Politics & Government

After a rocky few months, NC Republicans look for a new start at convention

Its chairman was indicted for bribery.

A congressional hopeful was entangled in alleged election fraud.

And after losing the governorship, legislative supermajorities and control of the state Supreme Court, it now faces a potentially divisive Senate race.

For the North Carolina Republican Party, it’s been a tough go.

“To say the North Carolina Republican Party is at a low point would be an understatement,” Raleigh conservative Jeff Moore recently wrote on his blog. “It’s not necessarily a good look when the party chairman gets indicted by a federal grand jury for bribery.”

As they gather for this week’s state convention in Concord, North Carolina Republicans are at a crossroads. They will elect a new chairman who will take them into a high-stakes election year.

North Carolina not only will be a pivotal player in the presidential race but see Republicans try to regain the governor’s office and rebuild their legislative majorities. They’ll also host the Republican National Convention in Charlotte.

Outgoing Chairman Robin Hayes and three co-defendants have pleaded not guilty to bribery. A trial could be held as early as September. And a special congressional election is underway in the 9th District after state elections officials found an alleged absentee ballot scheme orchestrated by an operative hired by former GOP candidate Mark Harris.

“There’s no question that we have an image problem,” said Dan Barry, a former Union County GOP chair.

Reset or revive?

A recent poll by the conservative Civitas Institute found North Carolina voters look more favorably at the Republican Party than the Democratic Party: 42% to 39%. But the poll also found that unaffiliated voters — who outnumber registered Republicans — are more likely to have a negative opinion of the GOP.

John Lewis, the party’s current general counsel and a candidate for chair, said the party itself is strong.

“The party itself is larger than any one individual who makes up the party,” he said.

But Jim Womack, a former Lee County commissioner who’s also running, said “the optics of the party are very poor right now.”

“The faith and confidence in the Republican Party is not where it needs to be,” he said, “especially with the general public.”

Womack talks about “reviving” the party. A third candidate, businessman Michael Whatley of Gastonia, is calling for a “reset.”

The party will have to navigate that amid what’s shaping up as a tough U.S. Senate primary. U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis faces a primary against wealthy Raleigh businessman Garland Tucker, who’s expected to spend millions of his own money. Meanwhile some are pushing U.S. Rep. Mark Walker of Greensboro to run. One GOP consultant warned the primary could become a “circle of death.”

Political scientist Michael Bitzer of Catawba College said it’s important for the party to come together after the convention.

“You certainly don’t want to go into a competitive presidential, Senate and governor’s race and see the party organization in disarray,” he said.

No distractions

North Carolina is expected to again be a swing state in the presidential race. And the Senate race could decide whether Republicans maintain control of that chamber.

“North Carolina is a hugely important election in 2020 for Republicans,” said Barry.

And Washington-based analyst Nathan Gonzales said Republicans want a unified party with the national convention coming to North Carolina.

“Conventions are an opportunity for a party to showcase itself,” he said, “and you don’t want anything that distracts from the stories that come out of it.”

Carl Mischka, chairman of the 3rd District Republican Party, acknowledges the run of negative headlines but said he’s looking forward to coming together after Saturday’s election of a new chairman.

“It’s been disruptive and the press has not been kind to the Republican Party,” he said. “I hope by Saturday afternoon there will be a new look and a new direction. And I’m working hard to effect that.”