North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein officially kicked off the state’s 2024 race for governor Wednesday morning throwing his hat in the ring by tweeting out a video that takes aim squarely at N.C.’s current lieutenant governor, and possible opponent, Mark Robinson.
Stein hopes to succeed fellow Democrat Roy Cooper. After two consecutive terms, Cooper will be ineligible to seek re-election. If Stein were to win, he would follow the same trajectory as Cooper, who was attorney general for seventeen years before assuming the governor’s office.
Democrat campaign consultant Brad Crone, president of Campaign Connections, told Carolina Journal in a phone interview that Stein’s announcement wasn’t surprising.
“Josh is getting out early hoping to avoid any type of primary situation whether it comes from his left or whether it comes from the African American base voters,” Crone told CJ. “He’s a very well-respected litigator and attorney. Josh has an impeccable resume, and now his challenge is to go out and sell himself to the people of North Carolina on why he would be a better governor than (Lt. Gov.) Mark Robinson.”
The lieutenant governor, who appears to be the lead Republican candidate for governor, was a target in Stein’s initial campaign ad. In the ad, Stein calls Robinson and his supporters “..a different set of bomb throwers” that “threaten our freedoms and our future.” Stein’s ad shows footage of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 and of Robinson.
“While some politicians spark division, ignite hate, and fan the flames of bigotry. Robinson wants to tell you whom you can marry, when you’ll be pregnant, and whom you should hate,” Stein says in the ad.
Although Stein would appear to be the heir apparent to Cooper, polling released last month shows voters aren’t so sure, with many being undecided.
Stein’s announcement on Wednesday is early compared to past gubernatorial races, as noted Wednesday by Western Carolina University professor Chris Cooper. He points out that relatively recent candidates including Pat McCrory, Roy Cooper, and Bev Purdue kept their powder dry until the fall before the election year. But Stein may have felt like he’s waited long enough.
Stein was born in Washington, D.C. His family initially moved to Charlotte before settling in Chapel Hill. He has degrees from Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Kennedy School of Government. Early in his career, Stein worked for the Self-Help Credit Union in Durham and the North Carolina Minority Support Center. He also worked as a campaign manager and deputy chief of staff for Senator John Edwards from 1997-2000 and was senior deputy attorney general for consumer protection from 2001-2008.
He would become a state senator for District 16 from 2009-2016 before becoming attorney general in 2017. His career in law and politics gives him name recognition that can provide an edge in early polls.
The left-wing non-profit Carolina Forward released early polling in late November that showed Stein leading with 22% of Democrat primary voters favoring him, followed by former secretary of N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Mandy Cohen second (18%), and newly elected U.S. Congressman Jeff Jackson trailing not far behind (12%). Another 39%, however, were undecided, and 9% had another candidate in mind.
“It should be clear that Stein is scared of a primary,” said Conrad Pogorzelski, political advisor, president of Conservative Connections, and former chief of staff for Robinson. “He won his last election by less than 15,000 votes out of the more than 5 Million cast. He is hoping that by creating the narrative that it is him against Robinson, he can avoid a primary against Joan Higginbotham or Michael Regan.”
Among Republicans, Robinson had 54% of respondents in the poll supporting him, particularly in rural areas of the state, as opposed to U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis (20%) and Treasurer Dale Folwell (4%).
“Folwell keeps talking about it, so there could be a primary there,” Crone said. “I don’t see any Republican candidate at this point in time being able to defeat Mark Robinson. He has such a strong lock on his base vote with conservatives, extreme conservatives, and Christian nationalists that I just don’t see anybody being able to break that grip.”
So, what does Folwell think about Stein’s announcement? He appeared on “Good Morning BT” on Charlotte’s WBT Radio Wednesday morning to discuss the State Health Plan. He said he has had concerns with Stein’s actions as attorney general.
“I’ve had concerns with the attorney general and not representing us at the treasurer’s office, and those concerns were true yesterday, they’re true today, and especially tomorrow as it relates to the cartelization of healthcare,” Folwell told hosts Bo Thompson and Beth Troutman. “That’s only one fingerprint on the consolidation of healthcare in the hands of fewer and fewer powerful people. Secondly, I think people are stepping back and asking themselves, why do you have to go out and raise millions and millions of dollars for a job that pays $140,000 a year? What are those people expecting for that money?”
Folwell was alluding to reports that Stein has raised more than $5 million and has nearly $4 million cash on hand for his run for governor. He said a possible announcement from him for a run for governor would come at an appropriate time.
“My name is out there, all over the state about running for governor and you know, just like everybody else, there’ll be an announcement at the appropriate time, Folwell told WBT. “But the main thing is a person shouldn’t apply for a different job when they haven’t done their current one.”
Crone said North Carolina has had plenty of administrators of government over the years but in his opinion the state hasn’t had a visionary since Gov. Jim Hunt.
“North Carolina is begging for another great governor,” he said.
He also said great governors in North Carolina’s history, like John Motley Moorehead, Cameron Morrison, William Kerr Scott, Luther Hodges, and Jim Martin, all of whom made major investments into the state’s infrastructure, especially the road system, built things.
Crone said Robinson has the opportunity to run a campaign that says he will fix state government and make it work better.
“I don’t see the citizens clamoring for any new program right now, but they do want the mental health system to help address the fentanyl problem,” Crone said. “They do want to be able to get an appointment at the DMV without having to wait 90 days. Let’s take what we got and fix it, make it better, and that means the governor has to roll up his sleeves and go to work.”
Crone said another big issue that the next governor or, most likely, the General Assembly, will have to work on is the one of electrical generation and capacity, especially with the thousands of new jobs expected over the next several years. He referred to the rolling blackouts North Carolina residents experienced over the Christmas holidays with Duke Energy.
“I don’t think the governor (Cooper) has any interest in dealing with an energy generation issue the last two years of his term, so it’s really going to rely on the legislature to address that.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated.