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Competitive North Carolina gubernatorial primary kicks off as Gov. Cooper reaches term limit

Five Democrats and three Republicans are competing for party nominations for the governorship of North Carolina, with frontrunners Democratic AG Stein and Republican Lt. Gov. Robinson.

North Carolina primary voters were choosing potential successors to term-limited Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday, with the Democratic attorney general and the Republican lieutenant governor among those seeking to advance to what is expected to be an expensive and competitive fall campaign.

Five Democrats and three Republicans were competing for their parties' gubernatorial nominations in the nation's ninth-largest state, which is also a likely presidential battleground this year.

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, State Treasurer Dale Folwell and trial attorney Bill Graham are seeking the GOP nomination. The Democratic field includes Attorney General Josh Stein — who received Cooper's endorsement — former state Supreme Court Justice Mike Morgan and three others candidates who've spent very little.

DOZENS OF NORTH CAROLINA REPUBLICANS COMPETE FOR CONGRESSIONAL SEATS

Robinson, who would be the state's first Black governor, formally received Donald Trump's endorsement over the weekend at a rally. Trump called him "Martin Luther King on steroids," comparing his speaking abilities to those of the late civil rights leader. But Robinson’s harsh comments on LGBTQ+ rights and other issues are seen as a liability by Democrats and some Republican opponents.

North Carolina is poised to be one of the most competitive states this fall as President Joe Biden and Trump appear headed toward a likely rematch. The governor’s race could have implications for the presidential contest if Democrats can tap into controversies surrounding Trump and Robinson to portray the Republicans as out of step with the state’s urban areas and with unaffiliated voters, who are now the state’s largest voting group.

Cooper, a Democrat first elected governor in 2016, has continued a long run of Democratic dominance in the governor's mansion in a Southern state that otherwise has shifted rightward. The GOP has won only one gubernatorial race since 1992.

A general election victory by a Republican would essentially neuter veto power that Cooper has used a record number of times to block additional abortion restrictions, stricter requirements for voters and other policies backed by conservatives. GOP legislators have been able to override many of Cooper's vetoes, however.

Robinson, who has a working-class background, is a favorite of the party's GOP base. While he raised more money overall than primary rivals, Folwell and Graham have used personal funds towards late-campaign media buys. They've questioned Robinson's general-election electability, particularly in light of his rhetoric while lieutenant governor and for comments he made on social media before entering politics.

Stein, the son of a civil rights lawyer, is by far the largest fundraiser in the race. His campaign committee collected over $19.1 million and had $12.7 million in cash in mid-February, according to the most recent campaign report summaries filed.

Stein, who would be the state's first Jewish governor if elected, would largely seek to continue Cooper's agenda to increase public education funding and promote clean energy industries while acting as a bulwark against what Democrats consider to be extreme GOP policies. The former state legislator was narrowly elected attorney general in 2016 and has focused recently on protecting citizens from polluters, illegal drugs and high electric bills.

Robinson, who is already the state's first Black lieutenant governor, has dismissed conventional climate change as "junk science," and has fought teachers who he says have assigned inappropriate reading materials on racism and sexuality to young pupils. Robinson has said making education leaders accountable and teaching students the basics are among his policy goals if elected.

Before Tuesday, over 690,000 people had cast early in-person and mail-in ballots in North Carolina, where voters also were choosing nominees for other statewide executive and appellate court positions.

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