GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – One came from everything, the other from nothing, and yet they have arrived at the same place at the same time: the front-running positions in major elections in 2024 and targets of enmity for how they got there.
Former President Donald Trump and North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson sing from the same political hymnal in the same joyful noises, never without the deeply conservative chorus – even if Robinson hasn’t always appreciated Trump’s tenor and timbre.
And this weekend they will tune their tones in the halls of a convention center in Greensboro as they each try to win a second election after stunningly winning their first time out – Trump seeking the GOP nomination to pursue a return to the White House, Robinson daring to be the fourth Republican and first Black man to take the governor’s office.
Trump will be the after-dinner speaker at the keynote event Saturday night during the North Carolina Republican Convention. Robinson presumably will be among the thousands inside the Koury Center all weekend, just a few miles from the meeting room where video cameras first made him famous less than five years ago.
Trump and Robinson will be breathing the same electoral air, reaching for the same electoral dollars and trying to sell their thin but accomplished resumes of public service one more time.
Both rose to fame through the lens of the media – Trump as a real estate magnate who gained name recognition because of a successful reality show, Robinson for preaching to a mass of gun owners at a Greensboro City Council meeting in a social media video gone viral.
They are political pugilists, pounding the public with relentless, ferocious punches that evoke Mike Tyson – one of Trump’s old heavyweight cohorts – for their power and Muhammad Ali for their vibrato, although neither has any talent for pulling punches.
But do they have enough of either or both to win one more bout in an arena of public opinion that is punching back at them with equal ferocity, rebuking them for what they say and questioning whether they have the skill to knock out a Democrat next November?
They arrive in Greensboro in similar positions. Each is considered a strong frontrunner to win the nomination he is seeking, each is continuing to express highly conservative principles delivered in often fiery messages, and each could face tight races in a general election.
The two men last year shared the endorsement stage for Sen. Ted Budd, the man who Trump helped to rise from Congress and defeat two experienced opponents – former Gov. Pat McCrory and former Rep. Mark Walker – in gaining the nomination. Walker, who declined a suggestion by Trump to leave that Senate race and run again for Congress, and state treasurer Dale Folwell are the two men running against Robinson so far.
Would it surprise anyone if Trump were to use this weekend’s convention to issue his full-throated endorsement of Robinson’s bid to succeed term-limited Democrat Roy Cooper, much as he stunningly endorsed then-Congressman Budd at the same convention in 2021?
“I’ve given up trying to predict former President Trump’s behavior, unless it’s to predict that he’ll do something unpredictable,” said Chris Cooper, a professor at Western Carolina University, elections expert and political blogger. “With that said, I certainly won’t be surprised if he does endorse Robinson at the convention. Trump tends to like brash candidates and favorites; Robinson is both.”
The brash brothers
The personality similarities with both men are indisputable. The only real variances are that Trump, 76, comes from family wealth built in real estate, and Robinson, 54, the 9th of 10 children born to a couple from Greensboro, would be the state’s first Black governor. Both are married with grown children. Robinson’s wife, Yolanda Hill, runs a non-profit business to support the family, but Trump’s wife, Melania, lives at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida.
Robinson’s viral address to the Greensboro City Council, to protest a post-Parkland-school-shooting ban on gun sales on city property, was in October 2018. Less than two years later, he was the highest-elected Republican in the state.
That race for lieutenant governor was Robinson’s first foray into politics, and even though Cooper won re-election in 2020, Robinson beat Democrat Yvonne Lewis Holley by 3.2 percentage points, a far wider margin than Trump carried the state (1.34%).
Trump, the owner of towering buildings and sprawling golf resorts, similarly came out of a crowded Republican field in 2016 to sweep to the nomination from a wide array of more experienced contenders and then stunningly nosed out Democrat Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes.
Both men have long recorded histories of political diatribes and sowing division, and you would think they had been political brothers from another mother.
Trump is famous for attacking anyone who opposes him on anything – focusing significant energy on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, his apparent closest rival, by calling him “DeSanctimonious,” among other handles – and Robinson has a long record of outrageous comments in speeches and social media that have made him a focal point for scorn for burnishing his take-no-prisoners approach to a variety of societal topics, including the LGBTQ community, gun rights, abortion rights, climate change and public education, to name a few.
Trump has despised former President Barack Obama and long challenged Obama’s citizenry, and Robinson once “referred to first lady Michelle Obama as a man” and accused Barack Obama of being an “anti-American atheist.”
Trump and Robinson share the adulation of conspiracy theorists whose positions they often praise and appear to endorse. They both use the pulpit of Christianity for their gain, although Robinson’s evangelism often evokes the text of the Bible and not just the blessings of worship leaders and the amens from every corner.
Robinson also has appeared to support Trump’s unfounded claims that the 2020 election won by President Joe Biden was stolen from him by fraud, the very complaint that inspired a mob of insurrectionists to storm the U.S. Capitol in a deadly assault on the Constitution and the people charged with defending it. Robinson recently appeared at a rally in Georgia that featured a litany of people who continue to spread those untruths.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas last year, Robinson was the warm-up act for Trump. “He’s respected so much in North Carolina,” Trump said of Robinson that day. “Anybody that sees him or knows him, they say immediately, ‘That’s a man that we want representing us. … You’re a very popular guy.”
