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Heated North Carolina governor's race ahead with Democrat Josh Stein vs. Republican Mark Robinson

North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson wipes his face after speaking at an election night event in Greensboro, N.C., Tuesday, March 5, 2024. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Democratic attorney general and the Republican lieutenant governor won North Carolina’s primaries for governor on Tuesday, setting the stage for what will be an expensive and high-stakes November contest in a state that the two parties see as a pivotal battleground.

Josh Stein and Mark Robinson, each of whom turned back multiple party rivals, will present stark contrasts for voters in the ninth-largest state’s fall elections. In separate election-night victory speeches, each candidate laid out policy and individual differences and said the other would harm the state's economy if he reached the governor's mansion.

Stein is a longtime member of North Carolina’s political scene, a lawyer with the endorsement of term-limited Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and a long history of consumer advocacy before and during his time as AG.

“We must be clear-eyed about the stakes of this election," Stein told supporters in Raleigh. “We’re at a crossroads and the choice before us: two competing visions for North Carolina.”

Robinson, meanwhile, is a former factory worker who splashed into conservative circles after a 2018 viral speech to his hometown city council catapulted him to lieutenant governor in 2020 and the endorsement of former President Donald Trump.

“The differences could not be more clear,” Robinson said at a Greensboro victory party. “I’m sure the people of North Carolina will make the right choice.”

Both Robinson and Stein are prolific fundraisers, amassing a combined $30 million through their campaign committees since early 2021. Democratic and Republican groups already talking about the seat in November are likely to spend millions more.

Stein, who would be the state’s first Jewish governor if elected, and Robinson — North Carolina’s first Black lieutenant governor and the state’s first Black governor if successful in November — won their primaries convincingly. Stein's top primary rival Tuesday was former state Supreme Court Associate Justice Mike Morgan, while Robinson’s opponents were State Treasurer Dale Folwell and trial attorney Bill Graham.

The North Carolina governorship has been a rare success story for Democrats in a Southern state. While the GOP holds narrow veto-proof majorities in the legislature and controls the state Supreme Court, Democrats have lost only one gubernatorial race since 1992.

The party has scored presidential victories in North Carolina only twice over the past half-century, however, with Trump winning narrowly in both 2016 and 2020. Democratic President Joe Biden is weighing whether to invest heavily for its 16 electoral votes. Stein could be weighed down by Biden’s low poll numbers.

On the other hand, Democrats could use a Trump-Robinson combination atop the GOP ticket to tap into ongoing controversies, especially Robinson’s harsh comments about LGBTQ+ issues, women in Christian leadership and other topics that had his primary rivals questioning his electability. Trump also raised eyebrows when formally endorsing Robinson last weekend at a rally, calling him “Martin Luther King on steroids,” comparing his speaking skills to those of the late civil rights leader.

Stein, a Harvard-educated attorney who managed John Edwards’ successful U.S. Senate campaign in 1998, wants to push Democratic policy preferences that largely follow what was sought by Cooper, who preceded Stein as attorney general. They include more public education spending, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and blocking attempts by Republican legislators to push their rightward agenda.

For Robinson, who said he lost jobs to the North American Free Trade Agreement and entered personal bankruptcy, it was a four-minute speech defending guns rights and lamenting the “demonizing” of police officers before the Greensboro City Council that sparked his political career.

Robinson said if Stein was elected governor, the state would return to times during the Great Recession when Democrats were in charge, the state's economy was foundering and government workers furloughed. Robinson argued Tuesday that Stein couldn't relate to working people harmed by government policies.

“I have an opponent who doesn’t understand what it’s like to be at work, have the boss man come and take you to a room and sit you down and tell you, ‘We’re moving this plant to Mexico, and there’s nothing you can do about it,’” Robinson said.

After being elected lieutenant governor, Robinson spearheaded a task force report alleging that some teachers had assigned young pupils inappropriate reading materials on racism and sexuality. In 2021, he criticized efforts to teach LGBTQ+ issues in sex education, associating gay and transgender people with “filth.” His remarks led to calls for his resignation, but he defended his words, saying he was referring to sexually explicit books, not people.

Stein’s time as attorney general has been marked by efforts to protect citizens from polluters, illegal drugs and high electric bills, and to process untested sexual assault kits. In court, he has opposed Republican efforts to draw redistricting lines favoring the GOP and to further restrict abortion.

The General Assembly last year overrode Cooper’s veto of a bill that reduced the state’s ban on most abortions from after 20 weeks of pregnancy to 12 weeks. Robinson supports an abortion ban after roughly six weeks of pregnancy, with some exceptions, his campaign has said. Many women don’t even know they are pregnant at six weeks.

Stein said Robinson's vision of the state is “bleak and divisive, consumed by spite and hate." On abortion, Robinson “would insert himself into the doctor’s office with women and dictate to them what they must do with their bodies,” the Democratic nominee said.

“You better believe that Robinson’s extreme views would scare away business and good paying jobs,” he added.

Robinson has said making education leaders accountable, teaching students the basics and helping boost business in rural areas are among his policy goals if elected.

In other statewide primary races on Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Jeff Jackson won a three-way race for the Democratic nomination for attorney general. In November, he will take on Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop, the unopposed GOP nominee. Both Bishop and Jackson wanted to succeed Stein instead of seeking reelection to Congress.

In the effort to succeed Robinson as lieutenant governor, Democratic state Sen. Rachel Hunt won the Democratic nomination. Her father, Jim Hunt, was lieutenant governor in the 1970s and later served a record four terms as governor.

Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt was in a tight race with Michele Morrow. GOP Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey won their primaries.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Allison Riggs won her Democratic primary, but Court of Appeals Judge Hunter Murphy lost to District Court Judge Chris Freeman in the Republican primary. Both Freeman and Riggs have general election opponents.

Gary D. Robertson, The Associated Press