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Dale Folwell's narrow path to victory
To win, he must convince the Republican electorate that competence and electability are more important than charisma and force of will.
After floating his candidacy for the last few months, State Treasurer Dale Folwell announced Saturday that he’s officially entering the race for North Carolina governor. Depending on your point of view, the news came across as either quixotic or heroic.
In any other year, Folwell might be considered a front-runner for the Republican nomination. His principled battles in favor of transparency and fiscal responsibility and gruff, no-nonsense style have made him a folk hero among plugged-in conservatives.
But the path to the Executive Mansion in 2024 runs through Mark Robinson, the powerful-but-polarizing lieutenant governor who has all but locked up the race already, according to polling.
Where Robinson is a rising national star on the right with a YouTube highlight reel but a checkered past, Folwell has been a stalwart of North Carolina conservatism, building a reputation as a principled-but-prickly public servant over three decades in various offices.
While a long shot, that difference could give Folwell a narrow path to the governor’s mansion in 2024. To win, he must convince the Republican electorate that competence and electability are more important than charisma and force of will.
“The root word of governor is to govern, and I am uniquely qualified to be the CEO of the largest business in North Carolina,” Folwell told the Forsyth County Republican Party convention during his campaign announcement, as reported by the Winston-Salem Journal.
Who is Dale Folwell?
Folwell’s life is a fascinating blend of blue-collar values and nerdy policy-wonk chops. He’s authentic in a way few politicians today are — theatrical, but not in a made-for-TV style. When he holds up a huge stack of documents during his stump speeches, you believe that he’s read every single line.
Born in Raleigh in 1958, Folwell soon moved with his family to Winston-Salem, where he grew up and still considers home. He spent time working as a motorcycle mechanic, trash collector and gas station attendant before earning a master’s degree in accounting from UNC-Greensboro. After that, he worked as a certified public accountant and investment manager.
He entered politics in 1993, winning a seat on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board. He served there for eight years before he was elected to the N.C. House.
Most of his tenure there was under Democrat control, though he was pivotal in several legislative efforts, including a rewrite of organ donation laws and creating a system for paying car registration and property tax together. When Republicans took control of the General Assembly, Fowell became House speaker pro tem. He vocally backed Amendment One, the successful campaign to create a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
Folwell lost the 2012 Republican nomination for lieutenant governor to Dan Forest, but was soon tapped for a top position in the Department of Commerce during the McCrory administration. Folwell was first elected state treasurer in 2016, becoming the first Republican to hold the position in more than a century.
In that office, Folwell has been relentless in pursuing policies in the public interest. He slashed hundreds of millions of dollars going to outside investment groups managing state money. He’s vigorously advocated for greater transparency in healthcare spending, decrying the state’s hospitals as “cartels” padding their pockets at our expense.
Earlier this year, Folwell announced the end of the state’s four-decade health management contract with Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, favoring Aetna’s plan for greater transparency and lower costs.
Why Folwell is running
Robinson’s out-of-nowhere 2020 victory in the lieutenant governor’s race immediately penciled him in for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. Current Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, is term-limited and cannot run again.
However, while Robinson has benefited from a groundswell of grassroots enthusiasm, he’s had a harder time courting the party establishment. Robinson’s impassioned speeches on everything from Second Amendment rights to government overreach and LGBT indoctrination fire up the base but don’t show much hope of drawing in suburban and swing voters.
This is fine — and actually an advantage — in a low-information lieutenant governor’s race. But it’s a liability in what is expected to be the highest-profile governor’s race in the nation in 2024. Robinson is widely seen as unelectable in a general election campaign for governor.
Widespread rumors have circulated that General Assembly leaders have begged Robinson not to run for governor and instead seek higher office elsewhere, even offering to carve out a U.S. House district specifically for him. The answer has been a firm no.
So party leaders wanting a candidate with a better chance of defeating presumptive Democratic nominee Josh Stein, the current attorney general, have floated a few other potential names.
One of them is U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, the former state House speaker first sent to Washington in 2014. He’d have plenty of money, but has become increasingly unpopular among Republicans — especially now that he’s trying to carve out a legacy as a bipartisan dealmaker.
