For the second time in his brief political tenure, Mark Robinson, the polarizing lieutenant governor of North Carolina, stands poised to test the limits of acceptability as he seeks higher office in a key battleground state.
The 54-year-old Republican formally announced on Saturday that he is running for governor, setting up what is expected to be a fiercely contested race for the state’s top job. “The establishment is scared because I can’t be controlled,” he told a large crowd of supporters at a speedway in Alamance County, near his hometown of Greensboro.
He launched his campaign with an extensive and well-documented history of antisemitic comments and derogatory remarks targeting Muslims and trangender people, among other groups. The lieutenant governor, who first took office in 2021, has refused to apologize for his rhetoric, which has raised questions over his broader appeal to voters in the general election.
But while several GOP prospects failed to overcome electability issues in high-profile gubernatorial and Senate contests last cycle — including in swing states like Arizona and Pennsylvania — Robinson’s candidacy will demonstrate whether he is an exception to that trend. His campaign will also be a test for North Carolina’s overwhelmingly Democratic Jewish community, members of which are now privately weighing how to respond to an increasingly powerful figure who enters the race as a clear Republican frontrunner.
“There’s a lot of concern about it,” one Jewish leader told Jewish Insider recently, speaking anonymously to discuss a sensitive topic. “We really think he could get elected.”
Even as Robinson’s past statements have drawn condemnation from Jewish leaders and other activists in North Carolina and beyond, early polling suggests that the controversial conservative lawmaker, who would be North Carolina’s first Black governor, remains popular among a majority of Republican primary voters in the Tar Heel State.
“Any candidate who gets out of either party’s primary has a chance to win the governor’s mansion in North Carolina, even someone with extreme, polarizing rhetoric like Mark Robinson,” Chris Cooper, a professor of political science at Western Carolina University, said in an email to JI.
A spokesperson for Robinson did not respond to a request for comment.
The lieutenant governor will face at least one opponent in the GOP primary. Dale Folwell, the state treasurer of North Carolina, announced his campaign in late March. Former Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC), who ran for an open Senate seat last cycle, is also reportedly planning to launch a bid next month. The primary winner would almost certainly go up against Josh Stein, North Carolina’s attorney general, in next year’s general election.
In a campaign launch video released in mid-January, Stein, a moderate Jewish Democrat who is closely aligned with Roy Cooper, the term-limited governor, indicated that he expects to face Robinson even at this early stage, accusing him of sparking “division,” igniting “hate” and fanning “the flames of bigotry.”
Still, though some might expect Robinson’s “extreme rhetoric” to “spur Democratic turnout,” said Cooper, the political scientist, he warned that “the 2022 election cycle featured lackluster turnout for Democrats, especially in Democratic strongholds like Mecklenburg County,” which includes Charlotte, home to the state’s largest Jewish population.
“For Stein to beat Robinson, he’ll have to do more than just shine a light on Robinson’s extreme statements,” Cooper added. “He’ll have to motivate his base. And that’s a challenge that has proven difficult for statewide Democrats not named Roy Cooper.”
Robinson, for his part, has defied the odds before, notwithstanding his clear flaws as a candidate. The former factory worker from Greensboro emerged from relative obscurity just five years ago, when a fiery speech on gun rights that he had delivered on the floor of a city council meeting went viral, propelling him into politics.
Following an invitation to speak at the National Rifle Association’s annual leadership forum in 2018, Robinson, a devout Christian who built a large social media audience while railing against abortion and the evils of socialism, announced his candidacy in North Carolina’s open-seat race for lieutenant governor. He prevailed over eight Republican primary rivals and won the general election with 52% of the vote.
His victory, which shocked the political establishment, was troubling to some Jewish leaders in North Carolina, who expressed alarm over Robinson’s history of offensive comments, many of which had been publicized before voters went to the polls.
In the years leading up to his election, Robinson amplified a litany of antisemitic tropes on social media as well as in an interview in which he agreed with a fringe pastor who had claimed that among the four horsemen of the apocalypse was the Rothschild family of “international bankers.”
