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Josh Stein walking a tricky line in NC gubernatorial race

Josh Stein.

An already-tense election is proving even trickier for Jewish candidates to navigate, especially Democrats.

Since Oct. 7, deep divisions have developed within the Democratic Party over the ongoing Israeli-Hamas war and ensuing protests on college campuses. As Election Day gets closer, Democrats are having to walk a fine line among those who have traditionally supported the party but have sharply differing views on the conflict.

There’s no place where that is on display better than in North Carolina’s gubernatorial race. Attorney General Josh Stein would be the state’s first Jewish governor if elected.

Tim Funk has written about all of this for The Assembly, and he joins me now.

Marshall Terry: So, on the one hand, you've got traditional Democratic voters like students and African Americans who are expressing deep opposition to Israel's conduct in the war. On the other, you've got Jewish voters who want to support Israel against Hamas and are seeing a rising tide of antisemitism. How has Stein been walking this tightrope? What’s he saying on the campaign trail?

Tim Funk: Well, I think he's tried to stay above the fray. He's offered nuanced answers about Gaza and the campus protests when asked by reporters. But unlike President Biden, who is in charge of foreign policy and has decided to send arms to help Israel wage war, Josh Stein is running for governor of North Carolina — a job that has little to nothing to do with foreign policy. So, what is he saying on the campaign trail about Israel and Gaza and the campus protest? Not much, really. He's talking, instead about things he wants to do as governor that would affect the lives of North Carolinians.

Marshall, I would add that there's a third group of traditionally Democratic voters who Stein and Biden have to worry about: They're the progressives who would distinguish between Israel, the country and people whom they support, and Israel's far right-wing government, which they don't. And I would point out that all three of these traditionally Democratic groups of voters include Jews. They're not a monolithic population.

Terry: You've covered religion and politics in this state for a long time. Is this one of the trickiest situations you've seen a candidate navigate in these two spheres of life?

Funk: It is very tricky because, yes, Josh Stein wants to stay on message and avoid these no-win fights over foreign policy. But the danger is that, in the heat of the campaign, he could end up getting criticized from all sides — maybe from fellow Jews who think he should be speaking out more for Israel and against the antsiemitism you see in some of the campus protests. And on the other side, there may be young people who might think Stein should be condemning Israel and calling for a ceasefire. Stein can't afford to turn off any of these voters.

Here's the other danger for him and other down-ballot Democrats: If many of these traditional Democrats decide to stay home on Election Day to protest Biden's handling of Israel, guess what? They won't be in the polling booth to vote for Josh Stein.

Terry: Stein’s opponent this fall is Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson. What is his view on Israel and Hamas, and how does that compare to how Republicans overall are criticizing Democrats on this issue?

Funk: Well, days after the Hamas massacre and the kidnapping of Israelis on Oct. 7, Gov. Roy Cooper was on a foreign business trip, so Lt. Gov. Robinson was acting governor for a while. He called a news conference to announce he was proclaiming North Carolina Solidarity with Israel Week and then a month later, Robinson actually traveled to Israel to show support for the Jewish people and the war in Gaza. It was part of this Republican effort in Raleigh and Washington to exploit this Democratic divide on Israel.

The Republicans in Congress and in the North Carolina Legislature have taken a hardline law-and-order stance on the protests. They've also brought up resolutions to support Israel and toughen up the legal definition of antisemitism. Republicans in D.C. have also invited Netanyahu to speak to Congress next month, but the rub for Robinson is that he has a history of spouting antisemitic comments.

Terry: Yeah, how does that history play into this situation? Does it?

Funk: It does. Before he entered politics, Robinson posted a lot of really vile comments on social media, including antisemitic, even Holocaust-denying comments. Clearly, he was hoping that his pro-Israel proclamation and his trip to Israel would make people forget all these past comments, but they have not. In his speeches. Josh Stein will sometimes remind people that Robinson has denied the Holocaust, but most of the time Stein cast these comments as part of Robinson's habit of hate speech for all kinds of groups.

After he was elected, for example, Robinson called LGBT people filth. Stein has put much more of a spotlight on Robinson's very controversial comments opposing abortion; he has a recent ad out where Robinson blames pregnant women for not keeping their skirts down.

Terry: It seems like the Democrats are struggling to hold together an already fraying coalition, with a candidate at the top of the ticket, President Biden, who is trailing in the polls. Still, it seemed like Stein might be in a really good position starting this race, facing Robinson, whom he paints as really extreme. But now the race is rated as a toss-up, right? How much do these divisions over the Israel-Hamas war endanger Stein’s chances in November?

Funk: The Cook Political Report, which is the gold standard among election prognosticators, announced in late May, that it has changed its forecast in the North Carolina governor's race from leaning Democratic to toss-up. My guess is that that had more to do with Trump's lead over Biden in most North Carolina polls. If that continues, will Trump have coattails? Probably depends on the margin of his victory here, but Democrats have often won the governor's race in North Carolina the same year the state voted to put a Republican in the White House. Will that tradition continue in this untraditional year? And, you know, the other issue we haven’t talked about is: How many voters in this southern state will go to the polls and refuse to vote for a Jew, but vote for Robinson, who is African American. We'll see, but the issues 6,000 miles away will play a role, I think.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.