Seven of the nine Republicans hoping to be the next Lt. Governor for North Carolina met in a debate hosted by the Harnett County Republican Party at Campbell University and moderated by Fmr. Rep. Allen West along with two other local figures. Candidates Fmr. U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers and State Senator Andy Wells were not in attendance. Ellmers was absent as her husband has recently suffered a heart attack. A reason for State Senator Wells’ absence was not given.
A recent poll by NC Civitas showed the race in a virtual tie in the crowded primary race field of nine candidates, with no one candidate reaching 10%, and the majority of voters undecided. This debate was an opportunity for candidates to distinguish themselves.
The Candidates on Education
Because the Lt. Governor sits on the State School Board, and State Board of Community Colleges education played a prominent role in the debate with all candidates weighing in on the topic several times throughout the night.
The participants mostly refrained from personal attacks, but Fmr. State Rep. Scott Stone took a veiled swipe at current State Superintendent Mark Johnson when he said, “Unfortunately we will have a harder time holding the Super seat because we thought we had an incumbent to defend that seat, but now we don’t.” The comment was in response to a question regarding the relationship between the Lt. Governor and the Superintendent. Johnson later stated that the reason he is running is that the state school board would not work with him as Superintendent in his effort to “clean out bureaucracy,” stating “I want to be Lt. Governor and be on the School Board and fight the people who want to keep the status quo.”
Mark Robinson—best known for defending the 2nd Amendment to the Greensboro City Council in a speech that went viral online—spoke of schools, stating, “I want to make them just teach our children and stop indoctrinating them.” While Deborah Cochran, the former Mayor of Mt. Airy, focused on what she believed to be the importance of providing every school with a computer science teacher—something she brought up several times throughout the night. She stated that by the time today’s 4th and 5th graders enter the workforce 70% of jobs will require knowledge of computer science. Buddy Bengel, a baseball team owner, focused on safety in education when he said that every school should have a School Resource Officer so that when a mother drops a child off in the morning, she never has to worry about that child’s safety.
The Candidates on Abortion
Robinson received a loud round of applause from the audience when he stated, “[the] first thing I will do is stand up for the unborn on the floor of the [North Carolina] Senate. We need to be a sanctuary state for the unborn.” Stone, speaking right after Robinson, said that with him as Lt. Governor and with a new Governor the state needs to pass the Born Alive Act, which Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed in 2019. Bengel then followed up by saying that if Gov. Cooper really trusted women he would not have vetoed the Born Alive bill.
The Candidates on Jobs
When speaking on economic growth candidates mostly turned to their personal stories. Robinson spoke about the experience of losing two “good-paying jobs” at manufacturing companies, while Cochran spoke about watching her brother lose his job to outsourcing. Greg Gebhardt, a former General Assembly staffer and military officer, talked about his experience growing up with a single mother in a town with little economic opportunity. Bengel focused on his experience as an entrepreneur, saying it would aid him in attempting to attract businesses to the state. John Ritter, a business owner from Moore County, spoke about his experience of taking over the business from his father when he died and what he learned about it.
The Candidates on Energy Policy
As the Lt. Governor is chair of Energy Policy Council, energy policy was the final major issue addressed in the debate. Gebhardt used it as an opportunity to highlight his experience with Cypress Creek Renewables, a solar energy company where he has worked as the Government and Community Relations Director. Robinson said that when he came to energy, the state needed to protect itself from the “globalist climate change cabal” and ensure that the state’s efforts to secure energy for the future were not hindered. Stone said that the Governor was needlessly holding up the development of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and Bengel said that if former Governor Pat McCrory had done what Cooper has done with the pipeline, he would be in jail.
It has yet to be seen if this debate will serve as a breakout moment for any of the candidates, though several of them had messages in mind and came prepared to portray themselves strategically. Johnson repeatedly referred to himself as someone who could fight against bureaucracy while Bengel and Gebhardt consistently referenced their business experience. Robinson routinely referenced “the common man” and his time working in factories, at one point stating “I don’t just understand North Carolina, I am North Carolina.” Cochran leaned heavily on her experience as a teacher, talking about specific issues like computer science and STEM classes while other candidates used slightly broader and more generalized language when discussing education. Stone sought to present himself as the one who was most prepared to work with the General Assembly, and John Ritter frequently referred to the values he learned while growing up and the importance of humility.
A recording of the entire debate can be found on the Campbell University Vimeo Livestream page.