9 things we learned from Mark Robinson's governor campaign launch
"Vision" will be a buzzword for his campaign, but Robinson has no answer yet to Democrats' most potent attacks
On a blustery, overcast Saturday that turned into driving rain, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson formally kicked off his campaign for governor of North Carolina.
The announcement seemed to be less about making news than savoring the moment and his place in history. Robinson spoke several times about his grandchildren looking at his photo on the mantle long in the future, and how they would remember him.
However, Robinson did use his roughly 35-minute speech at the Ace Speedway in Alamance County (live-stream replay link here) to float a few trial balloons and preview the campaign to come. Here’s what we learned.
1) Robinson has locked up a ton of Republican support.
The campaign rally began with an overwhelming show of force, featuring more than a dozen sitting members of the General Assembly on stage — including Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger. U.S. Sen. Ted Budd and U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop sent endorsement videos.
It’s somewhat unusual for such high-profile party leaders to take such a strong position this early in the cycle. This makes it that much harder for someone like State Treasurer Dale Folwell or former Congressman Mark Walker to get a foothold in the primary.
These surrogates will take on a lot of the task of defending Robinson against his detractors on the right. In Bishop’s endorsement video, he took on the arguments that Robinson will have trouble raising money, that his financial troubles and bankruptcies are a concern, and that he doesn’t have the experience to effectively govern. Bishop quickly brushed them aside and pivoted to
“He is, without exception, the most formidable candidate I’ve ever seen in North Carolina,” Bishop said, “and now he’s ready to become governor.”
Robinson also appears to have assembled a skilled team around him. Shortly after the rally, his campaign dropped an excellent 4-minute campaign video describing his upbringing and encapsulating his message.
2) Robinson will try out the “generic Republican” message, to a point.
Generic Republicans do great in North Carolina politics. That’s how the GOP has swept the last few cycles on the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, and it propelled Budd to victory in 2022.
The majority of Robinson’s kickoff speech followed this script. It’s very obvious when Robinson is reading from a script and when he speaks from the heart, and for the first 15-odd minutes of the speech, Robinson was largely hitting poll-tested generic Republican talking points: lowering taxes, investing in broadband and infrastructure, and supporting community colleges.
It was pretty low-energy, greeted with tepid applause, and it doesn’t come naturally to him. But it’s likely crucial to shoring up institutional GOP support.
3) Robinson’s team will try to channel his bombastic rhetoric into a few key issues.
Robinson’s appeal has largely been built through passionate, no-holds-barred speeches like the one at the Greensboro City Council that launched his political career. He didn’t hit those crescendos often on Saturday, but it seems clear where his political team would like them to stay.
The first is about support for law enforcement. “Far too many elected officials refuse to stand with law enforcement,” Robinson said, getting animated for the first time in his kickoff speech. “They would rather kowtow and run from the media than stand in front of those cameras and declare that we are here to stand up for the men and women in blue who protect us day in and day out.”
The second is a more general anti-big-government sentiment. This has been a large part of Robinson’s messaging for years, and it was an undercurrent throughout the kickoff event, starting with the choice of location. Ace Speedway made news in 2020 for refusing to shut down amid Gov. Roy Cooper’s draconian COVID lockdowns.
The motif that came up time and again during the kickoff event, especially with references to needing politicians who “serve, not rule.”
“It's beyond time that we give government back to the people and listen to them,” Robinson said. “Because the people know what they need. Parents know what they need for their children and their education. Business owners know what they need for their businesses to thrive. Government should provide the protection they need — no more, no less. It's up to the public servants across the state to bring these solutions, and then those public servants, their government, should simply get the hell out of the way.”
4) “Vision” will be a buzzword.
Again and again, both Robinson and his endorsers touted his vision for the state.
“A lot of these issues we are facing are obvious,” Robinson said in his speech. “It won't matter if we don't have a leader with a vision, real simple solutions, and the backbone to implement them."
