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RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) – The race to replace Democrat Roy Cooper as the governor of North Carolina officially heard the starter’s pistol on Wednesday morning when Attorney General Josh Stein announced he wanted to follow Cooper’s lane to the governor’s mansion.

Stein replaced Cooper as AG in 2017 and was re-elected in 2020 by about 13,500 votes over Winston-Salem prosecutor Jim O’Neill, but just like Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson among Republicans, his is a name most often linked to this race.

Stein said he already has raised $4 million for a race that Robinson’s staff has speculated will generate $100 million. But fundraising cash doesn’t necessarily equal victory, as well-funded Democrat Cheri Beasley found out in her U.S. Senate race last fall against superPAC-backed Republican Ted Budd.

Stein also has a performance record that some candidates don’t have. Before his six years as attorney general, he spent four terms as the state senator for District 16.

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein speaks in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, on Dec. 7. He announced Wednesday a bid for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2024. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

He touts endorsements from former Gov. Jim Hunt and among Black legislative leaders such as Sen. Minority Leader Dan Blue (D-Wake) and House Minority Leader Robert Reives (D-Randolph).

“Josh is a strong candidate with a large war chest, strong name identification, and a solid record of accomplishments,” Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Greensboro), an 8-term member of the state House, told WGHP. “He will be a formidable candidate in both the primary and the general elections.” 

Rep. Ashton Clemmons (D-Greensboro) went a little further: “I officially endorsed AG Stein in his rollout and believe he is the leader NC needs in this moment.”

Who else could run?

The question is, do such endorsements mean Stein will receive a clear path to the nomination? Cooper, for what it’s worth, has not issued any sort of endorsement, although he talks positively about Stein. Speculation about candidates has included at least four other Democratic notables:

  • Newly elected 14th Congressional District Rep. Jeff Jackson (D-Charlotte): He’s a former state senator who is in his first term, but the strength of his district could change if the Republican-controlled General Assembly again pushes to redraw district lines, as some have speculated it will.
  • Former state Department of Health & Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen’s candidacy has been floated. She is not a politician and has not disclosed publicly any interest in running, but she made her name by leading North Carolina through the COVID-19 pandemic. She resigned in early 2022 after being considered by President Joe Biden for his cabinet.
  • Beasley was chief justice of the NC Supreme Court before she was narrowly defeated in 2020 and then ran for the Senate last year. If she’s looking for a new challenge, this could be it.
  • Michael Regan, the NC A&T grad who is serving the Biden administration as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, has been mentioned by some observers as a possibility and is rumored to be exploring statewide options. He previously was the state’s secretary of Environmental Quality but has held no elected office. His current job is nonpartisan.

The Republicans

North Carolina Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson speaks at a Senate Education Committee hearing on Wednesday, July 14, 2021, in the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh, N.C. Robinson is facing calls to resign from elected officials and LGBTQ advocacy groups over comments he made in June in which he criticized teachings in K-12 public schools and likened peoples' sexual orientation to “filth.” (AP Photo/Bryan Anderson)
North Carolina Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson (AP Photo/Bryan Anderson)

Robinson, a businessman from Greensboro who attended UNC Greensboro and emerged from obscurity after he addressed the Greensboro City Council in 2018 about gun rights, is in his first term as the highest-ranking elected Republican in the state. He has not announced formally but has hinted strongly that he is running, most recently at a pro-life rally in Raleigh this past weekend.

He has spoken at many national rallies, including CPAC, and is known for being outspoken about people and issues. He has appeared often with former President Donald Trump, spoke at Budd’s celebration rally and published his memoir this past fall.

But he’s not alone in the field. State Treasurer Dale Folwell of Winston-Salem has said he is considering a run. State Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, also of Guilford County, has been mentioned, as has U.S. Thom Tillis, a moderate and former speaker of the NC House who has emerged as a dealmaker and rising GOP star in his second term.

Another possibility could be former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker of Greensboro, who served three terms in the 6th District before deciding not to run in 2020 under a redrawn electoral map. He failed to earn the GOP nomination against Trump-supported Budd last spring, and when asked last fall by WGHP if he had thoughts about running for governor, he said he would be watching what happened.

Poll on the race

The progressive Carolina Forward in November did early polling on the race and focused on Stein, Cohen and Jackson and in some cases their viability against Robinson’s likely run.

Among Democrats, Stein earned 22% of the support in that poll, the most of those surveyed, followed by Cohen with 18% and Jackson with 12%. But 39% said they were unsure about candidates, and 9% said “someone else” not named in the poll.

Robinson dominated among Republicans, getting 54% of support, with Tillis being the choice of 20%. Folwell was chosen by 4%, and a relatively low 17% were unsure. “Someone else” got 5%.

That “someone else” could be Walker, who was not named in that poll, but in an informal survey of elected leaders and political experts conducted by WGHP, he was third-most-named behind Robinson and Folwell.

Keeping tabs

Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba University and coauthor of the Old North State Politics Blog, has set up a tracking spreadsheet about the status of presumed or announced candidates for the various statewide offices that comprise the “Council of State,” all of which will be on the ballot in 2024.

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He lists those who have been mentioned and those who have been confirmed, and his list tends to match what others have speculated: Stein is in, and Folwell maybe is. Robinson almost assuredly is, and then others are possibilities, including Troxler and Cohen.

Jackson and Tillis already have jobs they may wish to retain – and Jackson would be up for re-election, assuming his 14th Congressional District isn’t redrawn before then (the U.S. Supreme Court almost certainly will decide that). Bitzer also has him on his sheet as a possibility to succeed Stein as the attorney general.

About the No. 2 job

Harrison said, in her view, the lieutenant governor’s race “will be a very crowded field,” and Bitzer’s sheet lists four confirmed candidates to replace Robinson (assuming he moves up):