Why Josh Stein is a weak candidate for governor | Eastern North Carolina Now

By:  Andrew Dunn

In just three minutes, Attorney General Josh Stein revealed the two-step approach that will consume the next 21 months of his life: Trash Mark Robinson, and try to appear normal.

Stein jumped into the 2024 governor’s race last week with a highly unusual campaign video for what is likely to be a highly unusual race. His message makes a powerful argument for his candidacy — but also reveals his many significant weaknesses.

It also gives significant airtime to somebody who hasn’t even formally announced his candidacy: Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a controversial political dynamo on the right. It’s rare for a gubernatorial candidate to announce this early, but it’s virtually unheard of to open with a direct assault on a political rival.

Should this matchup come to pass, the Robinson-Stein race could very well turn into the kind of bruising, nasty campaign that will still be studied and analyzed in history classes 50 years from now, alongside those waged between U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt and Harvey Gantt.


Analyzing Josh Stein’s campaign intro

Stein’s video starts with a quick story about his father, Adam Stein, a civil rights attorney in Charlotte who worked with much-better-known attorneys Julius Chambers and James Ferguson during the 1960s and 70s. The trio’s law office was firebombed in 1971, when Josh Stein was four years old.

Stein immediately pivots, clumsily comparing Robinson — North Carolina’s first black lieutenant governor — to those segregationist arsonists.

"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 says. He then shows highly edited clips of Robinson speaking to church audiences, calling men to lead and calling homosexuality "filth.”

“Robinson wants to tell you who you can marry, when you’ll be pregnant, and who you should hate,” Stein says, before the music behind him suddenly shifts from ominous to upbeat. “I’m running for governor because I believe in a very different North Carolina, one rooted in our shared values of freedom, justice and opportunity for everyone. And I believe the fights we choose show who we are and determine the kind of state we’ll become.”

The last minute of the video largely consists of supporters talking about his accomplishments as attorney general, then with Stein himself trying to sound unifying.

Josh Stein's strengths

Despite the unusual video, Stein is trying to fit himself into a familiar mold in North Carolina politics. And on the surface, Stein does look like the type of Democratic candidate that’s been successful in years past.

Just like current Gov. Roy Cooper and former Gov. Mike Easley, Stein is a former local elected official and sitting attorney general running for governor. The AG post lends the veneer of being tough on crime, which Democrats must have to be elected statewide. It also helps convey a sense of competence and stability, something the North Carolina electorate values in its choices for governor. Our state is much more willing to send someone who rocks the boat to the U.S. Senate than to the Executive Mansion.

Stein also has a powerful fundraising operation behind him, cultivated over decades by former Gov. Jim Hunt and Cooper. Hunt has endorsed Stein’s campaign.

The media will line up behind Stein as well — just read the news coverage of his announcement — and he'll be a highly scripted, polished and disciplined campaigner, like Cooper before him.

Josh Stein's weaknesses

However, this is where the advantages stop. Stein enters the race as a much weaker candidate than Cooper, Hunt and Easley — and he stands to face an opponent whose strengths contrast markedly with his own. Here are six areas where Stein is vulnerable.

Stein has little grassroots support

The main reason why Stein is entering the governor’s race so early is that he has virtually no grassroots support. He has no loyal constituent group and is in a particularly weak polling position within his own party.

Stein’s entry into the race now could help freeze out potential challengers. But it’s a double-edged sword.

It’s hard to maintain momentum for nearly two years, and somebody like Michael Regan (Goldsboro native, former head of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality who now runs the EPA) or Mandy Cohen (head of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services during COVID) could jump in the race as late as December and immediately garner more interest among the Democratic base.

Stein can be accused of using his office for political posturing

In his campaign video, Stein repeatedly casts himself as a fighter. But questioning who exactly he’s fighting for may prove fertile ground for Stein’s opponents.

Cooper largely avoided political conflicts while serving as attorney general, at least until he had formally entered the governor’s race. But since taking office, Stein has repeatedly refused to enforce state law.

Most recently this includes North Carolina's 20-week abortion restriction, which came back into play after the Dobbs decision. Before that, Stein:

As attorney general, Stein is also purportedly the state’s top law enforcement official. However, Stein has done little to stand up for law enforcement officers in North Carolina when they've come under repeated attack from the Democratic Party over the last few years.

Stein is particularly vulnerable to attacks on his liberal record

Stein’s video describes himself as embodying North Carolina values. His record doesn’t really reflect that.

Before running for attorney general, Stein was elected to four terms in the state Senate, where he amassed one of the most liberal voting records in that body. The conservative Civitas Action organization gave him a low “F” rating over his tenure.

He repeatedly voted against tax cuts, against charter schools, against voter ID, against Second Amendment rights, against School Resource Officers and discipline in schools, and in favor of taxpayer-funded abortion to the point of birth.