Folwell, on the other hand, presents almost the best of both worlds to the political class. He’s widely respected but with strong conservative bona fides. He has a compelling personal story but is largely unknown among the general electorate. He can appeal to the party base but also serve as the “generic Republican” that does extraordinarily well in statewide races.
In his campaign announcement, Folwell said that he’s heard plenty of encouragement to run.
“It’s about conservative principles, and I'm the one who had a track record for following those,” Folwell said, per the Winston-Salem Journal.
How Folwell could win
The most likely scenario is that Folwell finishes with 15% to 20% of the vote in the Republican primary. However, there are still 12 months to go before Election Day, and there’s a lot that can happen between now and then.
For Folwell to have a chance, he’ll have to do the following.
Quickly create an organization
Folwell will need to start building a bigger campaign infrastructure and raising money in a hurry. He entered 2023 with just under $47,000 in cash on hand, according to campaign finance reports, and topped out at about $1.2 million in fundraising in his 2016 campaign for treasurer. He’ll need many times that amount in a race expected to top $100 million in spending.
Robinson, on the other hand, entered the year with more than $2.2 million in the bank and has spent the last year aggressively raising money for the 2024 campaign. Undoubtedly, he also has tens of thousands more emails and phone numbers in his database and a better county-by-county organization, as well.
Folwell has won two statewide races, yes, but he has some catching up to do.
Fine-tune an effective message
While Folwell has a track record of fiscal and social conservatism, he hasn’t strayed very far outside the boundaries of the state treasurer role over the last seven years. He hasn’t publicly shared a view on things like Medicaid expansion, for example. To win the Republican nomination, he’ll need a compelling message to sell.
He has a decent start on this. “The best governor that money can’t buy,” is a working campaign slogan, the Winston-Salem Journal reports. That honestly might be enough to win him the general election, but he’ll likely need a compelling response to Republican hot-button issues like immigration, political indoctrination in schools and abortion to win the primary.
Land major national donors
In any other year, Folwell would likely be the grassroots favorite. But this year, he has slim hopes of peeling away conservative activists from Robinson. So the alternative is to run a more traditional campaign.
Folwell will need to get on TV early to start establishing name ID and building a bigger statewide brand. That could take a significant investment from an outside group, similar to how Club for Growth boosted now-U.S. Sen. Ted Budd in his primary race in 2022.
This is a tall task. Few PACs are willing to get involved in primary battles, and even fewer will back a candidate with such a small chance of winning.
One of the biggest hurdles Folwell will have to overcome is the sense of inevitability that Robinson has in the primary. That makes it difficult to bring in donors, volunteers or even enthusiasm. Securing a few endorsements could help.
If Folwell could claim the endorsement of respected GOP figures like U.S. Reps. Dan Bishop or Greg Murphy, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, or General Assembly leaders like Sens. Ralph Hise, Joyce Krawiec, or Brent Jackson, that would be an important signal that he’s a viable candidate. Folwell should also be on the phone with every county sheriff and all of the law enforcement groups and the State Employees Association of North Carolina who have endorsed him in previous elections.
That will be tough sledding, though. Few of these people are likely to stick their neck out for Folwell against Robinson.
Prep an aggressive unaffiliated voter turnout effort
In North Carolina, unaffiliated voters can choose which primary they’d like to vote in. For Folwell to win, he’s likely going to need to massively expand the pool of voters who will cast a ballot in the March primary for governor. Polling shows that more than 60% of likely Republican primary voters are currently with Robinson. Drawing in unlikely voters might be needed to cut into that lead. Again, a very difficult task.
Pray that nobody else enters the race
Under North Carolina law, you only need a 30% plurality in a primary election to win. I don’t see anybody entering the race that would split Robinson’s votes. However, there are several that would split the non-Robinson vote — making Folwell’s task nearly impossible. If somebody like former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker enters the race, Robinson is all but certain to win the nomination.
If Folwell stands any chance at all, all of these things fall have to fall into place — and he’ll need a few more lucky breaks along the way.
3 things of note
Mark Robinson preps campaign kick-off in April
What's happening: Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson is expected to formally announce his run for governor in 2024 at a rally to be held in Alamance County in late April.