This is exactly where a gubernatorial campaign needs to be. A candidate for the General Assembly should talk about the pieces of legislation they want to pass. But a candidate for governor should stay at a higher level and talk vision.
What exactly Robinson’s vision is, however, has yet to be fully fleshed out. He alluded to a full platform to be released shortly. The closest he came to describing his vision was with the phrase “destination state for life,” which he used on several occasions — about issues like abortion, as well as caring for veterans. Expect that to be a centerpiece of the platform.
5) Robinson has a novel — and strong — twist on the education issue.
The lieutenant governor has a position on the State Board of Education, which gives Robinson an easier on-ramp to what’s traditionally been arguably the most important issue in North Carolina politics. From the start of his tenure, Robinson has leaned into the issue of indoctrination in schools — something that’s been increasingly resonant since 2021.
Robinson alluded to that issue Saturday: “Parents should teach children about right and wrong and complicated issues. Teachers should be teaching academics,” he said.
But he also tried out a broader education pitch that centers around safety, both for teachers and for students.
Robinson described treating teachers better, paying them as professionals, and eliminating bureaucratic hurdles that keep them from educating more effectively. Then he talked about videos that have circulated showing teachers being assaulted in the classroom and called for a stronger response to prevent these things from happening.
He called for an approach to ending school shootings similar to the national effort to keep airports safe after September 11th.
"We've watched tragedy after tragedy in our schools and done nothing but talk and talk and talk,” Robinson said. “These tragedies continue because we don't attack the central problem — which is protecting our schools from those who would do them harm. We have a lot of talent in our state, and it's inexcusable that we have not already solved this issue."
It’s a compelling way to talk about education, and one that really hasn’t been seen in North Carolina. It will be fascinating to see how it’s received statewide.
6) Robinson will run against the national left — not Josh Stein.
N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein kicked off his campaign for governor focusing almost entirely on Robinson. But Robinson gave Stein not a single mention in his speech Saturday. In fact, Robinson didn’t spend much time on his opposition at all. When he did, he focused more heavily on the national left, particularly tax-and-spend liberals.
This can be a double-edged sword. The national left is unpopular among the statewide electorate and an easy target for Robinson. But Stein and the Democrats want nothing more than to nationalize this race and benefit from millions of out-of-state dollars from political groups convinced that Robinson is some kind of existential threat.
7) Off-script moments may be an issue.
Robinson joked at the beginning of his speech Saturday about his tendency to get fired up and say things that can get him in trouble.
“My campaign guy knows I go off-script all the time. I’ve got this entire speech prepared — man, just turn that teleprompter off,” Robinson quipped. “Just kidding! I’m just trying to give him a heart attack.”
Then toward the end, there may have been an example of him doing just that. As Robinson ramped up toward his closing remarks, Robinson boasted about being the “proud owner of umpteen AR-15s” and appeared to shift off-script.
Almost immediately, his campaign staff hit mute on the live feed video, leaving the sound off for the last seven minutes of his remarks. Audio resumed for a few moments after the speech ended and Robinson began to toss red caps into the audience.
Now, it’s entirely possible that the audio was switched off by mistake, or as a result of some sort of technical difficulty brought on by the steady rain falling on the proceedings. But it’s hard not to interpret what happened as Robinson’s campaign staff being concerned about what the candidate might say.
For what it’s worth, the only quote reported by the media during that interval was fairly innocuous: “The establishment is scared of me because I can't be controlled and I won't be tamed,” he said, as reported by independent journalist Bryan Anderson.
8) Robinson may try to sidestep social issues.
For a candidate whose bread-and-butter is social issues, it was notable how rarely Robinson treaded into those waters on Saturday. He spoke only briefly about abortion, where Robinson appeared to moderate some on his stance. He also didn’t mention LGBT issues at all, save for a brief reference in a video that led into his speech.
“I don't care about the ZIP code you live in, the size of your paycheck, whether you're black, white, straight, or gay,” Robinson said in the video. “None of those things should determine your future or your child's future.”
