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From Haw River to Logan Street
Mark Robinson foreshadows a deeply personal, populist campaign for governor — a throwback to a previous era
Nobody gave him a shot to be elected governor. Charismatic, sure, but too brash, too outspoken, too polarizing, too unsophisticated and — let's face it — too radical. Called a "political accident," his verbal outbursts made the highly educated, upper-class business class downright uncomfortable.
That's bad enough, but he was also running against a major Council of State figure, the well-funded heir apparent to the political machine.
But the same things that made him hated were his greatest political assets. On the campaign trail, he railed against the elites and stood up for the "forgotten people," pushing for better schools and more money for infrastructure and high-speed communication. And he spun a powerful tale of his upbringing that connected with voters and turned them into a devoted grassroots movement.
I'm talking, of course, about Kerr Scott, who pulled off perhaps the biggest upset in North Carolina political history when he was elected governor in 1948.
The Alamance County dairy farmer, known as the “Squire of Haw River” and the leader of a political fanbase known as the “Branchhead Boys,” presents a compelling historical analog to another brash, controversial politician running for governor: Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson.
Unheard of just a few years ago, Robinson has catapulted to the top of North Carolina's Republican Party largely by virtue of his charisma, plain-spokenness and compelling personal story. His selection to deliver the Republican response to Gov. Roy Cooper's State of the State address cemented him in that position and foreshadows an easy path to the gubernatorial nomination early next year.
Like Scott, Robinson represents an unlikely and anti-establishment political story that appeals to everyday North Carolinians. And he just might be able to pull off the same path to the Executive Mansion.
It's not a perfect comparison, to be sure. Scott is considered one of the state's most progressive governors (albeit from a radically different era), comfortable with tax increases and positioning the government as the solution to rural North Carolina's problems as an economic populist. Robinson prefers a more conventionally conservative outlook, emphasizing personal responsibility and family. His populism is more cultural.
But Robinson's path to victory in 2024 likely lies in channeling former Gov. Scott: Focusing on the grassroots, connecting voters to his personal story and channeling populist anger against cultural elites.
'Hardship and victory'
In his 13-minute pre-taped speech last week, Robinson leaned heavily into his personal story. He described his upbringing as the ninth of 10 children on Logan Street in Greensboro, growing up in a household full of poverty, alcoholism and violence. His mother was the story's hero, choosing to reject welfare when her husband died and embrace hard work and self-sacrifice to give her children a better life. The family’s victory meal after she earned her first paycheck was at McDonald’s.
"I'm not a politician who talks about the issues facing our state as someone who doesn't understand them," Robinson said. "In fact, I don't consider myself a politician at all. What I am is a public servant who knows what the people of North Carolina are going through and wants to serve them, and will fight for them. Like my own personal journey, our state has experienced hardship and victory."
He then pivoted to how that upbringing informs his politics, favoring "common-sense" policies: that are largely uncontroversial fiscal responsibility, better and safer schools, well-respected law enforcement officers, low taxes and personal freedom.
It's a common one-two punch with plenty of historical precedent.
Connecting with voters on a personal level has long been a powerful political strategy in North Carolina. Jesse Helms used the slogan "He's One of Us" to help propel him to victory in his first U.S. Senate bid in 1972 against Nick Galifianakis. Helms was running not just against his specific Democratic opponent, but also against the prevailing liberal attitude embodied by presidential candidate George McGovern.
John Edwards wore out the phrase "son of a mill worker" in his campaign for U.S. Senate, and later, president.
More recently, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis used his biography effectively in his 2020 campaign, cutting an ad where he walked through a trailer park and described growing up paycheck to paycheck.
Robinson's story is considerably more resonant — particularly when contrasted with his presumptive Democrat opponent, Attorney General Josh Stein.
Like Gov. Scott's opponent, Stein is the favored son of the current political machine and will undoubtedly have more resources. But he's also much more easily painted as out-of-touch.
Raised in the liberal enclave of Chapel Hill and educated at Ivy League institutions, Stein will have a tough time connecting with ordinary North Carolina voters. When Robinson tells his story like he did in Monday’s speech, he’ll have no problem doing so.
Is a soft, personal touch enough?
So, how does Robinson drive home this advantage? While his State of the State response shows that the tools are there, simply connecting with the people of North Carolina may not be enough to win a high-profile race.
Undoubtedly, Robinson is being counseled to tone down his approach and appear softer. Monday’s speech represented that, though just days before gave a fiery speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
"We must drop our weapons of political war," Robinson says near the end of his speech. "We must come together to work on real solutions to the real problems that we face, to overcome the challenges as we always have, and to celebrate our victories."
The problem is, that image is unlikely to stick. Robinson's natural inclination is to be more combative, and he's at his best when he speaks from the heart rather than off a teleprompter. Plus, Democrats will pour millions of dollars into TV ads playing selected clips of “fire and brimstone” Mark.
Instead, Robinson may be better served channeling his passion into a few core issues that pit the majority of North Carolinians against the cultural elite — things like school choice, education over indoctrination, support for law enforcement, and religious freedom.
A softer tone is unlikely to convince suburbanites and business owners to vote for Robinson — but they don’t have to in order for him to win. Like Scott, Robinson may need to lean into his strengths and his convictions to boost turnout in rural areas and peel off African-American voters increasingly alienated from today's Democratic Party.
To win his race, Kerr Scott put together a coalition of rural families, blue-collar workers and black voters to take the Executive Mansion. He fed his grassroots network, connected personally with all corners of the state and cast himself as a fighter for common people against an out-of-touch political establishment. Robinson has a chance to do the same thing.
