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6 reasons why Josh Stein is a weak candidate for governor
But he still might win in 2024
In just three minutes, Attorney General Josh Stein revealed the two-step approach that will consume the next 21 months of his life: Trash Mark Robinson, and try to appear normal.
Stein jumped into the 2024 governor’s race last week with a highly unusual campaign video for what is likely to be a highly unusual race. His message makes a powerful argument for his candidacy — but also reveals his many significant weaknesses.
It also gives significant airtime to somebody who hasn’t even formally announced his candidacy: Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a controversial political dynamo on the right. It’s rare for a gubernatorial candidate to announce this early, but it’s virtually unheard of to open with a direct assault on a political rival.
Should this matchup come to pass, the Robinson-Stein race could very well turn into the kind of bruising, nasty campaign that will still be studied and analyzed in history classes 50 years from now, alongside those waged between U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt and Harvey Gantt.
Analyzing Josh Stein’s campaign intro
Stein’s video starts with a quick story about his father, Adam Stein, a civil rights attorney in Charlotte who worked with much-better-known attorneys Julius Chambers and James Ferguson during the 1960s and 70s. The trio’s law office was firebombed in 1971, when Josh Stein was four years old.
Stein immediately pivots, clumsily comparing Robinson — North Carolina’s first black lieutenant governor — to those segregationist arsonists.
"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,” Stein says. He then shows highly edited clips of Robinson speaking to church audiences, calling men to lead and calling homosexuality "filth.”
“Robinson wants to tell you who you can marry, when you’ll be pregnant, and who you should hate,” Stein says, before the music behind him suddenly shifts from ominous to upbeat. “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. And I believe the fights we choose show who we are and determine the kind of state we’ll become.”
The last minute of the video largely consists of supporters talking about his accomplishments as attorney general, then with Stein himself trying to sound unifying.
Josh Stein's strengths
Despite the unusual video, Stein is trying to fit himself into a familiar mold in North Carolina politics. And on the surface, Stein does look like the type of Democratic candidate that’s been successful in years past.
Just like current Gov. Roy Cooper and former Gov. Mike Easley, Stein is a former local elected official and sitting attorney general running for governor. The AG post lends the veneer of being tough on crime, which Democrats must have to be elected statewide. It also helps convey a sense of competence and stability, something the North Carolina electorate values in its choices for governor. Our state is much more willing to send someone who rocks the boat to the U.S. Senate than to the Executive Mansion.
Stein also has a powerful fundraising operation behind him, cultivated over decades by former Gov. Jim Hunt and Cooper. Hunt has endorsed Stein’s campaign.
The media will line up behind Stein as well — just read the news coverage of his announcement — and he'll be a highly scripted, polished and disciplined campaigner, like Cooper before him.
Josh Stein's weaknesses
However, this is where the advantages stop. Stein enters the race as a much weaker candidate than Cooper, Hunt and Easley — and he stands to face an opponent whose strengths contrast markedly with his own. Here are six areas where Stein is vulnerable.
Stein has little grassroots support
The main reason why Stein is entering the governor’s race so early is that he has virtually no grassroots support. He has no loyal constituent group and is in a particularly weak polling position within his own party.
Stein’s entry into the race now could help freeze out potential challengers. But it’s a double-edged sword.
It’s hard to maintain momentum for nearly two years, and somebody like Michael Regan (Goldsboro native, former head of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality who now runs the EPA) or Mandy Cohen (head of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services during COVID) could jump in the race as late as December and immediately garner more interest among the Democratic base.
Stein can be accused of using his office for political posturing
In his campaign video, Stein repeatedly casts himself as a fighter. But questioning who exactly he’s fighting for may prove fertile ground for Stein’s opponents.
Cooper largely avoided political conflicts while serving as attorney general, at least until he had formally entered the governor’s race. But since taking office, Stein has repeatedly refused to enforce state law.
Most recently this includes North Carolina's 20-week abortion restriction, which came back into play after the Dobbs decision. Before that, Stein:
Refused to defend a law that prevents convicted felons from voting before their sentences are complete
Worked to undermine the state’s voter ID constitutional provision
Colluded with liberal activist groups to change North Carolina election law in 2020
As attorney general, Stein is also purportedly the state’s top law enforcement official. However, Stein has done little to stand up for law enforcement officers in North Carolina when they've come under repeated attack from the Democratic Party over the last few years.
Stein is particularly vulnerable to attacks on his liberal record
Stein’s video describes himself as embodying North Carolina values. His record doesn’t really reflect that.
Before running for attorney general, Stein was elected to four terms in the state Senate, where he amassed one of the most liberal voting records in that body. The conservative Civitas Action organization gave him a low “F” rating over his tenure.