Both of these will be key attack areas for Stein and Democrats more broadly. Robinson will need to find some way to respond. Sidestepping it entirely works during the kickoff, but not as a long-term strategy.
9) Stein will run exclusively against Robinson, not on his own merits.
We’ve discussed in the past how Stein is a weak candidate for governor. That’s why his strategy will focus entirely on tearing down Robinson — something that became even more clear during and after Saturday’s rally. If Robinson tries to sidestep the social issues, millions of dollars in advertising will try to mire him in them.
WRAL’s coverage of the kickoff almost exclusively focused on controversial statements Robinson has made in the past, and the state Democratic Party used the weekend to launch a website painting Robinson as “too extreme.” Stein posted a video during the rally, as well, saying that Robinson “speaks hate and sows division.”
These primarily focus on abortion and LGBT issues, which Robinson largely avoided on Saturday. It’s a playbook that Cooper used with some success and one that Robinson will need to come up with an answer for in the coming months.
4 things of note
Jeff Jackson embraces far left, damages statewide prospects
What's happening: U.S. Rep. Jeff Jackson is taking a leadership role in the far-left attacks on Tricia Cotham, the Mecklenburg state representative who recently switched from Democrat to Republican. Jackson led a protest-slash-canvass in Cotham's hometown of Mint Hill, telling a crowd that she "deceived" voters, WFAE reports. The event was meant to pressure Cotham to resign her seat.
Why it matters: While Jackson has long courted the "very online" segment of the political left, it's interesting that he's continuing to lean in here rather than try to pivot toward the center. Jackson is widely expected to be a one-term congressman, with his seat first on the chopping block when the General Assembly redraws districts later this year. The next logical step for him would be the attorney general's office en route to the Senate or Executive Mansion, and political observers have all but penciled him in for the race. However, Jackson will likely need to moderate his rhetoric to have a chance statewide instead of in a left-leaning district.
What comes next: Jackson's next step will be one of the biggest questions as we head into 2024. He's a dynamic speaker, solid fundraiser and perhaps the best political communicator in North Carolina. Whether that translates into statewide success is yet to be seen.
Dale Folwell backs medical debt protection legislation
What's happening: State Treasurer Dale Folwell has joined General Assembly leaders like Sen. Joyce Krawiec (R-Forsyth) in backing a bill that would restrict how hospitals can collect medical debt.
Known as the "Medical Debt De-Weaponization Act," Senate Bill 321 would require hospitals to have a clear and publicly available financial assistance policy and help uninsured patients determine if they can qualify for subsidized health insurance. It would also:
Require hospitals to care for people making less than 200% of the federal poverty level for free. That's roughly $29,000 annual income for an individual or $60,000 for a family of four.
Reduce the amount hospitals can require patients to pay out of pocket if they earn between 200% and 400% of the federal poverty level (or $120,000 for a family of four). The most these folks could pay out of pocket to a hospital per year would be $2,300.
Prohibit hospitals from ordering a patient arrested for failure to pay bills, suing them for contempt, foreclosing on their homes or garnishing their wages.
Require hospitals to publish price information online in plain language, including how much is covered by Medicare.
Cap interest on medical debt at 5%.
The state's attorney general would be responsible for enforcing the law. Overall, the law is intended to stop hospitals from "breaking people's kneecaps," Folwell told a Senate committee last week, WRAL reports.
Why this matters: Healthcare pricing and the "hospital cartel," as Folwell calls it, has been one of his top issues during his tenure as state treasurer. Hospitals receive significant benefits from the state, especially tax breaks on their sprawling facilities. They're also largely protected from competition due to the state's onerous "Certificate of Need" laws, which prevent new medical facilities from opening up.
As a generally free-market-oriented person, some of the language in the bill makes me a bit uncomfortable. It takes a heavy hand with how much can be charged and may have the impact of raising health insurance prices significantly if insured patients take on an even greater portion of a hospital's income. However, Folwell has earned the benefit of the doubt on this issue, and the policy is likely informed by his deep investigation into hospital finances.