It’s not a sure bet. The state and its electorate are both much different today than they were in 1948. Campaigns are different, too. And Kerr’s promises to pace roads and extend telephone lines are far more tangible than what Robinson can offer.
But North Carolina’s political class may find itself dumbfounded in 2024 after another major upset.
5 things of note
Cooper's State of the State: North Carolina is a "green energy destination"
In his final "State of the State" address to the General Assembly, Gov. Roy Cooper focused heavily on environmental policy, while also praising legislators for expanding Medicaid and exhorting them to not cut taxes any further.
You can watch the speech here, but if you can't stand to watch 45 minutes of Roy Cooper talking, you can also read his remarks as prepared here. Here are a few highlights.
Green energy. Puzzlingly, Cooper led off his speech by touting North Carolina as a "clean energy destination," highlighting electric vehicle component manufacturers across the state and the General Assembly-led carbon reduction requirements.
Education spending. Cooper's remarks on education revolved almost exclusively around money. He called for the new state Supreme Court to preserve the order to fund a consultant report recommending some $5.6 billion in additional education spending.
Culture issues. While other states like Florida and Tennessee have taken a more muscular approach to legislation on issues like radical gender theory, critical race theory and other cultural touchstones, Cooper praised the General Assembly for taking a softer touch on many of these issues. He described it as a good way to keep business humming. "I challenge this General Assembly to keep us off the front lines of those culture wars that hurt people and cost us jobs so we can continue our successful bipartisan work," he said.
Steve Troxler considering run for governor
Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler — on paper the most popular politician in North Carolina, by far — is reportedly in discussions about a run for governor in 2024.
Brian Lewis of the Do Politics Better podcast spoke with Troxler this week and asked him if the rumors were true that people were asking him to run for governor. He said, "Well, that is true. In fact, I am thinking it over with my wife. We're talking about it. It's a possibility," as Lewis related it on the podcast.
However, running for Commissioner of Agriculture is much different than running for governor, and he’d face a tough battle unseating Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson from atop the party. Troxler has had a remarkable 20-year tenure but has rarely strayed into non-agriculture issues. Doing so in a gubernatorial primary may not come naturally to him. My gut tells me he’ll stay out of the race.
State spending to jump over next two years
House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger announced last week that they had come to an agreement on spending targets for the next two-year budget that would see state spending increase by over 10%.
While this number seems high, Berger and Moore have earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to spending. Under Republican leadership, the General Assembly has prudently managed taxation and spending, making investments while also paring down personal and corporate tax rates.
Keep in mind, our state is still one of the fastest-growing in the nation, and much of state spending is tied to population. Inflation has also hit our state hard, meaning wages, construction and healthcare are all more expensive than they were two years ago.
Details will be worth watching carefully, of course, but there's no reason to believe the upcoming won't continue our positive trend.
Rep. Moss now opposes Medicaid expansion
The General Assembly's Medicaid expansion bill is progressing quickly through the legislature following the compromise deal earlier this month, but at least one prominent Republican is now saying he'll change his vote to "no."
Rep. Ben Moss of Moore County announced on Twitter that he has changed his mind about the massive expansion of government healthcare.
"I had originally voted for Medicaid Expansion in the #ncga because I care about healthcare access in rural and underserved communities across the state," he wrote. "Now having had more time to review the proposal and solicit feedback from my constituents, I’ve found that this proposal will have the opposite effect in the long run, and it is bad news for my district, our state, and our nation."
Moss, who has announced he will run for Labor Commissioner in 2024, cited the potential impact on the state budget in the future and said focusing on private sector ways to reduce the costs of healthcare is a better solution.
It appears that Moss will have the chance to make good on his stance. Medicaid expansion should return to the House for another vote after clearing the Senate. However, it's unlikely that the vote switch will have much impact -- the House passed the bill 92-22 in the first go-round.
Veto showdown could begin this week
Two bills that Gov. Roy Cooper has vetoed in previous legislative sessions have reached his desk once again. They could provide the first test of whether Republicans actually have a working supermajority or not.
The first is a bill that would make it easier for hotels to evict people for nonpayment. Current law leaves it unclear when people living in hotels gain privileges under landlord-tenant laws, including the requirement for a court process to remove them for failure to pay their tab. The bill would set a line at 90 days, after which hotel guests would gain tenant status. Cooper vetoed a similar bill in 2021. This year, it passed with 83 votes in the House — over the supermajority threshold needed to overturn it.
The second is an anti-rioting bill championed by House Speaker Tim Moore. It would make it a felony for people to participate in riots that lead to substantial property damage or injuries. It also passed with more votes than are needed to override a veto.
Cooper has two options: Veto the bills again, and test whether his political clout remains strong enough to cow his caucus into submission. Or allow them to become law without his signature. Either way, we’ll learn a lot about the state of play in the 2023 session.
1 good idea from another state
South Dakota governor vetoes bill that promotes central bank digital currencies
Gov. Kristi Noem has vetoed an innocuous-sounding bill that would change the legal definition of money to exclude most cryptocurrencies but support something that’s known as a central bank digital currency. CBDCs, as they’re known, are essentially virtual money that could make it easier to settle payments quickly but also give the government unprecedented access to every financial transaction Americans make.
This is an issue that wasn’t on my radar until I came across this veto, but similar bills are currently in the works in statehouses across the country. North Carolina would do well to be skeptical of them.
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