Why it matters: It's not really a secret that Robinson has spent much of the last year prepping for a run for the Executive Mansion. But campaign kickoffs can have a significant impact. They're a key way to introduce yourself to a larger audience and to set the tone for your campaign.
It's a relatively recent phenomenon for North Carolina gubernatorial candidates to stage a large-scale rally to announce their campaign. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest did it in 2019 with a significant effect. If done well, Robinson's kick-off could be an effective way to freeze out potential rivals.
What comes next: Robinson has a big decision to make in terms of what tone will he take during his kick-off speech. Will he go with a softer tone, a la his "State of the State" response earlier this month? Or will he go with a stronger tone, more similar to his stump speech? Whichever way he goes will help dictate the tenor of the race ahead.
Bipartisan bill proposes reduced regulations on builders in exchange for cheaper houses
What's happening: A bill sponsored by both leading Republicans and Democrats in the General Assembly aims to make homes more affordable by reducing regulations on homebuilders who agree to sell a percentage of their properties below market value. Senate Bill 317 would incentivize "workforce housing developments" by making them exempt from most local government zoning laws. The idea is to reduce the costs of building new homes in exchange for less onerous regulations from local governments.
The bill's wording is a bit tricky, but basically, the system goes like this. Developers building on at least 10 acres can get access to the regulation exemption if they agree to sell at least 20% of their homes at a reduced price. Of those 20%, half of them must be priced so that somebody making 80% of the area median income can afford a mortgage for it. This number will vary depending on where you are, but statewide that's roughly $48,000 per year in North Carolina. That would mean the home price is somewhere around $150,000.
The other half of the "workforce homes" can be sold at a price affordable to people making the area median income, or around $60,000 statewide. That home price would be closer to $200,000. The remaining 80% of the homes in the development can be sold at any price.
Why it matters: Affordable housing has long been a major buzzword among local governments, and it's interesting that the General Assembly is wading in. The legislature has generally been reluctant to meddle in the free market, so this feels like a significant departure from that philosophy.
The main reason why the General Assembly has avoided it is because government subsidies can have weird effects. This is especially true when it comes to home prices. How homes are priced is a little different from how traditional consumer products work. It's less dependent on the cost of production and more dependent on demand - generally, a house sells for the most someone is willing to pay for it. You can't really regulate that without completely destroying the real estate market.
So in this case, the results of the workforce development bill may be mixed. I can see this legislation encouraging more "starter home" communities, which could be useful in exurban areas where developers may have avoided building because pricing based on demand can't recoup construction costs.
Closer to urban areas, the results are likely to be a lot worse. Starter home communities are generally the biggest magnets for companies that buy up homes to turn them into rentals. Local governments have decried this trend, as well.
In these areas, the policy also creates an immediate one-time cash transfer to the initial buyer of these homes. They can turn around and sell the home in a year for a much higher price than they bought it for, or refinance quickly and extract the equity. Then the home becomes market-priced like any other. I'm not sure this is what the General Assembly is going for.
What comes next: The bill has attracted some media coverage — the topic of "affordable housing" is a hot one among journalists, too — but has yet to have a public hearing. There are a lot of lobbyists involved in this arena, too, so this feels like the sort of idea that will fall by the wayside in a busy legislative session.
Cooper’s first veto of the year begins first override showdown
What’s happening: Gov. Roy Cooper issued his first veto of this legislative session, red-stamping a bill that would end North Carolina’s archaic pistol purchase permit system. Previously, Cooper had allowed two bills he doesn’t like to become law without his signature, avoiding an override attempt.
The Second Amendment bill passed with three Democratic votes in the House, where Republicans are one vote shy of a supermajority.
Why it matters: This will be the first test of the Republican theory of a “working supermajority” in the General Assembly this session.
What comes next: GOP leaders are likely to attempt an override vote. The result will dictate the tenor of the rest of this session.
1 good idea from another state
Wyoming passes law making it the first state to ban abortion pills
While the Biden administration is seeking to make at-home abortion pills more widely available, the state of Wyoming has passed a law making the prescription, distribution, sale or use of these drugs illegal. There are exceptions in cases of rape, incest or if the mother’s life is in peril. The Wyoming law is currently blocked by a judge’s ruling. Roughly half of all abortions nationally are conducted using these drugs.
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