He repeatedly voted against tax cuts, against charter schools, against voter ID, against Second Amendment rights, against School Resource Officers and discipline in schools, and in favor of taxpayer-funded abortion to the point of birth.
This is a marked difference from somebody like former Gov. Hunt, whose policy positions were virtually indistinguishable from a modern Republican.
It’s no surprise that opponents would paint a Democratic candidate as too liberal for the state, but Stein is particularly vulnerable to this line of attack.
Successful Democrats have had deep roots in rural North Carolina that have insulated them from these attacks. Cooper and Easley are from Nash County, former Gov. Bev Perdue is from New Bern, and Hunt is from Wilson. Most of them were homegrown UNC or N.C. State graduates, as well.
Stein, however, was raised in Chapel Hill, perhaps North Carolina’s most notoriously liberal city. He earned degrees from Ivy League Dartmouth and Harvard, and then served as the campaign manager for John Edwards when he ran for U.S. Senate. He’s definitely not an old-school centrist Democrat.
Stein could face legal action himself
Stein shows plenty of headlines in his campaign video, touting his accomplishments in helping secure legal settlements as attorney general. But as he runs for governor, Josh Stein still faces potential indictment on criminal charges related to a campaign ad he ran in the 2020 election. He may need to settle, himself.
Shortly before winning by a razor-thin margin, the Stein campaign aired a video ad blaming his 2020 Republican attorney general opponent, Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O'Neill, for a backlog of untested rape kits in his office. However, district attorneys do not have jurisdiction over testing rape kits.
The Wake County district attorney’s office launched a criminal investigation, based on a state law that makes it a crime to knowingly lie to influence an election. In August 2022, a Wake County grand jury recommended an indictment, though this was quickly blocked by a federal judge.
Stein doesn't vigorously defend the ad, instead focusing on First Amendment protections. In short, Stein is fighting for his right to lie. The case is not going away anytime soon. Discovery is set to run through this summer, and the full gamut of appeals could push this through to Election Day.
Funny enough, this is a similar type of legal hot water that Cooper faced earlier in his political career — though it was resolved before he ran for governor. After his first run for attorney general, Cooper was sued by his Republican opponent after Cooper ran a campaign ad accusing him of ethical malfeasance in his law practice. The suit was ultimately settled in 2014, as Cooper plotted his run for governor. Cooper was made to publicly apologize and pay $75,000.
Stein seems to be running a 2020 playbook
At least for now, Stein’s campaign video reveals that he’s trying to run the same campaign playbook that served Democrats in 2020 and 2022. He’ll lean heavily into the abortion issue, while also trying to tie Robinson into the narrative surrounding the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
By 2024, this may prove to be tired and ineffective.
Stein can be perceived as inauthentic
The flip side of a candidate being polished and disciplined is the perception that they are less than authentic. Stein certainly fits the bill. He lacks passion and seems to be stiff and highly poll-tested. Watching his campaign launch video, do you get the sense he truly believes what he’s saying?
How Stein matches up against Robinson
Where Stein is weak, Robinson is strong.
The lieutenant governor has an extremely compelling life story, and nobody doubts the authenticity of his convictions. On the whole, North Carolinians also generally support Robinson's priorities: high-quality education without indoctrination, voter ID, and pro-police, pro-veteran, and pro-Second Amendment stances.
While Stein has laid the groundwork for his bid for decades, Robinson has risen from a furniture factory worker with a Facebook page to the state’s second-highest-ranking official in just three years — mainly by virtue of his fiery, impassioned speeches on Second Amendment rights and social issues. He’s most definitely not a career politician.
However, Robinson’s weaknesses are also Stein’s strengths. Robinson is a wonderful orator but has little to show in the way of policy victories or general administrative competence. Robinson has little nuance, discipline or political savvy. And he’ll have a much harder time raising money for what is likely to be a record-setting $100 million race.
All of this is a big deal. Our state’s electorate has shown they it has different priorities when it comes to federal and state office. At the federal level, North Carolinians want a strong, outspoken leader who's willing to shake things up. You see that in going for President Donald Trump in 2020 and 2016, and by sending Sen. Jesse Helms to office for three decades.
But for governor, voters seem to want a candidate who's a little softer around the edges, someone who projects competence and stability, invests in education and infrastructure, holds down taxes and maintains law and order.
Stein has a clearer path to demonstrating that, even though it’s a bit of a stretch for him. That’s not to say Robinson can’t, but he's got a hard road ahead of him against the onslaught of tens of millions of dollars worth of negative ads he's going to face from Stein and his allies.
4 things of note
Dale Folwell: Republican voters "will have an option" in governor primary
We just discussed the candidates in the 2024 governor’s race as a foregone conclusion, but a lot can happen between now and next March’s primary election.
