By Andrew Dunn
Nobody gave him a shot to be elected governor. Charismatic, sure, but too brash, too outspoken, too polarizing, too unsophisticated and — let's face it — too radical. Called a "political accident," his verbal outbursts made the highly educated, upper-class business class downright uncomfortable.
That's bad enough, but he was also running against a major Council of State figure, the well-funded heir apparent to the political machine.
But the same things that made him hated were his greatest political assets. On the campaign trail, he railed against the elites and stood up for the "forgotten people," pushing for better schools and more money for infrastructure and high-speed communication. And he spun a powerful tale of his upbringing that connected with voters and turned them into a devoted grassroots movement.
I'm talking, of course, about Kerr Scott, who pulled off perhaps the biggest upset in North Carolina political history when he was elected governor in 1948.
The Alamance County dairy farmer, known as the “Squire of Haw River” and the leader of a political fanbase known as the “Branchhead Boys,” presents a compelling historical analog to another brash, controversial politician running for governor: Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson.
Unheard of just a few years ago, Robinson has catapulted to the top of North Carolina's Republican Party largely by virtue of his charisma, plain-spokenness and compelling personal story. His selection to deliver the Republican response to Gov. Roy Cooper's State of the State address cemented him in that position and foreshadows an easy path to the gubernatorial nomination early next year.
Like Scott, Robinson represents an unlikely and anti-establishment political story that appeals to everyday North Carolinians. And he just might be able to pull off the same path to the Executive Mansion.
It's not a perfect comparison, to be sure. Scott is considered one of the state's most progressive governors (albeit from a radically different era), comfortable with tax increases and positioning the government as the solution to rural North Carolina's problems as an economic populist. Robinson prefers a more conventionally conservative outlook, emphasizing personal responsibility and family. His populism is more cultural.
But Robinson's path to victory in 2024 likely lies in channeling former Gov. Scott: Focusing on the grassroots, connecting voters to his personal story and channeling populist anger against cultural elites.
In his 13-minute pre-taped speech last week, Robinson leaned heavily into his personal story. He described his upbringing as the ninth of 10 children on Logan Street in Greensboro, growing up in a household full of poverty, alcoholism and violence. His mother was the story's hero, choosing to reject welfare when her husband died and embrace hard work and self-sacrifice to give her children a better life. The family’s victory meal after she earned her first paycheck was at McDonald’s.
"I'm not a politician who talks about the issues facing our state as someone who doesn't understand them," Robinson said. "In fact, I don't consider myself a politician at all. What I am is a public servant who knows what the people of North Carolina are going through and wants to serve them, and will fight for them. Like my own personal journey, our state has experienced hardship and victory."
He then pivoted to how that upbringing informs his politics, favoring "common-sense" policies: that are largely uncontroversial fiscal responsibility, better and safer schools, well-respected law enforcement officers, low taxes and personal freedom.
It's a common one-two punch with plenty of historical precedent.
Connecting with voters on a personal level has long been a powerful political strategy in North Carolina. Jesse Helms used the slogan "He's One of Us" to help propel him to victory in his first U.S. Senate bid in 1972 against Nick Galifianakis. Helms was running not just against his specific Democratic opponent, but also against the prevailing liberal attitude embodied by presidential candidate Humbert Humphrey.
John Edwards wore out the phrase "son of a mill worker" in his campaign for U.S. Senate, and later, president.
More recently, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis used his biography effectively in his 2020 campaign, cutting an ad where he walked through a trailer park and described growing up paycheck to paycheck.
Robinson's story is considerably more resonant — particularly when contrasted with his presumptive Democrat opponent, Attorney General Josh Stein.
Like Gov. Scott's opponent, Stein is the favored son of the current political machine and will undoubtedly have more resources. But he's also much more easily painted as out-of-touch.
Raised in the liberal enclave of Chapel Hill and educated at Ivy League institutions, Stein will have a tough time connecting with ordinary North Carolina voters. When Robinson tells his story like he did in Monday’s speech, he’ll have no problem doing so.
So, how does Robinson drive home this advantage? While his State of the State response shows that the tools are there, simply connecting with the people of North Carolina may not be enough to win a high-profile race.
Undoubtedly, Robinson is being counseled to tone down his approach and appear softer. Monday’s speech represented that, though just days before gave a fiery speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
"We must drop our weapons of political war," Robinson says near the end of his speech. "We must come together to work on real solutions to the real problems that we face, to overcome the challenges as we always have, and to celebrate our victories."
The problem is, that image is unlikely to stick. Robinson's natural inclination is to be more combative, and he's at his best when he speaks from the heart rather than off a teleprompter. Plus, Democrats will pour millions of dollars into TV ads playing selected clips of “fire and brimstone” Mark.
Instead, Robinson may be better served channeling his passion into a few core issues that pit the majority of North Carolinians against the cultural elite — things like school choice, education over indoctrination, support for law enforcement, and religious freedom.
A softer tone is unlikely to convince suburbanites and business owners to vote for Robinson — but they don’t have to in order for him to win. Like Scott, Robinson may need to lean into his strengths and his convictions to boost turnout in rural areas and peel off African-American voters increasingly alienated from today's Democratic Party.
To win his race, Kerr Scott put together a coalition of rural families, blue-collar workers and black voters to take the Executive Mansion. He fed his grassroots network, connected personally with all corners of the state and cast himself as a fighter for common people against an out-of-touch political establishment. Robinson has a chance to do the same thing.
It’s not a sure bet. The state and its electorate are both much different today than they were in 1948. Campaigns are different, too. And Kerr’s promises to pave roads and extend telephone lines are far more tangible than what Robinson can offer.
But North Carolina’s political class may find itself dumbfounded in 2024 after another major upset.
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