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North Carolina AG Josh Stein announces 2024 bid for governor, takes aim at likely GOP rival

Attorney General North Carolina
Hannah Schoenbaum
/
AP
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein speaks in favor of protecting abortion access during a news conference at the North Carolina Department of Justice in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022. Stein announced a bid for governor in 2024 on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, with the Democrat pledging to focus on public education, economic opportunity and equality and to provide a sharp contrast with a potential Republican opponent.

Almost two years before Election Day, North Carolina's 2024 race for governor has its first marquee candidate: State Attorney General Josh Stein.

And if Stein and Democrats get what they clearly relish, he will face Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson in the general election.

In his first gubernatorial campaign video, released earlier today, Stein harkens back to 1971 when the law offices of his father Adam Stein, attorney Jim Ferguson, and civil rights leader Julius Chambers were firebombed amid litigation over school desegregation.

"And I learned early on that some things are worth fighting for," Stein said in the video. "No matter the opposition."

But the recollection serves as a setup for what the campaign video portrays as the current threat facing North Carolina residents and voters.

"Today, there's a different set of bomb throwers who threaten our freedoms and our future while some politicians spark division, ignite hate, and fan the flames of bigotry," Stein warns.

Meanwhile, the video shows images, first, of tiki-torch-carrying white supremacists in Charlottesville in 2017, then, insurrectionists storming the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and finally, Robinson appearing with former President Donald Trump and addressing various church congregations.

In excerpted speeches, Robinson can be heard calling homosexuality "filth," and calling abortion a "scourge that needs to be run out of this land."

Longtime North Carolina Republican political consultant Paul Shumaker said Stein and his team were being tactically smart by targeting Robinson because it makes Stein look "more rational, more reasonable, and less liberal."

"A Mark Robinson candidacy is going to open up fundraising opportunities for the Democratic nominee similar to the way those opportunities were opened up in the 2016 cycle for Roy Cooper because of the HB2 issue," Shumaker said.

In 2016, then-incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory who was running for re-election faced backlash from signing the so-called 'bathroom bill' into law. HB2 restricted transgender people from using public facilities corresponding to their gender identity. Ultimately repealed, the law hurt North Carolina's economy and reputation, as the NCAA and NBA pulled events, artists canceled concerts and businesses abandoned expansion projects.

Stein first won election for attorney general in 2016, the same year that Cooper — his fellow Democrat — edged out McCrory for the first of his two terms as governor. Cooper is term-limited and cannot run for a third consecutive term.

Conventional wisdom has long been that Stein would be Cooper's heir apparent, according to Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College. Bitzer said that having won statewide races in 2016 and 2020 as a Democrat, when Republicans otherwise did very well in North Carolina, gives Stein an advantage.

"In terms of capturing the small number of swing voters but getting a base of voters on his side," Bitzer said.

Stein's campaign strategy includes touting his achievements as attorney general, like securing national settlement funds to fight opioid addiction in the state and cracking down on health care practices that engaged in defrauding Medicaid, the federal insurance program for impoverished people.

Like Bitzer, Shumaker said Stein casting himself as a centrist is imperative for him to win over the pivotal bloc of independent voters who decide close races in North Carolina.

"They're conservative on the fiscal issues, they tend to be social moderate to social liberal on other issues, like LGBTQ," Shumaker said of what he called the state's "true swing voters."

While Stein's candidacy was not unexpected, Bitzer said he could still face a primary challenger for the 2024 governor's race.

Rusty Jacobs is a politics reporter for WUNC.