Déjà vu: Calculating presence or absence of frontrunner at GOP primary debate



(The Center Square) – Several candidates for governor have confirmed their attendance at the first Republican debate in mid-September, but whether frontrunning Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson will participate remains unclear.

Former Congressman Mark Walker, state Treasurer Dale Folwell and former health care executive Jesse Thomas have confirmed for the Republican debate at MacGregor Downs Country Club on Sept. 12. Robinson, who has led all polls with the support of former President Donald Trump, and former state Rep. Andy Wells have not signaled their intent.

Political observers contacted by The Center Square offered insights on what Robinson’s attendance or no-show at the event could mean for his campaign. Robinson’s campaign did not respond to a request to discuss his intent for the debate.

“I’m not sure that either showing up or not showing up will necessarily hurt at this point,” Michael Bitzer, professor of politics at Catawba College, wrote in an email. “The reality is that the former president didn’t show up for the first national GOP presidential primary debate and the impact has been, so far, nothing of consequence.”

Bitzer notes the early debates give candidates the opportunity to engage with the most active grassroots voters, which tend to be more likely to vote in the primary.

“But we’ve seen past front-runners, for example Ted Budd in 2020’s GOP primary for U.S. Senate, decide to skip televised events, so being a no-show for a country club event is probably not that great of a political hit against his campaign,” he said.

“The major question is: will Robinson engage with the other candidates to discuss their policy and governing perspectives?” Bitzer wrote. “That, I think, is more important to emphasize, but since the dynamic of the NC Republican Party seems to fit into Robinson’s policies that he advocates, maybe there’s not really much of a ‘debate’ rather than an enunciation of fundamental principles.”

Carter Wrenn, Raleigh-based political consultant and columnist who worked with President Ronald Regan and advised U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, pointed to Robinson’s higher name recognition than his competitors, and issues surrounding his finances to suggest the debate “is a lose-lose for Robinson.”

Wrenn noted the lieutenant governor has largely avoided questions about past bankruptcies and unpaid tax bills, and has not taken a stance on big issues like bringing more casinos to North Carolina and “corporate subsidies” through the controversial NCInnovation deal pending in the General Assembly.

“He could get asked about that,” Wrenn said, adding that if Robinson doesn’t attend “it will have some” impact on his campaign.

“If it was a TV debate, it would have more,” he said, “but it will still have an impact. All of the candidates will talk about it.”

“It’s a political calculation on his part, and sooner or later he’s going to have to face those issues,” Wrenn said. “The more you duck them, the more you look like a politician.”

Mac McCorkle, professor with Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, suggests Robinson may not want to recognize the significance of his challengers, but may also “have a special reason to avoid a direct … debate with former Congressman Mark Walker.”

“The former congressman had served as something of a mentor to Robinson in promoting his emergence as a political spokesperson for North Carolina Republicans and helping to launch his campaign for lieutenant governor,” McCorkle wrote in an email. “But when Walker entered this race, he certainly seemed to signal that he had some very strong concerns about Robinson and was ready to unload damaging information about him.

“So the Robinson camp might find it important to rob Walker of any chance, at least this early in the 2024 race, to unleash attacks on Robinson while on the same stage as him,” McCorkle wrote. “Robinson’s decision and what happens – or doesn’t happen – at this debate will be interesting to watch.”



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