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Column: The 2023 GOP gubernatorial debates need to move voters

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Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, the current poll leader, did not attend the 2023 GOP gubernatorial debates.

With the end of Roy Cooper's term quickly approaching, party candidates on both sides of the 2024 race for North Carolina Governor are announcing their candidacies. Since there is potential for the race to go either way, early gubernatorial debates are sure to set the tone for the duration of the race.

On Tuesday, Wake County hosted the first GOP gubernatorial debate for the 2024 election. The debate was an opportunity for GOP candidates to get a head start on pushing their messages out to the masses. Wake County is home to about 12 percent of all Republican voters in the state of North Carolina, making it a key county for campaigners. 

Tuesday’s gubernatorial debate was meant to be especially unique, with the candidates sharing a table to discuss debate topics in hopes the conversation would be more natural and organic. 

The candidates discussed topics such as public education, economic growth, criminal justice reform, COVID-19 and voting integrity. The last issue was especially relevant due to the recent requirement for North Carolinians to present identification when voting, starting with the 2023 municipal elections. 

As one of the participants, former U.S. Representative Mark Walker (R-NC 6th) spoke out about his plans to reform public education. This is a large portion of his platform.

He goes into more detail on his campaign website, stating “It’s time we collectively fight back against the evil onslaught of child mutilations and gender reassignment surgeries.” 

State Treasurer Dale Folwell, another attendee, is very invested in North Carolina’s economic state, discussing his tenure as state treasurer and declaring that he would be “the best governor that money can't buy.”

Businessman Jesse Thomas similarly weighed in on economics during the debate, one of his platforms being a zero percent income tax. He finds it essential that North Carolina hires a CEO as the next governor to implement Medicaid expansion, per his website. 

Yet, Tuesday’s debate was less about who was there and more about who wasn’t. 

Folwell and Thomas attended the debate, as did Walker, with some convincing — as he had initially declined the invitation to attend. Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and former state legislator Andy Wells have also announced their candidacy, but did not attend.

Wells is said to not have attended the event due to a miscommunication over scheduling. Robinson declined to attend the debate and refused to respond to various news sources on why he wasn’t attending. 

Ironically, Robinson called out Sen. Ted Budd (R-NC) in 2022 for choosing not to debate. “You need to vote for somebody that you see. Somebody that’s not hiding in the basement. Hiding from everybody,” he said.

Robinson is the current poll leader, likely due to former president Donald Trump’s pledge to endorse his campaign. Robinson has also publicly announced his support for Trump in the 2024 election. 

As North Carolina emerges as a battleground state, this is a particularly interesting political race that everyone should keep their eyes on. There is nearly no consensus on which way North Carolinians are leaning in this election. 

The Cook Political Report labels the race as leaning toward a Democratic candidate while Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales and Larry J. Sabato's Crystal Ball both see the state as a toss-up. 

The supermajority residing in our state legislature is just one reason why you should pay extra attention to this race. The GOP supermajority have been able to override Roy Cooper’s veto several times recently — most notably with the passage of the Fairness in Women's Sports Act and the Parents' Bill of Rights, both of which are expected to have very damaging effects on the LGBTQ+ community across the state. 

Even though these seats are up for grabs — with the entire legislature being up for re-election in 2024 — we need to be invested in this race now, especially given the potential for our swing state to turn red. 

North Carolina’s gubernatorial power is much weaker than other states, with a veto threshold of just three-fifths compared to the two-thirds threshold that 36 other states have. 

Reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ rights, gun policy, public education, and many other issues are on the line. I urge you to pay attention, read up on the candidates, and — most importantly — make sure you are registered to vote and to order your absentee ballots well in advance if necessary.

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