Is North Carolina Going to Become Like Ron DeSantis’s Florida?

North Carolina’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper—one of Democrats’ few success stories from the 2016 election cycle—will be termed out of his seat next year, and Republicans are itching to replace him. Enter Republican Mark Robinson, the state’s controversial lieutenant governor who has become known for past homophobic and antisemitic remarks, as well as his extreme views around reproductive rights, and who recently endorsed Donald Trump for president. It’s already looking like it will be one of the most expensive state-level races of the 2024 election cycle, and Robinson could very likely be in a head-to-head contest with Democrats’ top pick, state attorney general Josh Stein. Robinson is currently the front-runner in the Republican primary, against state treasurer Dale Folwell and former House lawmaker Mark Walker. Should he be elected, the purple state could quickly spiral into a right-wing laboratory mirroring Ron DeSantis’s Florida.

In social media posts, Robinson has previously trivialized domestic violence and sexual assault. In one 2017 Facebook post, Robinson wrote, “So if someone beats the bird dog hell of their spouse at the mall….is it still ‘Domestic Violence?’” And in another 2018 post: “So if a woman who ‘transitioned’ into a ‘man’ marries and abuses a man who ‘transitioned’ into a ‘woman’ is it still ‘violence against a woman?’ Will the feminist raise hell over it? I’m asking for a British Cigarette.” Robinson, as seen by the Facebook posts shared with Vanity Fair by liberal PAC American Bridge, also shared memes mocking alleged sexual assault victims of Harvey Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly and their supporters, and of Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. (Kavanaugh denied her allegations.)

He has frequently targeted feminism on social media as well. “Feminism was planted in the ‘Garden,’ watered by the devil, and is harvested and sold by his minions,” he wrote in one post in 2016. Robinson also declared on Facebook in 2017 that “Lesbianism and feminism” are destroying the family; that American feminism is “a bad joke” (2019) and feminists are “as bad, if not worse, than racist”(2016); that any man who refers to himself as a feminist is “about as MANLY as a pair of lace panties”(2017); and that women who breastfeed in public are “shameless attention hogs” (2016). The Robinson campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Robinson rose to prominence in April 2018 after a YouTube video of him defending gun rights went viral. “It seems like every time we have one of these shootings, nobody wants to put the blame where it goes, which is at the shooter’s feet,” Robinson said in the video. His first political campaign was his 2020 bid for lieutenant governor, during which he did draw criticism for previous comments, but he largely embraced the controversy as part of his brand. Now, Robinson is drawing renewed scrutiny from both Democrats and Republicans, who fear that he could turn off more moderate voters. Meanwhile, Democrats are hoping Robinson can be a redux of far-right candidate Doug Mastriano’s failed bid for governor in Pennsylvania.

Gender and LGBTQ+ rights are likely to be key points of contention in the governor’s race. In his campaign launch video, Stein portrayed the governor’s race as a fight for the future of North Carolina. Using footage of Robinson and the January 6 Capitol attack, Stein positioned himself in opposition to “bomb throwers” and politicians who “spark division, ignite hate, and fan the flames of bigotry.”  The clips of Robinson included the lieutenant governor arguing that men are better suited for leadership positions and referring to homosexuality as “filth.” Stein’s video also features footage of Robinson characterizing abortion as a “scourge that needs to be run out this land,” after which Stein says, “Robinson wants to tell you who you can marry, when you’ll be pregnant, and who you should hate.”

It’s possible Robinson’s comments will tarnish his chances in a general election; notably, Cooper eked out a slim victory over Republican Pat McCrory in a bitter 2016 governor’s race that was defined by debates over police brutality and LGBTQ+ rights, namely a bill limiting transgender bathroom rights—issues that have, arguably, increased in their saliency over the years since. To wit: The debate over crime and policing was a key plank of the Republican Party platform in the 2022 midterms; and antitransgender bills have become increasingly commonplace.

“Mark Robinson is the poster child for how not to treat any human being,” Philip Shulman, the spokesperson for American Bridge, tells Vanity Fair. “His venomous views are going to be a drag on his campaign and whomever has the misfortune of aligning themselves with him—including former presidents.”

North Carolina Democrats were delivered a harbinger of what a Robinson victory would look like earlier this week, as state Republicans, who recently gained a veto-proof majority in the legislature after one member defected from the Democratic ranks, overrode six Cooper vetoes in a single day. The bills included farm legislation that could impact wetlands protections, and a bill designed to limit the types of questions job applicants can be asked in the interview process—specifically around political affiliations. Last month, state Republicans enacted a 12-week abortion ban, overriding another of Cooper’s vetoes.

As the race unfolds, North Carolina is emerging as a microcosm of the battles that will likely define the 2024 cycle, from the presidential election to the bottom of the ticket. North Carolina is one of the few remaining purple-ish states, which Joe Biden came within a point and a half of winning in 2020. Notably, Kamala Harris held a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, on reproductive rights on the one-year anniversary of the day the Supreme Court gutted Roe v. Wade, suggesting that the state will be one to watch in the presidential election. But it’s not lost on Democrats that early polling is showing Robinson with a slim lead of less than 1% ahead of Stein—(easily within the margin of error)—indicating that it will be a tight, hard-fought race to the finish.

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