Opinion: This candidate for governor may just out-MAGA Trump. But can he win in November?

Opinion: This candidate for governor may just out-MAGA Trump. But can he win in November?

Editor’s Note: Douglas Heye, who served as the deputy chief of staff to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, is a GOP strategist. Follow him on Twitter @dougheye. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

I’ve seen plenty of gritty election campaigns in my home state of North Carolina going back to the famously combative 1984 race between conservative Sen. Jesse Helms and his Democratic challenger Jim Hunt.

This year’s governor’s race — between North Carolina’s Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Josh Stein — looks set to match that one in intensity, but not necessarily in a good way.

Douglas Heye - Jeremy Freeman
Douglas Heye - Jeremy Freeman

The election contest is precisely what Republican voters in my home state should not want — a campaign centered around volatile social positions and with far too much attention paid to the GOP candidate’s overblown rhetoric.

North Carolina voters face a choice between two unpalatable options, weighing the Republican candidate Robinson’s outrage du jour against a Democrat whose candidacy is likely to be pulled down by his party’s unpopular incumbent president.

Fresh off the heels of Alabama’s controversial IVF decision, social issues have returned to the forefront of political conversation. That augurs a campaign that will almost invariably focus on over-the-top comments made over the years by Robinson that show he may be too far to the right for many Tar Heel State voters.

Robinson, 55, who would be the state’s first Black governor, is a fiery and charismatic speaker who connects intensely with his supporters, as one could plainly see during his election night victory speech last week. He first came to prominence in 2018, after delivering an electric pro-gun rights speech at a city council meeting in Greensboro that became a viral sensation across the state. He is cut from MAGA cloth and has received the endorsement of former President Trump.

And Robinson almost certainly will feature prominently in every national story on the North Carolina governor’s race because of his fiery rhetoric that admittedly sometimes crosses the line. The national media won’t be able to resist the bait. After all, controversy draws clicks.

Among the many issues likely to be raised during the campaign are his remarks deriding the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, calling it a “communist plot.” In a Facebook post he called the Holocaust “hogwash. He also hopes to bring back HB2, the “bathroom bill,” an unpopular measure, even if voters in North Carolina would rather focus on more substantive policy issues. That 2016 law, which was repealed the following year, required that people use bathrooms and locker rooms in most public places that corresponded to the gender on their birth certificate.

And his remarks on abortion and IVF will also hurt him with women and moderate voters, as new polling from Raleigh-based WRAL shows. CNN reported that he once spoke in favor of a total ban on abortions, with no exceptions, but more recently he has opted not to discuss the matter.

Part of the controversy surrounding his abortion stance has to do with his own history with the procedure: Robinson acknowledged in a 2012 Facebook post having paid for an abortion. After that post resurfaced, he confirmed in a 2022 Facebook video that he and his wife had in fact, terminated a pregnancy years earlier — a decision he says he now deeply regrets.

Much will also be made of his support for a bathroom bill similar to one vigorously defended by Republican former Gov. Pat McCrory. McCrory’s 2016 defeat in his reelection bid against then-Democratic challenger Roy Cooper, our current governor, has been attributed in large part to his support for the unpopular anti-LGBTQ measure, after the law cost North Carolina billions of dollars in jobs and business investment.

What seems certain about this general election campaign is that we will see a steady stream of ads — many with soundbites of Robinson’s own voice — on social issues like abortion, contraception and IVF, the kinds of ads that hurt national Republicans in the 2022 midterms.

But the expected heavy focus on social issues doesn’t mean that the Democrat is guaranteed victory, if the past is any guide.

At a 2016 rally, I watched a crowd applaud my ex-boss, former Sen. Richard Burr, as he told an audience he was standing by then-candidate Donald Trump the morning after the leak of the Access Hollywood tape. Despite the controversy over what was seen at the time as a potentially campaign-ending social scandal, Trump carried North Carolina on Election Day.

Stein, 57, a milquetoast candidate almost engineered in my view not to draw attention, would be the state’s first Jewish governor. He faces a tough challenge this November because of how the presidential campaign is playing out.

Polls so far show Trump beating Democratic incumbent Joe Biden comfortably in North Carolina, with Biden underwater on numerous issues, including the economy, the border and the fentanyl crisis. On those issues and many others, Tar Heel State voters overwhelmingly favor Trump — and that will almost certainly give a big boost to Robinson.

As Election Day nears, the Robinson campaign, the Republican Governors Association and outside organizations will invest significant resources doing everything in their power to link Stein to the unpopular president. Stein, meanwhile, will likely do his level best to keep his distance from Biden.

His website, for instance, mentions his support for North Carolina’s pro hockey team but somehow manages to say nothing about Biden. And Stein was not seen with either the President or Vice President Kamala Harris in their recent visits to North Carolina. Both are planning return visits to the state later this month, but whether Stein appears with either of them publicly is an open question.

Running from Biden for the entire duration of the long campaign season will be more easily said than done, however. Just ask defeated Senate candidate Erskine Bowles, the Democratic candidate opposing then-Rep. Burr in 2004. During Burr’s campaign that year, which I worked on, we bent over backwards to link the Democratic challenger to former president Bill Clinton, for whom Bowles had worked for in the White House.

At the time, the scandal-plagued Clinton was long out of office and was not quite as disliked in my home state as Biden is now. But he was still a decidedly unpopular figure. Burr’s final campaign ad featured footage of Bowles and Clinton together in the White House and might well have been the coup de grace that sealed the race.

North Carolina over the years has been nothing if not a battleground, and it likely will be that again this year. Our governors tend to be Democrats, and our senators, Republican — almost all in closely-fought elections.

It is the third fastest-growing state by population, with much of the most explosive growth taking place in Mecklenburg and Wake Counties, home to Charlotte and Raleigh, respectively. Therapid growth of recent years, some of it coming from blue state transplants, has only helped make election outcomes impossible to predict ahead of time.

In short, our purple state bona fides are irrefutable: In the 2008 presidential election, which Obama narrowly won, North Carolina was the second closest state. It was the third closest in the 2012 election, which was won by Mitt Romney. A Republican has not been elected attorney general in the state since 1896. But Donald Trump carried the state by narrow margins in 2016 and 2020.

With the primaries now over, lots more national media attention will be lavished on this fascinating, hard-fought election battle. That can mean only one thing: Get ready for your close up, North Carolina.

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