But Robinson has not always appreciated Trump’s approach, even though he eschewed a man who helped his hypersonic rise to fame, current opponent Walker, to support Trump’s chosen candidate in the 2022 Senate race, Budd.
In fact, in 2016, when Trump was trying to sprint ahead of the GOP field, Robinson’s always volatile social media accounts included strongly worded thoughts about why Trump might not be the best man for the job.
Early in February 2016, he posted on Facebook about how Naziism had emerged because conservatives had allowed the political pendulum to swing too far to the right and that conservatives “need to be careful not to let another IDIOT to rise up in the same way.”
He followed that a couple of weeks later on Facebook by posting: “This entire farce with Donald Trump is to DESTROY the credibility of the conservative voice in this country. Many of y’all are helping it right along. #sad.”
And then he appeared to bring question to Trump’s most famous campaign slogan: “’My plan is to make America great again.’ How? ‘By getting it done!’ How? ‘By making America great again’ ….” which his commenters interpreted as all talk and no action.
At some point, though – it’s unclear when and why – Robinson, like most Republicans – notably former Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Lindsey Graham, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and many others – changed his mind and became a stalwart supporter of Trump.
Cooper, the elections expert, said he didn’t think changes in language and position of support meant much of anything.
“Primary fights are like fights within a family,” he said. “They matter, and they may reveal some underlying fault lines, but they will get papered over in public for the sake of the family.”
The issues they face
That “papered-over” relationship will be in full focus these new few days, and much of that focus will be about whether each if nominated in the spring can win in the fall. That’s where the enmity and viability concerns emerge.
Trump lost to Biden in 2020 by more than 7 million votes and 306-232 in the Electoral College but continues to claim unfounded voter fraud was the reason. He also has substantial and lingering legal issues: for starters, a civil suit he lost for sexual assault and defamation (that could be reopened for more than the $5 million damages he was ordered to pay) and an indictment for 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in New York connected to alleged hush-money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels. A trial is scheduled for March 25, just three weeks after the North Carolina primary.
And then there are the ongoing investigations by Special Counsel Jack Smith into his role on the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol and the handling of top-secret and classified documents found at Trump’s home at Mar-a-Lago. And on Thursday night Trump announced on his Truth Social account that he had been indicted in that case. Reports are that there are seven counts, but details haven’t been revealed.
“Because of his comments, he will nationalize the gubernatorial race in North Carolina for the Democrats, which will open the door for them in raising tens of millions of dollars across the country,” said Paul Shumaker, a Republican consultant in North Carolina, told Politico in an analysis of the race.
Walker, a former minister who served three terms in Congress, and Folwell, a state legislator before becoming treasurer, both have said they got into the race because they don’t feel Robinson has the character or the experience that would be required to be governor.
Does it matter?
So far, none of that baggage appears to have mattered for Trump or Robinson. Each has sizeable leads in polling, and some observers feel a crowded field works strongly in Trump’s behalf (which it did in securing the nomination in 2016). Pence’s announcement on Wednesday of his long-rumored presidential bid brought the field to 11 confirmed GOP candidates.
Trump leads DeSantis – who also will be speaking at a dinner at the NC GOP Convention – by anywhere from 2 to 34 percentage points, depending on which poll you want to track. He also leads in some tracking polls in a possible rematch with Biden.
Trump even got angry when his former press secretary Kayleigh McEnany misstated those polling numbers – in his opinion – during a recent segment on Fox, where she is a daytime host, and indicated the race wasn’t as close as she had said.
Robinson, long considered the frontrunner in a state Republicans generally control, leads Walker by 2.6 percentage points, based on a poll released last month by the right-leaning John Locke Foundation, and Folwell by 5.7 points. He is neck-and-neck with the Democratic frontrunner, Attorney General Josh Stein.
Folwell, when asked about the polling lead by Robinson, said, “Our poll numbers accurately reflect someone who has been doing their job. The green nor the checkered flag have dropped in this race.”
The Locke Foundation poll showed about 1 in 4 voters (depending on the head-to-head) was “unsure” of the choice for the GOP nomination.
“The race for the governor’s seat is a tight one so far,” John Locke Foundation President Donald Bryson said in a release about the findings. “But with so many undecided voters, there is definitely room for candidates to gain ground by making a compelling case to the people of North Carolina. The calculus could also change if another Democrat throws their hat in the ring.”
But a formal endorsement by Trump, who twice carried the state, could be a huge wedge to give Robinson separation, just as it worked out for Budd in the first polls in that 14-person GOP field to succeed Sen. Richard Burr in the Senate.
Polling, though, has been particularly unreliable in the past two presidential cycles. Trump almost never led in a poll against Clinton in 2016, and, as former U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger said on CNN on Tuesday, “If you had gone by the polls at this point in 2016, you would have thought Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush or even former Texas Gov. Rick Perry would be in the White House.”
Said Chris Cooper: “Early polling can help give us a sense of who has no chance, but in terms of distinguishing between the top-tier candidates, you’d be better off drawing straws than relying on early polls. This is particularly true in a crowded field like the Republicans are expected to have in 2024.”