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GOP’s Mark Robinson under growing scrutiny in North Carolina

GOP’s Mark Robinson under growing scrutiny in North Carolina

Republican Mark Robinson is facing growing scrutiny over his history of controversial comments as he looks to flip the North Carolina governor’s mansion.

Robinson, an ally of former President Trump who serves as the state’s lieutenant governor, won the GOP nomination this week and is headed for a showdown with Democrat Josh Stein in November. If elected, he’d be the first Black governor in state history.

Now that he’s under a bigger spotlight, however, Robinson’s past remarks on topics ranging from LGBTQ issues to civil rights and slavery to women’s issues are drawing fresh criticism and even raising worries among some Republicans that his divisive persona could cost them a winnable race.

“Democrats have been given the greatest messenger against Mark Robinson, and that’s Mark Robinson,” said Paul Shumaker, a North Carolina Republican strategist, who worked on Robinson’s primary opponent’s campaign.

Democrats, for their part, believe Robinson could turn off enough state voters with his words that it could propel Stein to victory as North Carolina’s first Jewish governor.

“Mark Robinson is an in-state mirror to Donald Trump,” said Jess Jollett, executive director of Progress North Carolina. “We are going to work everyday to make it very clear to voters that the choice is stark.”

Robinson rose to prominence in 2018, after giving a speech in defense of the Second Amendment. In his speech, Robinson claimed that law-abiding gun owners are “the first ones taxed and the last ones considered and the first ones punished” when mass shootings happen.

His speech went viral, and soon after, in 2019, he began his campaign for lieutenant governor. He won that campaign, becoming the state’s first Black lieutenant governor.

Robinson has repeatedly flirted with conspiracy theories on the campaign trail, including that Trump won the 2020 election.

He’s also said in a video unearthed by HuffPost that he wishes he could return to a time before women had the right to vote, though Robinson’s defenders say those remarks were taken out of context.

While Robinson did say “I absolutely want to go back to the America where woman couldn’t vote,” he went on to say, “Do you want to know why? Because in those days, we had people who fought for real social change, and they were called Republicans. And they are the reason why women can vote today.”

Trump formally backed Robinson at a rally in Greensboro earlier this week, referring to him as “Martin Luther King on steroids.”

“I think you’re better than Martin Luther King. I think you are Martin Luther King times two,” the former president said.

But it’s not clear Robinson will do well with Black voters.

Since launching his bid for the governorship, Robinson has described Black voters who vote for Democrats as “slaves” and claimed that “so many freedoms were lost during the Civil Rights Movement.”

“Black folks don’t respond to those types of comments,” said Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of Black Voters Matter.

“Folks get highly insulted and highly motivated, even when it’s a Black person making those comments,” he added.

In a statement released to The Hill on Monday, Robinson’s campaign said Democrats are using the race to distract voters from what it said were the party’s failures.

“Joe Biden, Josh Stein and the Democrats are so desperate to distract the voters from their massive failures like unchecked illegal immigration, crippling inflation, and more that they’re relentlessly churning out lies to smear Mark Robinson instead of talking about the real issues of this campaign,” said Mike Lonergan, a spokesman for Robinson’s gubernatorial campaign.

“Democrats’ recent dirty tricks include recruiting one of their deep-pocketed donors and a long-time supporter of Josh Stein to make a low-rent website full of fake clips and outrageous lies; or pushing another pack of lies from far-left HuffPost that was debunked by media outlets & fact-checkers,” he continued. “North Carolina voters are tired of this nonsense and will see right through it when they reject the failed agenda of career politicians like Joe Biden and Josh Stein and elect Mark Robinson governor in November.”

Of the state’s 7.4 million registered voters, 34 percent are Democrats, according to 2022 data from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Seventy-six percent of Black voters are registered Democrats.

Despite Robinson’s identity as a Black man, Albright doesn’t think he’ll do well with Black voters. He points to the disappointment Black voters seem to be expressing with Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who suspended a bid for the White House last year and has since been campaigning for Trump.

“Tim Scott hasn’t been thought of as somebody that was as extreme and controversial as Robinson is, and Tim Scott doesn’t get significant Black votes,” said Albright. “I’m very confident that Black folks are really going to be setting their targets on Robinson and really showing how much he does not speak for us.”

Black voter turnout in North Carolina in 2022 was lower than previous years, with only 41.8 percent of Black voters casting their ballots, according to data from the State Board of Elections. But 92 percent of Black voters supported Gov. Roy Cooper (D) in 2020, according to exit polling from CNN.

Trump will be a big factor in the race, and Democrats plan to tie Robinson and Trump together.

While Democrats haven’t won a presidential election in the state since then-Sen. Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, President Biden’s campaign is hopeful of turning the state fro red to blue.

Women in North Carolina will be targeted by both parties, and Democrats and some Republicans see Robinson as potentially vulnerable.

In addition to his comments on voting rights for women, Robinson is a stanch anti-abortion advocate.

According to a Carolina Forward/Change Research poll released last year, 53 percent of North Carolina women said they were “strongly opposed” to a proposed 12-week ban on the procedure in the state.

Suburban women will be a valuable demographic for both sides. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 won back North Carolina from Obama, partly by winning over suburban voters in Wake and Mecklenburg counties, which make up the greater Raleigh and Charlotte areas, respectively.

Trump failed to win those counties in 2016 and 2020 but still managed to win the state.

“You cannot win North Carolina without white female voters, and given his rhetoric about women, I see no path for him winning a majority of white female voters,” Shumaker said.

“The Biden campaign sees Donald Trump’s embracing of Mark Robinson as a way for them to capture the female vote in North Carolina,” he said.

Not all Republicans are so sure Robinson’s nomination translates into defeat for their party.

“That is way too early to say,” said Doug Heye, a veteran GOP strategist. “So often we like to declare eight months in advance precisely what’s going to happen, without really knowing.”

“We’ve got to go through this process,” he continued. “And the reality is also, he can win. And that sort of gets ignored.”

Heye pointed to Robinson’s strategy of trying to appeal to the state’s blue-collar voters that Trump successfully appealed to and Robinson’s talent as a “passionate speaker who connects well with audiences.”

“[Robinson’s] rhetoric gets him in trouble frequently,” he said. “That’s one of the things that the campaign is going to have to deal with.”

And that fiery rhetoric remains a cause for concern for Republicans such as Shumaker, who recounted predicting last month that Robinson would win the GOP primary and telling Morgan Jackson, a consultant for Stein’s campaign, that it would help his Democratic client.

“I said, ‘Morgan Jackson gets a gift on March the 5th, and his name is Mark Robinson,'” Shumaker said.

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