GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – At least four of the five Republican candidates for governor will gather for public forums and debates, but the perceived front-runner may not be among them.

State treasurer Dale Folwell, former insurance executive Jesse Thomas and former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker have confirmed they will attend debates on Sept. 12 in Cary and former state Sen. Andy Wells will join them on Sept. 13 in Charlotte, the first two of what may be several such events between now and the primary on March 5, aka Super Tuesday.

Those lineups so far do not include Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who leads in polls and fundraising, and his spokesperson did not respond to questions emailed by WGHP. Wells’ spokesperson said he had not heard from organizers about appearing at the event in Cary.

Former NC Sen. Andy Wells (CAMPAIGN)
Former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker (WGHP file)
Former BC/BS executive Jesse Thomas (UNC-Pembroke)
Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson (AP FILE PHOTO)
Dale Folwell (Courtesy of Dale Folwell)
NC Treasurer Dale Folwell (Courtesy of Dale Folwell)

The debate on Sept. 12 in Cary, first reported by The Center Square, a nonpartisan national news organization, is scheduled for the MacGregor Downs Country Club and will be sponsored by the Wake County Republican Party. The event the next night in Charlotte is at Maggiano’s in SouthPark and is sponsored by the Republican Women of Greater Charlotte.

The bigger issue, though, is the status of Robinson, who has been endorsed by both former President Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Ted Budd, among others. Skipping primary debates would be following a game plan adopted by Budd when running for the Senate in 2022.

Thomas, a former executive for Blue Cross Blue Shield, is the latest of the five to enter the race, joining Folwell of Winston-SalemLt. Gov. Robinson and 3-term congressman Walker from Greensboro and Iredell County developer Wells.

NC Attorney General Josh Stein (AP)
Libertarian Mike Ross (CANDIDATE)
Libertarian Shannon Bray

The race includes one confirmed Democrat – Attorney General Josh Stein – and two Libertarians, Shannon Bray of Apex and Mike Ross of Gaston County. Two or three others have been rumored to be considering running. Formal filing is scheduled for December.

“I am not surprised Mark Robinson is not debating,” Chris Cooper, a professor at Western Carolina University, elections expert and political blogger, told WGHP. “He is far ahead in the polls and has a penchant for making statements that come back to haunt him when he’s off-script — he’s got a lot to lose and very little, if anything, to gain for not debating. As Ted Budd proved last cycle, you can not only win a primary without debating, but you can win handily.

“Robinson and Budd’s decisions not to debate in the primary combined with Donald Trump’s decision not to participate in a Republican primary debate for the Presidency reinforces that we may be entering a new era of primary debates where front-runners don’t see any good in debating, and thus stay away from the stage and opt for more scripted venues.”

Robinson, a resident of Guilford County and the state’s highest-ranking elected Republican serving in his first elected office, gained fame by preaching to a mass of gun owners at a Greensboro City Council meeting in a social media video gone viral in 2018. He has a long record of outrageous comments in speeches and on social media and has been attacked frequently by both Folwell and Walker.

Folwell, in confirming his participation in the debates by saying “anytime, anywhere, anyplace,” said he wasn’t surprised that Robinson would not be participating.

“Taxpayers shouldn’t be surprised that a person who has been paid nearly half a million dollars and not shown up for work would show up for a job interview for governor,” Folwell told WGHP.

“For both debates, Rep. Walker looks forward to sharing his vision to discuss his plans to push economic security and educational freedom, and how North Carolina can lead the way in protecting our children and families,” Jonathan Bridges, Walker’s campaign manager, told WGHP. “We hope that Mr. Robinson will reconsider his decision not to show up. It’s important for voters to know where the candidates stand on issues that are going to impact the direction of our state.” 

The format to be used in the debate in Cary is unclear, but the event in Charlotte will be set up as a panel to include opening comments and timed questions and responses. It’s unknown who will do the questioning.

Jeff Moore, a spokesperson for the North Carolina Republican Party, says his group was not sponsoring, “though we’re glad voters will get to see our Republican candidates and weigh their candidacies.”