In interviews on Wednesday, State Treasurer Dale Folwell gave his strongest indication yet that he will throw his hat in the ring and challenge for the Republican nomination for governor. He also outlined a few of the talking points he’d likely use on the stump.
“My name is obviously out there all over the state about running for governor,” Folwell told WBT’s Bo Thompson and Beth Troutman. “Just like everybody else, there will be an announcement at the appropriate time.”
The whole 8-minute segment is worth listening to, but the discussion of Folwell’s gubernatorial ambitions begins at the 4:20 mark. Immediately after that quote, Folwell offered two lines that appear to take aim at both Attorney General Josh Stein and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson.
“A person shouldn’t apply for a different job when they haven’t done their current one,” Folwell said.
Then, former Gov. Pat McCrory entered the studio and offered praise for Treasurer Folwell, calling him a “change agent” who’s willing to step on people’s toes to do the right thing. He contrasted that with politicians who “talk a good game but do nothing.” That’s likely a shot at Robinson.
Folwell then offered an acronym he came up with: “PINO,” or politician in name only. “On Election Day, they peak,” Folwell said. “They never do another thing.”
McCrory agreed: “They make good speeches and do good commercials, but that’s it,” he said. Again, it’s hard not to read that as an indictment of Robinson.
In case you need more evidence, there’s also this, buried in WRAL's coverage of Josh Stein's entry into the governor's race: "Folwell said in a text message after Stein's announcement Wednesday that Republican primary voters 'will have an option' next year."
Does the General Assembly need a "Freedom Caucus"?
I had the privilege of speaking to the Mecklenburg Evening Republican Women’s Club last week, going over the most important things to watch in N.C. politics in 2023. I also talked about the dynamics of the General Assembly, and why we’re likely to see less conservative policies emerge this year with the House needing Democrat votes to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto.
When I finished, I got an excellent question. With the Freedom Caucus wielding power in the U.S. House, extracting numerous concessions from new Speaker Kevin McCarthy — does North Carolina’s General Assembly have a similar dynamic? Are there any state legislators who use what leverage they have to push the state in a more conservative direction?
The answer, for now, is no. There’s been remarkably little dissension within the Republican caucus — at least publicly. But this year, with potential veto override votes hanging by razor-thin margins, there may be more opportunity for individual lawmakers to withhold support to achieve better policies.
State Auditor Beth Wood charged with misdemeanor hit and run after bizarre incident
Axios Raleigh broke the news last week that State Auditor Beth Wood faces misdemeanor hit-and-run charges related to a downtown Raleigh traffic accident. But as more details emerged, the situation only got weirder. Wood was apparently driving her official state vehicle, and managed to get two of its wheels completely off the ground and on top of a parked car, according to 911 calls and other police records. Wood reportedly left the scene with the engine running, but it’s unclear what exactly happened next.
It’s not a good look, for sure. Which is unfortunate, because Wood (a Democrat) has proven herself to be an honest and independent public servant since taking office in 2009. This situation is not necessarily a career-killer, but Republicans may want to start lining up a quality candidate to run for auditor in 2024.
Follow-up on last week's column about Sen. Phil Berger
I got some pushback from the Berger team on Twitter after publishing a column last week saying the Senate president pro tem's opening speech missed the mark. Their criticism was perfectly fair, noting that Sen. Berger did contrast North Carolina's progress with other states, and that his chamber passed bills including a Parent's Bill of Rights in education in the previous session.
These are excellent points, of course. It's also worth recognizing that Berger and his team are the "men in the arena" who must actually work and get things done. I'm simply a man with an opinion on the internet, trying to make North Carolina a better place in my own small way. Leadership can be a lonely place; no matter what you do, it will never be enough.
However, the larger point of last week's column still stands. Conservatives need a leader who can effectively sell a vision to the public and take responsibility for getting it enacted. Simply passing bills in the Senate is not a win. Admittedly, this is a hard role for any legislator to play. But what other choices do we have?
2 good ideas from another state
Pennsylvania school district prohibits political banners, advocacy in the classroom. The policy prevents teachers and other school employees from advocating for “partisan, political, or social policy matters” during school hours, which includes posting banners, flags or signs related to these issues. There are carveouts for when public policy issues are relevant to the curriculum or classroom instruction, and appropriate for the age of the students. The idea is to keep the focus on the curriculum and avoid distractions, according to the policy document. I see no reason why North Carolina couldn’t adopt a similar policy statewide.
Arkansas bill would define drag shows as "adult-oriented" businesses. If passed, the bill would subject inherently sexual drag performances to the same sort of regulations that strip clubs and cabarets must adhere to. These include being prohibited from public property and requiring them to keep minors from viewing the performance. Late last week, the bill was returned favorable from a state Senate committee.
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