What comes next: This bill is likely to pass the Senate but faces tough sledding in the House — where Republican leaders have a much cozier relationship with the hospital industry. Should Folwell mount a serious campaign for governor, his work on healthcare will likely be one of his primary issues, and it will be interesting to see how deeply it resonates with the North Carolina electorate.
John Locke Foundation CEO to retire in June; Donald Bryson to take over
What's happening: The CEO of one of the state's most influential conservative think tanks will be retiring at the end of June. Amy Cooke, who joined the organization in January 2020, announced the decision in a column published in Carolina Journal. The leadership transition should be pretty smooth, though: The new CEO will be current John Locke president Donald Bryson, who previously led the Civitas Institute.
Why it matters: The John Locke Foundation is one of the most important and influential sources of fiscally conservative thought in North Carolina, and Cooke's tenure has been one of significant change. The organization merged with the Civitas Institute and doubled down on its publication strategy, hiring more people and revamping its day-to-day media coverage. It's become a must-read for the center-right.
What comes next: I'll be curious to see what changes Bryson brings to the table as the head of the combined organization.
Rep. Brockman introduces bill to add "segregation scores" to school report cards
What's happening: Guilford County state Rep. Cecil Brockman has introduced a bill that would add a "segregation score" to North Carolina's school report cards. This would be a measure of how an individual school's racial makeup compares with its county as a whole.
A school with racial diversity that's roughly equivalent to the county's demographics would receive a high score. A school with demographics that are out of balance — like schools in Charlotte and Greensboro with nearly all-black or all-white populations —would receive low scores.
The bill would also include a score measuring whether the school gives students access to advanced courses, experienced teachers and extracurriculars.
Why it matters: I don't typically comment on bills as they are introduced, instead focusing time only on legislation as it gets closer to reality. However, this bill in particular is getting a lot of attention among the political class.
Brockman is widely considered to be a moderate and one of the potential swing votes in veto overrides. He's one of the three that missed the vote when Gov. Roy Cooper's veto of the pistol purchase permit repeal was overridden, for example. Some are using this newly filed bill as an example of Brockman trying to get back into the left's good graces.
That's possible, but I actually think there's some merit to this bill — and it's also about an issue that the left is largely moving away from. The term "segregation score" is provocative, to be sure, but the metric is useful. There is plenty of evidence to support the fact that diversity within a school is helpful for all of its students, and school districts have done a poor job drawing school boundaries when they have the chance to achieve a better balance.
It's also a fact that some North Carolina high schools in high-poverty areas don't offer many Advanced Placement classes. A bright student in one of these schools simply can't achieve what he or she has the potential to, and that's worth parents knowing about.
What comes next: This bill stands virtually no chance of moving anywhere, and it probably shouldn't without some tweaking. However, it's worth noting that this is a completely different issue from the rise of "Diversity, Equity and Inclusion" offices and critical race theory — and one that it's worth conservatives paying attention to. School choice is an urgent necessity for North Carolina families, but a high-quality traditional public school should be one of those choices.
2 good ideas from another state
Mississippi enacts slate of “culture of life” laws that shore up foster system, adoptions
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves has signed into law a slate of bills that aim to create a “culture of life” in the state, Fox News reports. These include laws that dramatically increase funding for the state’s foster system, create a large tax credit for families who adopt a child, and expand tax credits available for people who donate to pregnancy support centers, which help women in need.
Iowa, Ohio, Tennessee pursue laws making it easy for teenagers to work
With unemployment rates near record lows and job vacancies high, a number of states are pursuing new laws that allow teenagers to work in more types of jobs and at later hours, Governing magazine reports. I haven’t dug deep enough into these laws to pick out ones that North Carolina should copy, but the overall issue is one worth considering. There’s a balance to be reached between protecting children in the workplace and allowing teenagers to earn vital job experience — and money.
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