Robin Hayes, NCGOP chairman and campaign donor indicted in federal court
Two months after North Carolina’s GOP chairman was indicted for bribery, Republicans will gather in Concord this weekend to pick a leader to usher them into the high-stakes 2020 election.
While three men are competing for the job, interviews with current and former party officials suggest the race will come down to two, Michael Whatley of Gaston County and Jim Womack of Lee County.
“This is a Whatley-Womack race,” said Dan Barry, former chair of the Union County GOP and a Womack supporter.
John Lewis, the party’s general counsel, also is running. Outgoing Chair Robin Hayes calls him “clearly the front runner in terms of experience.”
But it’s clear that many Republicans want a change.
“Everyone I’ve talked to wants to see a fresh start,” said Dennis Bailey, Cleveland County GOP chair.
Hayes was one of four people indicted on charges of trying to bribe state Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey, a Republican. Prosecutors alleged that he, businessman Greg Lindberg and two others offered $2 million in an effort to benefit one of Lindberg’s companies. Lindberg is one of the party’s biggest donors.
A trial could come as early as September, according to court records.
“John (Lewis) has been involved in what is referred to as the establishment Republican Party, the Robin Hayes Republican Party, and we’re trying to get away from that,” said Carl Mischka, chairman of the 3rd District GOP.
“The people who make phone calls and the people who knock on doors are the most important people in the party, and somehow . . . our leadership has become disconnected from that group.”
Both Whatley and Womack appear to agree. Whatley says the party needs a “reset.” Womack wants to “revive” the party.
The chairman would become the face of the party. He would also hires a staff including a replacement for outgoing executive director Dallas Woodhouse.
Running on experience
Whatley, of Gastonia, picked up two big-name endorsements this week: former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. But he said he’s relying on a network he’s built up over the years and criss-crossing the state this year.
A lawyer with two master’s degrees in theology, he was a member of George W. Bush’s Florida Recount Team in 2000 and went on to serve in Bush’s Energy Department. He worked in the Senate, including a year as former U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s chief of staff. Since 2007 he’s been a partner in the consulting firm HBW. In 2016 he helped organize N.C. rallies for Donald Trump.
“I have a combination of state experience and federal experience that is unmatched by the other candidates,” Whatley told the Observer.
Womack, a former Lee County commissioner, is a West Point graduate who served 20 years in the Army, including in Operation Desert Storm. After working in IT for N.C. state government, he joined a private IT company, where he was chief salesman. Now retired, he has a long history of political activism and in 2017, ran against Hayes for party chair.
“Clearly we’re the two frontrunners,” he said of Whatley and himself. “He’s a neophyte with party activities in North Carolina . . . He’s going to be a part-time chairman. I’m going to be a full-time chairman.”
Whatley responded: “I would be a chairman who gets done everything that needs to be done for the 2020 elections.”
Lewis, a Citadel graduate and lawyer from Cabarrus County, is from running on his own experience as a party official at the precinct, county, district and state levels.
“It’s all well and good to say that you want a reset,” he said in an interview. “But if want a reset by throwing out everyone who knows how the party structure works you’re going to lose a lot of institutional knowledge and put the party in a bad position going into 2020.”
‘Key is unity’
Tamara Leonard, GOP chair in Craven County, said she believes the race between Womack and Whatley is tight. She said Womack benefits from people upset at the 2016 ouster of then-state Chair HasanHarnett. Womack was an outspoken Harnett defender.
“There were a lot of disgruntled people who felt that wasn’t handled properly,” Leonard said.
Womack has won support from anti-establishment activists.
“Jim is a real grassroots guy,” said Jane Billelo, chair of the Asheville Tea Party. “He understands the grassroots.”
Mecklenburg County GOP Chair Chris Turner said he believes Whatley not only has solid ideas for leading but would make a good face for the party.
“We have struggled over the last decade and Michael has the best hard- and soft-skills needed to project our conservative message while inviting swing independent voters to join our efforts,” he said in a statement. “He has the strongest communications strategy and relationships already built to reach more voters in an influential way.”
Regardless of who wins, many Republicans say they hope the party can come together.
“I think we win regardless of the outcome Saturday,” said Will Knecht, chairman of the New Hanover County party. “The key is going to be us as a state party leaving Concord unified.”