North Carolina Republicans elected Michael Whatley their new chairman Saturday, marking what he called a “reset” for a party tarnished by legal problems.
Whatley, a businessman from Gastonia, defeated Jim Womack and John Lewis. By capturing 50.78% of the weighted vote, he narrowly escaped a runoff.
“This election cycle is absolutely critical,” he told cheering delegates after the vote. “We have to re-elect Donald Trump. We have to hold the (U.S.) Senate seat in North Carolina.” He said the party also has to elect judges and regain legislative super-majorities.
Miriam Chu of Moore County was elected vice chair. Their victories came at a convention that drew nearly 1,500 delegates to Concord.
He’ll preside over a party that not only will play a pivotal role in the 2020 presidential race but host the national GOP convention in Charlotte.
The party has been dogged by scandal. Outgoing Chairman Robin Hayes and three co-defendants have pleaded not guilty to bribery charges. 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.
The chairman’s race came down to Whatley and Womack, a former Lee County commissioner.
Whatley picked up two big-name endorsements last week, including that of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich. But he said he’s relying on a network he’s built up over the years and by 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.
Supporters said he was in the best position to help the party in 2020.
“I believe he will do the best job raising finds for the party to the point where we can elect Republicans consistently,” said Jennifer Overcash, a delegate from Belmont.
Perry Yates, a Watauga County commissioner, called Whatley “a uniter, not a divider.”
And Patrick Miller of Charlotte said he believes Whatley will not only be a stronger fundraiser, but have more ties to the national Republican Party and to the Trump campaign.
Womack is a West Point graduate who served 20 years in the Army. After working 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.
Supporters saw him as a champion of the grassroots.
“He himself knocks on doors,” said Wake County delegate Janet Yocum. “He doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks it.”