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Attorney General Josh Stein, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson will run against each other for NC governor

FILE - Associate Justice Michael Morgan attends a special session of the Supreme Court of North Carolina at New Bern City Hall, May 15, 2019, in New Bern, N.C. Morgan is a Democratic candidate in the North Carolina governor's race. North Carolina voters in the primary election on Tuesday, March 5, 2024, were choosing nominees for president and a host of other positions, from governor and attorney general to seats in the U.S. House the General Assembly and state judgeships. (Gray Whitley/Sun Journal via AP, File)

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 in 2024.

Josh Stein and Mark Robinson, each of whom turned back multiple party rivals, will present a stark contrast for voters in the ninth-largest state’s fall elections.

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. He’d be the state’s first Jewish governor if elected.

Robinson, meanwhile, is a former factory worker who splashed into conservative circles after a 2018 viral speech to his hometown city council — catapulting him to lieutenant governor in 2020 and the endorsement of former President Donald Trump. He’s North Carolina’s first Black lieutenant governor and would become the state’s first Black governor as well.

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’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.

But Democrats have scored presidential victories in North Carolina only twice over the past half-century, with Trump winning narrowly in both 2016 and 2020. 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.

But with a Trump-Robinson combination atop the GOP ticket, Democrats could tap into the Republicans’ 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 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.

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.

“I know he’s very supportive of education and specifically, abortion rights,” first-time voter Eva Davenport of Apex said after casting her ballot for Stein on Tuesday. 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.

Davenport said she’s worried that some elected officials are “trying to ban it completely in North Carolina.” 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.

Registered Republican Paul Babski, 54, an architect from Apex, said Robinson’s life history played a significant role in why he voted for him in the GOP primary on Tuesday.

“I’ve heard a couple of his speeches and his story,” Babski said. “And I like his statement that he’s working and will work on bringing manufacturing jobs back to the state.”

Stein faced four Black opponents in his primary, and was criticized in 2021 by racial justice advocates who said his office had fallen short in protecting the civil rights of wrongly accused defendants and those on death row. Stein, a previous co-chairman of a state task force on racial equity in the criminal justice system, has defended his department’s work.

Gary D. Robertson, The Associated Press

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