Another defining primary

Published June 8, 2023

By Thomas Mills

Ten years ago, the Republican primary for US Senate in North Carolina mirrored sharp divisions within the national GOP at the time. Then-State House Speaker Thom Tillis represented the staid establishment led by country club Republicans. Greg Brannon was the Tea Party candidate who brandished his libertarian ideals of less government and lower taxes. Pastor Mark Harris represented the social conservatives dominated by evangelical Christians. In that contest, the traditional establishment prevailed, showing that the center-right still controlled the GOP in North Carolina. Two years, later Donald Trump upended the party. 

Over the next year, a similar dynamic will play out, but the forces will be much different. Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson is the frontrunner for the GOP nomination for governor, representing the populist, reactionary wing of the party that Trump created. Mark Walker will try to steal votes from Robinson by burnishing his credentials as an evangelical preacher and former Congressman. State Treasurer Dale Folwell will try to rally the establishment Republicans that gave Tillis an easy victory in May 2014

Between 2014 and now, the GOP has been reshaped. Donald Trump gave rise to reactionary forces that have cut short the careers of establishment Republicans across the country. It’s doubtful that Tillis could have won a primary in today’s party with the same political profile he had then. He’s not nearly bombastic enough to excite the angry, resentful base that now defines the GOP. 

The gubernatorial primary here should attract the attention of the national media to see if the fever dreams of Trumpists are losing influence over the party base. Folwell presents the GOP the opportunity to reject the most divisive rhetoric and return to a more traditional conservative narrative. While Folwell will need to sharpen his attacks on the left and embrace some of the culture war bombast to convince the populists that he will take up their fight, he’s firmly rooted in the small government principles of Reaganism. Whether you agree with him ideologically or not, Folwell actually wants to govern.

In contrast, Robinson is more like Trump. He doesn’t know anything about governing and doesn’t appear to have much interest in learning. He just wants to inspire anger and hate, demeaning people publicly and reveling in the adulation and applause of angry, ignorant people. He’s where most of the GOP has been since 2016.

Walker, for his part, seems to just want to be something, anything. He won a Congressional primary against now-Supreme Court Justice Phil Berger, Jr., the same year Tillis won the GOP nomination for US Senate. Nobody saw it coming since Berger was the son of the state senate president pro-tem and considered the clear frontrunner. Walker held onto his heavily Republican district until legislators drew him into a district safe for Democrats. 

His Congressional career seemed to be on the rise when he became chair of the Republican Study Committee. Unfortunately for Walker, the House Freedom Caucus under the leadership of fellow North Carolinian Mark Meadows usurped the RSC’s position of influence in the GOP-led House. By 2020, he had lost his safe district, maybe as retribution from the Bergers. 

In 2024, Walker’s most prominent role would probably be that of spoiler, but who he spoils is unclear. His 2022 primary campaign for US Senate never really gained any traction and he finished a distant third. For some reason, the GOP political establishment doesn’t seem to like him. He’s certainly been willing to adopt Trumpy rhetoric so maybe he will go after the reactionary base underpinning Robinson. However, they are so anxious to vote for a Black candidate to prove they aren’t racist that he’ll have a difficult time penetrating that group. I think there’s a chance that his campaign flames out before the end of the year. 

While more candidates may get into the fray, the GOP primary for governor in North Carolina lays out the divisions defining the national party. In 2014 three distinct groups battled for control of the party and the establishment showed its muscle, nominating Thom Tillis as a center-right candidate who had broad appeal. In 2024, Trump has reshaped the party. The libertarian wing is gone. A few of its members have fled the party, but most have morphed into populists, embracing and rationalizing authoritarian policies they once rejected. The establishment is hoping to re-exert its influence over the party by nominating Folwell. In 2014, that would have been a good bet. In 2024, we’ll see how much the GOP has or has not changed.