Elsewhere, Robinson decried a “globalist” conspiracy to “destroy” former President Donald Trump and disparaged “Black Panther,” the Marvel film whose titular protagonist, Robinson wrote, was “created by an agnostic Jew” and a “satanic marxist.” The movie, he alleged, referring to Israeli currency and using a Yiddish racial slur, “was only created to pull the shekels out of your Schvartze pockets.”
Even more comments from Robinson’s past, recently unearthed in an investigation published by Talking Points Memo, have since emerged, including a social media post verging on what appears to be Holocaust denialism. “There is a REASON the liberal media fills the airwaves with programs about the NAZI and the ‘6 million Jews’ they murdered,” Robinson wrote. “There is also a REASON those same liberals DO NOT FILL the airwaves with programs about the Communist and the 100+ million PEOPLE they murdered throughout the 20th century.”
Robinson’s incendiary statements have not been exclusively focused on Jews. He has also expressed bigoted views on gay and transgender people as well as Muslims and Black people, while promoting conspiracy theories about abortion. He has compared the procedure to a “moral evil like slavery,” despite acknowledging that he and his wife had once chosen to terminate her pregnancy.
The lieutenant governor has suggested that he cannot be held responsible for comments he made before he assumed office, even as he has continued to issue inflammatory statements as an elected official. His lack of contrition has angered voters in North Carolina, including Jewish leaders who spoke out against him in interviews with JI a month after he assumed office.
At the time, a member of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Raleigh, who asked to remain anonymous, said that he and a group of state activists had been working behind the scenes to arrange a meeting with Robinson to discuss their concerns. The Jewish community member declined to comment on whether the meeting had taken place when reached by JI late last week.
Meanwhile, John Hardister, a Republican state representative in North Carolina, said he had helped broker a meeting between Robinson and some Jewish community members in Greensboro, at their behest.
In an email exchange with JI, Hardister said that the meeting — which was first reported by Raleigh’s News & Observer on Thursday — had taken place “a couple of years ago,” after he was “approached by members of the Jewish community in Greensboro who raised concerns about” a remark from Robinson. “I can’t recall exactly what the comment was,” he said.
“I then contacted Mark Robinson, who agreed to participate in a virtual meeting with members of the Jewish community to discuss the matter,” Hardister explained. “Mark Robinson was gracious with his time, he listened to the concerns, and he was very forthright in clarifying what he meant. I felt it was a productive dialogue and I believe the participants appreciated his cordial demeanor.”
A Jewish community activist who participated in the discussion declined to comment on the meeting.
As Robinson sets his sights on the governorship, members of the organized Jewish community in North Carolina are now hesitant to go on the record with their concerns — at risk of alienating an influential state official who they will likely need to work with if he wins the general election.
“We’ve had to think through how we go about our community relations knowing that that is something that could happen in the future,” one Jewish leader confided in a recent interview with JI. “If we do something to associate ourselves with anybody who’s an outspoken racist or anti-LGBT person or antisemite or etcetera,” he added, “what does that say about us to platform something like that?”
In anticipation of Robinson’s bid, among other dynamics shaping the coming cycle, a group of Jewish Democrats in North Carolina recently launched a new Jewish caucus as part of a broader effort among party activists to boost organizing efforts before the 2024 election.
Matt Sadinsky, the group’s acting president, told JI in February that the caucus was created “to promote candidates and policies that reject the politics of hatred, prejudice, bigotry, homophobia and division.”
He declined to provide an update on the caucus’ efforts last week, saying in a text message that it was “too early” to reveal any concrete plans.
Eric Solomon, a founding co-chair of the North Carolina Jewish Clergy Association and a Conservative rabbi in Raleigh who has been publicly critical of Robinson, called the lieutenant governor “notorious” in an interview shortly before the caucus was formed a couple of months ago. “I wish there was a Republican Jewish caucus giving a rebuke to the lieutenant governor over there,” he told JI.
But while Robinson has drawn criticism from the Republican Jewish Coalition, whose chief executive has said his “refusal to apologize is troubling and unacceptable,” the lieutenant governor has otherwise faced little resistance from GOP leaders in North Carolina as he has risen to prominence.
The party has long been at pains to control the governorship in North Carolina, even as it recently claimed veto-proof supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature after a Democratic lawmaker defected to the GOP earlier this month.