Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson's LGBTQ comments could cost the GOP, some Republicans say
GOP insiders say Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson's comments about the LGBTQ community could hurt his chances to become governor and potentially hinder North Carolina's ability to recruit businesses.Posted — Updated
Robinson, who has said he is “95 percent sure” he’ll run for governor in 2024, could still be those things. Many GOP operatives consider him the favorite to win the gubernatorial primary if he runs. But some in the party think his chances to reach the Executive Mansion are dwindling and that his political career could be short-lived due to a string of derogatory comments about LGBTQ people.
His comments threaten his ability to attract enough support from critical suburban voters, Republican political consultants say. And if the GOP keeps control of the legislature but loses the governor’s race in 2024, a Democratic governor could continue to thwart the Republican agenda with veto power. If Robinson does run and win, his rhetoric could hinder efforts to recruit businesses, observers say.
“To win in North Carolina, the numbers show you cannot have an anti-LGBTQ platform,” said Lawrence Shaheen, a Charlotte-based attorney and Republican campaign consultant.
A candidate can oppose what they view as explicit material in classrooms or the teaching of critical race theory, he said.
“But you cannot run while slamming the LGBTQ community. There just isn’t a path to victory there. Period,” Shaheen said.
As lieutenant governor, Robinson has made several speeches disparaging the LGBTQ community. Among them:
- In June, Robinson made anti-LBGTQ remarks and targeted transgender athletes competing against women. “I want to be that person at the track meet that stands up and says … ‘Them two fellas that won this track meet, they’re not girls. Why are they out there?’” he said. “That’s two boys. I don’t care what you call them. They’re painted-up, striped-up jackasses. They’re not women.”
- In October, video emerged of Robinson telling a church congregation that no one should teach children in classrooms about “transgenderism, homosexuality – any of that filth.”
- Last month, a video emerged of Robinson telling a Winston-Salem church: “Everything that God made serves a purpose. Will somebody please explain to me the purpose of homosexuality? ... What does it create? It creates nothing."
The comments have drawn criticism from Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Julie Mayfield, D-Buncombe, who during a speech on the Senate floor last week said, “If we can’t respect our constituents, rather than viciously attack some of them, then maybe we’re in the wrong job.”
Following the speech, Robinson confronted Mayfield just outside the Senate chamber, an incident that was caught on video and spread across social media, igniting renewed calls from the left for Robinson to resign.
A spokesman for Robinson didn’t respond to several messages from WRAL News seeking comment from or an interview with the lieutenant governor.
Some in the GOP have begun speaking out against Robinson. Among them: the Log Cabin Republicans, a group that advocates for LGBTQ conservatives.
“LGBT conservatives already face attacks from the left for supporting the GOP and President Trump,” Kyle Luebke, president of the group’s North Carolina chapter, said in a statement. “The last thing they need is to be maligned by the highest-ranking Republican in North Carolina.”
Many Republican leaders in the legislature have avoided commenting on the substance of Robinson’s rhetoric.
State Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger told WRAL last week that he didn’t want to pass judgment on Robinson’s personal beliefs.
“He’s made [the statements] in the context of his religious beliefs and in a religious setting,” Berger, R-Rockingham, said. “He has made it clear he understands that he’s the lieutenant governor for all of North Carolina, whether they are folks that agree with him or disagree with him.”
About the time Berger made those comments to reporters on the Senate floor, Robinson was outside the Senate doors confronting Mayfield.
‘An economic issue’
Robinson’s anti-LGBTQ remarks pick at a scab that has lingered on the state for five years.
North Carolina’s most recent Republican governor, Pat McCrory, lost his re-election bid in 2016 in part because he signed a law that limited which public bathrooms transgender people could use. That law, known as House Bill 2, was seen as discriminatory by a number of businesses.
But experts say Robinson’s anti-LGBTQ rhetoric could pose a setback.
Robinson’s comments about LGBTQ people “would absolutely hurt business recruitment in North Carolina if he had that attitude” as governor, said Dave Phillips, a former state commerce secretary under Gov. Jim Hunt and a former ambassador to Estonia under President George W. Bush.
“Today’s businesses are very sensitive to their public image,” said Mike Walden, an economist at North Carolina State University. “Any indications that the business ignores statements that don’t support inclusiveness hurts their reputation and hurts their sales.”
“My guess is Lt. Gov. Robinson will try to modify or explain his previous statements in order to make them less controversial,” Walden added. “The question is whether he can be successful. But there’s no question in my mind that his statements will be a political issue that could become an economic issue for North Carolina.”