This is a marked difference from somebody like former Gov. Hunt, whose policy positions were virtually indistinguishable from a modern Republican.

It’s no surprise that opponents would paint a Democratic candidate as too liberal for the state, but Stein is particularly vulnerable to this line of attack.

Successful Democrats have had deep roots in rural North Carolina that have insulated them from these attacks. Cooper and Easley are from Nash County, former Gov. Bev Perdue is from New Bern, and Hunt is from Wilson. Most of them were homegrown UNC or N.C. State graduates, as well.

Stein, however, was raised in Chapel Hill, perhaps North Carolina’s most notoriously liberal city. He earned degrees from Ivy League Dartmouth and Harvard, and then served as the campaign manager for John Edwards when he ran for U.S. Senate. He’s definitely not an old-school centrist Democrat.

Stein could face legal action himself

Stein shows plenty of headlines in his campaign video, touting his accomplishments in helping secure legal settlements as attorney general. But as he runs for governor, Josh Stein still faces potential indictment on criminal charges related to a campaign ad he ran in the 2020 election. He may need to settle, himself.

Shortly before winning by a razor-thin margin, the Stein campaign aired a video ad blaming his 2020 Republican attorney general opponent, Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O'Neill, for a backlog of untested rape kits in his office. However, district attorneys do not have jurisdiction over testing rape kits.

The Wake County district attorney’s office launched a criminal investigation, based on a state law that makes it a crime to knowingly lie to influence an election. In August 2022, a Wake County grand jury recommended an indictment, though this was quickly blocked by a federal judge. 

Stein doesn't vigorously defend the ad, instead focusing on First Amendment protections. In short, Stein is fighting for his right to lie. The case is not going away anytime soon. Discovery is set to run through this summer, and the full gamut of appeals could push this through to Election Day.

Funny enough, this is a similar type of legal hot water that Cooper faced earlier in his political career — though it was resolved before he ran for governor. After his first run for attorney general, Cooper was sued by his Republican opponent after Cooper ran a campaign ad accusing him of ethical malfeasance in his law practice. The suit was ultimately settled in 2014, as Cooper plotted his run for governor. Cooper was made to publicly apologize and pay $75,000.

Stein seems to be running a 2020 playbook

At least for now, Stein’s campaign video reveals that he’s trying to run the same campaign playbook that served Democrats in 2020 and 2022. He’ll lean heavily into the abortion issue, while also trying to tie Robinson into the narrative surrounding the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

By 2024, this may prove to be tired and ineffective.

Stein can be perceived as inauthentic

The flip side of a candidate being polished and disciplined is the perception that they are less than authentic. Stein certainly fits the bill. He lacks passion and seems to be stiff and highly poll-tested. Watching his campaign launch video, do you get the sense he truly believes what he’s saying?

How Stein matches up against Robinson

Where Stein is weak, Robinson is strong.

The lieutenant governor has an extremely compelling life story, and nobody doubts the authenticity of his convictions. On the whole, North Carolinians also generally support Robinson's priorities: high-quality education without indoctrination, voter ID, and pro-police, pro-veteran, and pro-Second Amendment stances. 

While Stein has laid the groundwork for his bid for decades, Robinson has risen from a furniture factory worker with a Facebook page to the state’s second-highest-ranking official in just three years — mainly by virtue of his fiery, impassioned speeches on Second Amendment rights and social issues. He’s most definitely not a career politician.

However, Robinson’s weaknesses are also Stein’s strengths. Robinson is a wonderful orator but has little to show in the way of policy victories or general administrative competence. Robinson has little nuance, discipline or political savvy. And he’ll have a much harder time raising money for what is likely to be a record-setting $100 million race.

All of this is a big deal. Our state’s electorate has shown they it has different priorities when it comes to federal and state office. At the federal level, North Carolinians want a strong, outspoken leader who's willing to shake things up. You see that in going for President Donald Trump in 2020 and 2016, and by sending Sen. Jesse Helms to office for three decades.

But for governor, voters seem to want a candidate who's a little softer around the edges, someone who projects competence and stability, invests in education and infrastructure, holds down taxes and maintains law and order.

Stein has a clearer path to demonstrating that, even though it’s a bit of a stretch for him. That’s not to say Robinson can’t, but he's got a hard road ahead of him against the onslaught of tens of millions of dollars worth of negative ads he's going to face from Stein and his allies.


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( January 23rd, 2023 @ 9:25 pm )
Stein is using the Democrat playbook of attacking the Republican he wants to run against. Conservative State Treasurer Dale Folwell is not only our strongest candidate, but will make the best governor.
( January 23rd, 2023 @ 8:44 am )
( January 23rd, 2023 @ 8:44 am )
We always get the best politicians' money can buy.

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