Why you should care
Because this purple state is ground zero for political activism.
Kellyanne Conway’s rhetorical foes when addressing 500 rapt North Carolina Republicans include the news media, Hollywood and doubt itself. Reports of President Donald Trump meddling with an FBI investigation or turmoil within his White House, she says, must be brushed off like so much pesky dandruff.
“Don’t repeat it,” Conway implores a luncheon crowd at the state GOP convention this month, just days before James Comey’s explosive Capitol Hill testimony. “Don’t believe it. And don’t buy into it. Don’t even lean into it. The minute that you kind of tilt your head and shrug your shoulders and crinkle your nose like ‘mmm,’ you’ve given into it. You have to stay strong.”
Nodding heads and comments to reporters indicate that the White House counselor’s message hits home among the hardcore activists who gave their Saturday over to political speechifying and electing party officers. But there is no shortage of discontent among the Republican regulars in the Wilmington Convention Center. By and large, they have Trump’s back. They worry that congressional Republicans do not.
The rank and file out here is fed up with timidity.… Will someone please produce for me the book Great Moderates in History? There are none!
Miriam Chu, tea party leader, North Carolina
As a fired-up Democratic base challenges in red U.S. House seats across the country — though they have yet to score a victory, heading into Tuesday’s closely watched contest outside Atlanta — GOP grumbling about its Capitol Hill representation may be indicative of a volatile midterm season to come. Nowhere is the landscape more uncertain than in North Carolina.
“The rank and file out here is fed up with timidity,” says Miriam Chu, a Tea Party leader who lives near the golf mecca of Pinehurst. “They’re fed up with the finger in the wind, trying to figure out what’s going to make them popular and the ones that are trying to go moderate,” she continues, the M-word dripping with disdain. “Will someone please produce for me the book Great Moderates in History? There are none!”
Starting with Barack Obama’s razor-thin win in 2008, North Carolina has been one of the nation’s most fiercely contested battlegrounds and home to boiling-hot party bases. When Republicans swept to total power in Raleigh in 2012, they slashed taxes and environmental regulation, and boosted charter schools. They also passed voting restrictions that were tossed out in court for targeting African-Americans “with almost surgical precision,” as federal appeals court judges wrote. A law blocking cities from passing anti-discrimination protections for LGBT citizens became a national fight over where transgender people can use the restroom, costing the state billions of dollars in business. (The law was partially repealed this year.)
North Carolina’s Moral Mondays movement launched the kind of mass liberal protests that have gone national in the Trump era — though its results at the ballot box have been limited. Democrats took back the governorship in 2016, but Trump won the state, and Republicans still have state Capitol supermajorities and a 10-3 advantage in the congressional delegation. Those margins are under threat now that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that illegally drawn districts must be revamped.
The GOP activists gathered in Wilmington shrugged off the uncertain district boundaries and projected energy on the president’s side. Linda Petrou says that during the campaign when she’d go to the grocery store in Winston-Salem in her Trump T-shirt, she’d see subtle thumbs-up from people who didn’t want to support the mogul openly. Now her neighbors are more vocal. “They’re getting mad at the way the media and the Democrats are going after him and not letting him get anything done,” Petrou says. “And I think it’s going to rebound to hurt Democrats, because you’re keeping the base activated that normally would go home and sleep for four years.”
But the picture is more complicated for Trump’s adopted party. There are no kind words in Wilmington for House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Tar Heel Republicans in D.C. get mixed reviews. Sen. Richard Burr, leading a Russia investigation as chairman of the Intelligence Committee, is seen as insufficiently supportive of the president. “He is just laying back,” says Keith Kidwell, of rural Beaufort County along the coast. “Let’s be aggressive.” Petrou says Rep. Virginia Foxx, a seven-term representative who now chairs the Education and the Workforce Committee, could see a serious primary challenge.
But many singled out Rep. Mark Meadows, from western North Carolina, for praise. The leader of the hard-right Freedom Caucus tangled with Trump on health care, but the two appeared to reconcile as the House passed a more conservative version of an Obamacare overhaul. Still, that bill stands no chance in the Senate, which is trying to develop its own version. The protracted debate is holding back the rest of Trump’s legislative agenda, such as tax cuts and new public works spending. “We can’t expect everything to happen in the first six months,” Conway says.
And then there’s the Russia saga. For many in the base, each leak is another reason to back Trump and distrust the mainstream media. But there are plenty of uneasy moderates in battlegrounds like suburban Raleigh, where Emmanuel Wilder is a leader of the Young Republicans. He’s no fan of the administration’s travel ban or return to tougher sentences for drug crimes. Wilder’s young professional set would rather see action on pocketbook issues like student loans. He’s trying to build support for modest criminal justice reform in the state Legislature — preventing 16- and 17-year-olds from being charged as adults, except for some violent felonies. “Instead of talking about that, we’re talking about Russia,” Wilder says. “It’s disheartening.”