That notion could create an opening for a possible GOP challenger – one who would run on a platform targeted to those for whom economic development and ease-of-business are paramount.
“The business community finds no humor in the comments the lieutenant governor is making,” said Brad Crone, president of Campaign Connections, a Raleigh-based firm that provides consulting for Democratic and Republican political groups, as well as corporations. “You can’t get behind someone who’s making comments that are prejudiced and doubling-down on it.”
If an alternative GOP candidate were to come forward, and if that candidate isn't well known, his or her campaign would likely have to spend a lot of money to match Robinson’s name recognition among primary voters.
And if Robinson were to prevail, high-profile companies might pay closer attention to how his statements reflect on their own decisions to move to or expand in the state, economic development experts say.
“If you’re looking toward hiring a younger, technically savvy workforce, you do have to worry about what your employees think and value,” said John Quinterno, founder and principal of South by North Strategies Ltd., a research consultancy specializing in economic and social policy. “They do tend to have strong views on social justice. … You have to take those into account.”
Manufacturers and other companies that aren’t public-facing might not be as concerned, he said.
Next year’s midterm elections will help determine the stakes of the 2024 gubernatorial election.
The midterm elections also will provide new insights into an electorate that’s becoming less partisan while growing in size. It will likely be North Carolina’s first election in modern history in which unaffiliated voters outnumber registered Republicans and Democrats.
The state had 2.49 million Democrats, 2.18 million Republicans and 2.46 million unaffiliated voters as of Nov. 27, state records show. If current registration trends hold, unaffiliated voters could outnumber registered Democrats by the 2022 election.
That means the battle for governor will likely play out in the suburbs, longtime GOP strategist Carter Wrenn says. Statewide races are often won there by candidates who can appeal to moderate voters.
“Suburban voters are sick of the antics in politics,” Wrenn said. “They want some real leadership. They want some people who have sense. You get a lot of politicians today on both sides who just scream and howl, and I generally think people have seen enough screaming and howling from both Republicans and Democrats.”
Robinson’s comments may not appeal to many of those suburban voters, who are more likely than rural voters to know openly LBGTQ people and resent hateful comments about them, Shaheen said.
The comments also are out of step with efforts within the GOP to attract a more diverse following and to win unaffiliated voters – particularly in a state where voters often split tickets in presidential elections.
While Donald Trump won the Tar Heel State last year and in 2016, he wasn’t able to lift either Republican gubernatorial candidate to victory, for instance.
Trump secured more LGBTQ votes in last year’s election when compared with 2016, according to the Log Cabin Republicans and exit polls. The Republican National Committee, hoping to build on that momentum, recently launched a coalition to court LGBTQ voters ahead of the 2022 elections.
Luebke told WRAL that he hoped Robinson would “recognize the gravity of his position and conduct himself accordingly.”
But after Robinson suggested gays serve no purpose, Luebke issued a statement on Nov. 22 condemning the lieutenant governor’s comments as unacceptable, saying they have “no place in the Republican Party of Donald Trump.”
Luebke now fears Robinson has damaged not only the party’s reputation with the LGBTQ community but with voters more broadly. The lieutenant governor’s actions “jeopardize the party’s ability to take back the Governor’s Mansion in 2024 and even the supermajority in 2022,” he said in an interview.
The Forest playbook
In some ways, Robinson is picking up where the last lieutenant governor left off: by decrying changes across the cultural landscape. Former Lt. Gov. Dan Forest drew criticism in 2019 when he warned a Salisbury church about “multiculturalism.”
“No other nation, my friends, has ever survived the diversity and multiculturalism that America faces today, because of a lack of assimilation, because of this division, and because of this identity politics,” Forest said at the time.
Like Robinson, Forest cruised to victories in lieutenant governor races while riding grassroots Republican support. And like Robinson, Forest was viewed as the front-runner for the GOP’s gubernatorial nomination years before candidate filing even started.
If a GOP candidate were to mount a challenge in 2024, Robinson has recent history on his side: It’s been almost two decades since there has been an upset in one of the gubernatorial primaries, according to Michael Bitzer, chair of political science at Catawba College in Salisbury.
That could bode well for a Democratic field that is expected to include Attorney General Josh Stein. Shaheen, the Republican consultant, said Republicans should avoid following in Forest’s footsteps in the 2024 race.
If Robinson were to run for governor using the same playbook Forest used in his gubernatorial campaign, Shaheen said, “Republicans better get comfortable calling Josh Stein governor for at least four years.”
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