Joyce Cotten has been to three Republican conventions, but never one with so much skepticism around the party’s would-be nominee – even delegate plots to topple him.
“We’ve never had a convention like this, but we’ve never had a candidate like this,” says Cotten, 73, a party official from Pittsboro. “The only way we’re not going to elect Hillary Clinton is to be united.”
We’ve never had a convention like this, but we’ve never had a candidate like this.
N.C. delegate Joyce Cotten
North Carolina Republicans, like those across the country, have a lot riding on the next four days in Cleveland.
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Interviews with nearly a quarter of the state’s 72 delegates suggest a delegation still split in its allegiance to billionaire Donald Trump, the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee.
In what’s expected to be a choreographed showcase, Trump will try to appeal not only to skeptical Republicans but to millions of American voters. His success could go a long way in deciding the outcome of key congressional and state races in North Carolina.
“I’m of the school generally that conventions don’t matter,” says Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the Washington-based Cook Political Report. “This time, the convention matters.”
Prominent Republicans including former Presidents George W. Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush, have refused to endorse Trump. Others, such as 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney and former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, have sharply attacked him.
A recent Washington Post ABC News Poll found that 70 percent of Americans view Trump unfavorably. Democrats already are running TV ads in North Carolina and elsewhere linking GOP congressional candidates to Trump.
But many N.C. delegates are firmly in Trump’s camp.
“I’m very excited about Donald Trump … and I’m convinced he’s going to win,” says Ed Broyhill, 62, a Winston-Salem investor and Trump fundraiser. “I’m going up to Cleveland expecting this thing to be totally unanimous, and a celebration of his candidacy.”
Many N.C. delegates are more philosophically aligned with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who narrowly lost the state’s March 15 primary. But for some, any reservations about Trump are outweighed by one thing: his Democratic opponent.
Hillary Clinton is the biggest uniter in the Republican Party.
Delegate Wayne King
Polls show Clinton also unpopular with voters – her unfavorable ratings reached 60 percent in a recent poll – particularly after FBI Director James Comey called her “extremely careless” in her handling of classified emails while secretary of state.
“Hillary Clinton is the biggest uniter in the Republican Party,” says Wayne King, 35, a delegate from Kings Mountain and deputy chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows. “When the choice is between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the choice is pretty clear.”
Scott Cumbie, 54, a businessman from Winston-Salem and a Cruz supporter, says Trump is not as conservative as he’d like him to be.
“But when it comes to love for this country … Trump is far closer to where I am than Hillary Clinton will ever be,” he says.
‘Coming around’ to Trump
But Trump still has his critics.
Mark Mahaffey, a businessman from Lee County, supports the “Free the Delegates” movement. It sought, apparently unsuccessfully, to allow delegates to vote their conscience in Cleveland, not the way they were bound by the results of their state primaries.
A one-time Cruz supporter, Mahaffey has said he doesn’t trust Trump. “He’s going out of his way to tell different factions of the Republican Party he doesn’t need them to win,” he says. “It’s not a smart move because it divides the party rather than pulling them together.”
Delegate Matthew Ridenhour, a Mecklenburg County commissioner, even declines to say whether he’ll vote for Trump in November.
“It’s really up to Donald Trump to earn the vote of conservatives and Republicans,” Ridenhour says. “A vote is not obligated. It’s up to him to earn these votes.”
Daniel Rufty, a Charlotte delegate and 12th District GOP chairman, has called Trump “a New York liberal.” He predicts a Democratic landslide.
Even delegate Claude Pope, a former state party chairman from Bald Head Island who backed Cruz, says the party is split – just as Democrats are split. But he said he’s “coming around” to Trump.
“But as you approach November I’m pretty confident our party will come together. Some will come kicking and screaming. But at the end of the day they don’t want Hillary Clinton,” he says.
Tying candidates to Trump
In a sign Democrats see Trump as an inviting target, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is spending $1 million on ads targeting 10 GOP House members and tying them to Trump. One ad running in North Carolina ties Trump to generic Republican House candidates.
Republican strategist Carter Wrenn of Raleigh says he’s seen a private poll that showed a quarter of Republicans undecided in the presidential race, a high number by traditional standards. That’s one reason he thinks ads like the Democrats are running can work.
“For over four decades Republicans used more or less the same strategy here in North Carolina – we tied local Democrats like Jim Hunt or Kay Hagan to unpopular national Democrats like Walter Mondale or Barack Obama,” Wrenn blogged last week. “And it worked.”
It was Wrenn, a GOP strategist from Raleigh, who helped Sen. Jesse Helms come up with the tag for his 1984 opponent: “Jim Hunt – a Mondale liberal.”
Now Democrats could use the same tactic against Sen. Richard Burr, Gov. Pat McCrory and other Republicans.
“Look back what Republicans did when the shoe was on the other foot,” Wrenn says. “We linked every Democrat we could to an unpopular Democrat.”
Of course, Republicans could do the same this year, tying N.C. Democrats to an unpopular Clinton.
By showing whether each candidate can solidify support within their party and deliver the traditional bump in polls, the conventions could signal what the fall campaign looks like.
“If North Carolina behaves the way we expect it to and the presidential race is close, Burr and McCrory can both survive that if they run a good campaign,” says Duffy of the Cook Report. “But if the floor falls in and Trump just tanks, then you are talking about a real significant wave for Democrats. So far the floor hasn’t fallen in yet.”