his launch video how his father’s civil rights law firm was firebombed in 1971, Stein tells the audience, “Today there’s a different set of bomb throwers, who threaten our freedoms and our future while some politicians spark division, ignite hate and fan the flames of bigotry.” That statement is accompanied by footage of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally and the Jan. 6 riot before a reporter is heard saying, “Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson suggested that God calls men, not women, to leadership.”
The video goes on to play clips of Robinson first proclaiming that God “sent David, not Davita, David” to go up against Goliath before he’s shown saying, “homosexuality, any of that filth, and yes, I call it filth,” and “abortion is a scourge that needs to be run out of his land.” Stein reappears and says, “Robinson wants to tell you who you can marry, when you’ll be pregnant and who you should hate. I’m running for governor because I believe in a very different North Carolina, one rooted in our shared values of freedom, justice and opportunity for everyone.”
Stein is the first major candidate from either party to enter what will arguably be the most prominent governor’s race of 2024. The attorney general is hoping to ward off potential primary foes, and he entered the contest with endorsements from two people who had been talked about as contenders, Rep. Jeff Jackson and state House Minority Leader Robert Reives. Also in Stein’s corner are Reps. Wiley Nickel and Deborah Ross, Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles, and Jim Hunt, who completed his second stint as governor in early 2001.
Robinson himself said in 2021 that he was “95% sure” he’d run for the top job, and while he’s set to commit to anything, Stein is far from the only Tar Heel State politico who is anticipating he’ll run. The lieutenant governor may have some primary opposition, as state Treasurer Dale Folwell reiterated his interest Wednesday when he predicted that GOP voters “will have an option.”
Former Rep. Mark Walker is also reportedly considering even though he took just 9% in last year’s primary for Senate. A December survey from Differentiators Data, a new Republican pollster run by two former state Senate aides, showed Robinson destroying Folwell and Walker 60-6 and 58-6, respectively.
If a Stein-Robinson matchup does come to pass as the attorney general expects, it will pit two prominent statewide figures against one another. Stein himself sought a promotion in 2016 from the state Senate when he ran for attorney general to replace Cooper, a four-term incumbent who left to successfully challenge Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Stein himself defeated Republican colleague Buck Newton 50.3-49.7 even as Donald Trump was carrying the state 50-46, a result that gave Democrats another bright spot on a terrible night and made Stein the first Jewish person elected statewide.
Stein sought re-election four years later at the same time that Robinson, who had become a conservative celebrity for his 2018 speech protesting the cancellation of a gun show in Greensboro, was campaigning for lieutenant governor. While Trump prevailed 50-49, Stein won another very close race 50.1-49.9 against Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O'Neill after a race where the incumbent ran an ad accusing the Republican of failing to test thousands of rape kits.
That win came as Robinson, who stood by his old anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and transphobic screeds, beat state Rep. Yvonne Lewis Holley 52-48 in a contest where either candidate would have been the first African American elected to the post. Robinson went on to make news over the following years with more bigoted comments, including some of the ones Stein used in his video.
The lieutenant governor just days ago also declared that “abortion is not compatible with this nation, the same way slavery was not compatible with this nation.” This statement came months after Robinson confirmed that his wife underwent the procedure in 1989 just prior to their marriage, saying, “It's because of this experience and our spiritual journey that we are so adamantly pro-life.”
Stein has had a far less turbulent tenure, though O'Neill has continued to cause him trouble even in defeat. The district attorney filed a complaint that cited an obscure 1931 law that makes it a misdemeanor to knowingly run false election ads against an opponent: Stein, who says he stands by that ad’s accuracy, has also defended himself on free speech grounds. A federal appeals court halted the investigation into Stein in August, but the matter remains unresolved.