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Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson expected to enter 2024 North Carolina governor race

North Carolina Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson is facing calls to resign from elected officials and LGBTQ advocacy groups over comments he made in June in which he criticized teachings in K-12 public schools and likened peoples' sexual orientation to “filth.” In this file photo, Robinson speaks Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021, in Raleigh, N.C.
Bryan Anderson
North Carolina Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson in a photo taken on Aug. 24, 2021.

An expected announcement Saturday will likely give North Carolina's 2024 race for governor a considerable shakeup.

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson — the first Black man to hold that office — has scheduled an event at Ace Speedway in Elon at which he is likely to declare his bid for the state's top office.

The site of Robinson's announcement is not insignificant. The racetrack gained notoriety for defying — and suing the administration of Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat over — state-mandated COVID-19 restrictions imposed at the height of the pandemic.

"I think that fits into a mold of hard conservatism against government interference, against government intrusion, against government telling us what we can and cannot do," said Michael Bitzer, who chairs the politics department at North Carolina's Catawba College, and is the author of Redistricting and Gerrymandering in North Carolina: Battlelines in the Tar Heel State.

Bitzer said Robinson has styled himself as a polarizing political figure similar to what North Carolina has seen in the past, particularly with former U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, an archconservative who fought culture wars over issues like the creation of the MLK Day holiday.

For his part, Robinson has made incendiary church speeches denouncing homosexuality and abortions, and he has not backed down from those positions. According to Bitzer, that won't hurt Robinson in a GOP primary.

So far on the Republican side, State Treasurer Dale Folwell is the only announced candidate for governor. But former Congressman Mark Walker has indicated he might enter the 2024 governor's race. Most recently, Walker unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 2022, but lost in the primary to eventual winner Ted Budd.

In a potential three-way primary between Robinson, Folwell and Walker, Bitzer said he sees contours reminiscent of the 2022 GOP primary for U.S. Senate, in which Budd — endorsed by Donald Trump — prevailed over Walker and former Gov. Pat McCrory.

"Who is the most Trumpian candidate?" Bitzer asked. "For right now, it feels like Robinson has that advantage among the three of them."

But just how far will that advantage go in a general election? Bitzer said that is a crucial question in a state where outcomes hinge on a 3-5% swing vote.

"Will that conservatism play well with the very thin, moderate, middle strain of North Carolina politics where oftentimes statewide elections are determined?" Bitzer asked, referring to Robinson's fiery style and hard-right positions.

Bitzer said Democrats are likely to focus on those aspects of a Robinson candidacy. Indeed, State Attorney General Josh Stein — who announced his bid for governor back in January — went right after Robinson, even though the lieutenant governor had not yet declared his candidacy.

Stein, a Democrat, devoted a chunk of his inaugural campaign video to clips of Robinson making homophobic and misogynistic comments, and said: "Robinson wants to tell you who you can marry, when you'll be pregnant, and who you should hate."

The 2024 governor's race will be for an open seat, since Cooper, re-elected in 2020, is constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term.

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.