by Alexander H. Jones, NC Newsline
Mark Robinson’s freight-train drive for the Republican gubernatorial nomination has hit an obstacle. Unencumbered up till now by any viable opposition, the lieutenant governor must defeat a well-funded and battle-seasoned competitor in Salisbury attorney Bill Graham. Robinson retains his edge in this race, but his imminent confrontation with big money will test the dominance of his populist politics in the NCGOP.
Robinson and Graham represent a key divide in the North Carolina Republican Party. Call the dichotomy Money Conservatives versus Church Conservatives. This elite-populist division reflects different factional alignments and sociological profiles. While the Money Conservatives have coexisted with—and exploited—the Church Conservatives for most of the NCGOP era, Bill Graham’s confrontation with Robinson could cause a kind of strain in the alliance that hasn’t been seen since 2010.
Money Conservatives are the ruling panjandrums of the North Carolina establishment. I don’t call them Country Club Conservatives because the country clubbers, based in places like North Raleigh and South Charlotte, have largely shifted into the Democratic column.
Money Conservatives are less an extension of the managerial upper crust than allies of the Republican Party’s elite donor class. They are hard-right and hardline like the grassroots on whose votes on which they rely to gain office. But unlike the MAGA’s in the hollow, Money Conservatives care mostly about tax cuts and power. Their ethos could be summed up in the Renaissance-era Medici clan’s family motto: “Money to acquire power, power to protect money.”
The Church Conservatives are simpatico on tax cuts, but their animating passions fly far afield from the minutiae of numbers and budgets. Unlike the Money Conservatives, Church Conservatives are genuine believers in the cause of a reactionary cultural restoration. Their politics are deeply personal—a stark contrast to the pragmatic Machiavellianism of the Money Conservatives—and stem from a profound sense of communal loss. They mourn the patriarchal small-town white supremacy of midcentury North Carolina, and their politics are correspondingly raw.
Robinson is the ideal Church Conservative. Graham is the ideal Money Conservative. While they differ little in their tough-guy authoritarianism and right-wing policy goals, Graham appears motivated to wrest the governor’s chair from Democrats in order to consolidate conservative political power in North Carolina. (An interesting wrinkle is that Graham also seems to oppose regressive taxes on gas and groceries—a surprisingly progressive twist.) But Robinson wants simply to fight, and fight hard, for the cultural reaction that will restore hegemony to his churchgoing base. Assuming he can dispatch his wealthy challenger, the lieutenant governor may demonstrate the raging heart of North Carolina populism in 2024.
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