Mark Robinson, Josh Stein secure nominations, NBC News projects

Democrat Josh Stein and Republican Mark Robinson have won their parties’ primaries for governor in North Carolina, NBC News projects, setting up a closely watched November matchup between two statewide elected officials that is all but certain to feature many of the themes that will define the national 2024 campaign.

Robinson, the state’s lieutenant governor, and Stein, the state attorney general, had built huge leads in polling and fundraising over their primary opponents.

The stakes will be high in the race to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, as North Carolina is just one of two presidential swing states with races for governor.

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North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, Lieutenant Gov. of North Carolina Mark RobinsonAP/Bloomberg via Getty Images

With Republicans in solid control of the Legislature, a win by Robinson would give the party a trifecta and the ability to move forward with policies such as abortion restrictions and anti-LGBTQ measures.

The race will also feature broad overlap with the presidential contest — an intersection that could prove challenging for Stein.

That’s because Republicans are prepared to tie Stein to President Joe Biden, whose approval ratings are deeply underwater in the state. 

Democrats are eager to paint Robinson as an extremist on reproductive rights, education and LGBTQ issues, and they have already begun using a lengthy paper trail of controversial public statements he has made.

Robinson and Stein have already won election statewide with majorities of the vote. And even though Donald Trump leads Biden in polling of the state’s presidential election, North Carolina voters have for decades displayed a penchant for splitting their tickets in a way that favors Democrats in the race for governor.

The state has voted for Republican candidates in 10 of the last 11 presidential elections, including twice for Trump, who has endorsed Robinson. Over that period, just two Republicans have served as governor.

“Split-ticket voters make the real difference” in North Carolina, said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College near Charlotte.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report has rated the race for governor as “Lean Democratic.”

Democrats have already been attacking Robinson over a litany of past controversial and incendiary statements. Among them are his saying at a campaign event last month that he’d work to eventually abolish abortion rights in the state if he is elected governor.

“We got it down to 12 weeks. The next goal is to get it down to six and then just keep moving from there,” he said.

Even those remarks suggested a moderation for Robinson, who in 2020 said that “there is no compromise on abortion” and that “it makes no difference to me why or how that child ended up in the womb.”

Robinson also recently suggested that transgender women should be arrested if they use women’s restrooms, adding at a campaign event last month that people who “are confused” about their genders should “find a corner outside somewhere to go.” Robinson has also described the LGBTQ community as “filth.”

Opponents also point out that Robinson has slammed public school teachers as “wicked people”; revealed himself to be a full-throated election denier, saying Biden “stole the election”; and cast doubt on whether the Holocaust occurred, calling its existence “hogwash” in 2017 Facebook posts. In 2022, he said he owned assault rifles so he’d be prepared if “the government got too big for its britches.” In other Facebook posts that year, he called the Civil Rights Movement “crap.”

Robinson enjoyed strong support from the same demographic groups as Trump: very conservative voters, white evangelicals and those with no college degrees, according to results from the NBC News exit poll of Republican governor primary voters.

Trump endorsed Robinson over the weekend, calling him “Martin Luther King on steroids.”

Republicans have long been anticipating that Stein would be the Democratic nominee.

Robinson campaign spokesperson Michael Lonergan criticized Stein in a statement to NBC News as “a rubber-stamp for President Biden’s failed agenda.”

“They’ve brought massive failures; unchecked illegal immigration, struggling students and schools, crippling inflation and rising crime and more,” Lonergan said.

Stein did not appear with Biden when he visited the state in January. He said in a recent interview that he would “certainly” campaign alongside the president when he comes again.

But Stein also said, “The voters of North Carolina are very comfortable evaluating the election for president and evaluating the election for governor and making different choices.”

Many North Carolina Democrats have urged Stein to embrace Biden, whose re-election campaign has signaled it will compete seriously in the state. While Trump won North Carolina twice, his margins of victory have been narrow: just 1.3 percentage points in 2020 and 3.7 percentage points in 2016

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