The Republican establishment’s panic at the prospect of the GOP nominating Donald Trump for president has spread to North Carolina, which will hold its presidential primary March 15.
Echoing Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, and scores of other party elders around the country, some longtime North Carolina Republican leaders say they’re worried that Trump at the top of the ticket in November could hurt the chances of other GOP candidates – including those for governor and U.S. Senate – listed lower on the ballot.
Former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, the party’s nominee for governor in 2000, said he’s “scared to death.”
“We’re about to turn our party over to a Trojan horse, a pretend conservative,” he told the Observer. “(Trump) is an opportunist and this is his latest opportunity. I’m worried about a disaster that takes down senators and everybody else.”
Former Gov. Jim Martin said Trump’s “rambunctious” style may have attracted some angry voters, but the real estate tycoon is also “turning off a lot of people. If he can’t figure out a way to be more charming and tolerant, it poses great risk of taking down the whole (GOP) slate.”
Added Martin, who’d like to see Ohio Gov. John Kasich nominated: “I want somebody who can win (in November). And I don’t think (Trump) can.”
Those worried that Trump is tarnishing the Republican Party’s image and will hurt its chances in November cite everything from his initial refusal to disavow an endorsement from white supremacist David Duke to his praise for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin to his fondness for hurling insults.
A poll late last month by Elon University found Trump leading his Republican rivals in next week’s North Carolina primary, at 28 percent – nearly 10 points ahead of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
But the poll also found, in a hypothetical matchup with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, that Trump would lose North Carolina – a key battleground state – 47 percent to 41 percent, if the general election were held now.
If that’s the story in November, Gov. Pat McCrory’s re-election bid could be imperiled, said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Washington-based Cook Political Report.
Even without Trump at the top of the GOP ticket, Duffy said Republican McCrory’s battle with Democrat Roy Cooper, now the state’s attorney general, is already shaping up to be possibly the closest gubernatorial race in the country.
“If Trump hurts a little bit, that hurts McCrory a lot,” said Duffy, who specializes in analyzing races for governor and U.S. Senate. “How much can (Trump) lose (North Carolina) by and a down-ballot person still survive? Even two points can be a problem.”
One danger for McCrory, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and other Republicans expected to be on the ballot, Duffy said, is that many GOP voters turned off by Trump and unwilling to back Clinton may stay home on Election Day.
Those GOP candidates for state offices, she said, “would have to convince (these voters) to go to the polls, even if it meant skipping the presidential race.”
Others argue that Trump could boost the vote totals of other Republicans in November.
Conservative activist Marc Rotterman, a veteran of many North Carolina campaigns who’s now based in Raleigh and Washington, said Trump has been spurring record turnouts in GOP primaries.
“Trump is bringing in ‘Reagan Democrats’ that we haven’t seen in 20 years,” Rotterman said. “This (Trump momentum) is a blue-collar backlash and a middle-class backlash. ... The establishment has underperformed on issues they campaigned on, like ending Obamacare and securing the borders.”
Still, in last month’s Elon poll, Sen. Marco Rubio was the only Republican presidential candidate who beat Clinton in North Carolina in the hypothetical head-to-head contests. He won 48 percent to 45 percent. Cruz and Clinton tied, each with 46 percent. The poll didn’t ask about Kasich vs. Clinton.
On Wednesday, Vinroot will join state Rep. Rob Bryan of Charlotte and others in co-hosting a Charlotte fundraiser for Rubio, who has become the hope of much of the GOP establishment. The Florida senator won’t attend the breakfast at the Alston & Bird law firm, where supporters will pay as much as $5,400 per couple. Instead, one of Rubio’s top surrogates, U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., will headline the event.
But last month, Trump won the GOP primary in South Carolina by 10 points, even though Gowdy, S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., all endorsed and campaigned for Rubio.
And with the North Carolina primary just over a week away, polls say Trump is the one to beat here, too – notwithstanding Rubio endorsements from U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and other public officials in the state.
Trump’s string of primary victories and his lead in the delegate count have caused at least one member of the GOP establishment in the state to jump off the “Stop-Trump-at-all-costs” bandwagon.
Former U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes of Concord, who chaired the state Republican Party in 2011-12, still favors Rubio. But he was critical of Romney’s decision last week to deliver a speech in which Romney called Trump “a fraud” and “a phony” and charged that the TV reality star-turned-presidential candidate was “playing the American public for suckers.”
Such top-down meddling, Hayes said, will only strengthen the perception among many rank-and-file Republicans that the GOP establishment is acting more like a GOP aristocracy.
Trump “has played by the rules,” said Hayes. “If he wins March 15 (when North Carolina, Ohio, Florida and Illinois vote), he’s got it. He’s won. ... The people will have spoken.”
But Martin, who served six terms in Congress before getting elected and re-elected governor, pointed out that Trump scored victories in primaries so far by getting a bigger percentage than his rivals in a crowded field, not by winning an outright majority of the votes.
“Right now, while Trump reacts after each primary as if he’s running away with it,” Martin said, more people have actually voted against him in states that award delegates on a proportional basis.
With crucial winner-take-all primaries coming up March 15, Martin said it would be “a smart move” if those running against Trump agreed to drop out of states where they had no chance. That way, he said, Rubio could run one-on-one against Trump in his home state of Florida and Kasich could go up against just Trump in his home state of Ohio.
That plan, also promoted by Romney last week, could potentially keep Trump from marching into the GOP convention with the 1,237 delegates he needs to get nominated. That would let the candidates battle it out at the party’s July convention in Cleveland.
North Carolina’s GOP primary is not winner-take-all; its delegates will be awarded on a proportional basis.
And if Trump does get the nomination?
Some national conservative leaders, including Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard, are calling for a “third-party option,” in which an “independent Republican” would run against Trump. He’s floated the name of U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who has said he would not vote for Trump in November.
Others have formed a national committee to draft House Speaker Paul Ryan to run, though the Wisconsin Republican has said he’s not interested.
For GOP ‘nominee’
With Trump the first choice of many GOP voters in North Carolina, McCrory and Burr – both running for re-election – have stayed mostly mum about the GOP civil war swirling around Trump.
Each has said they he’ll support whoever gets the Republican presidential nomination at the convention.
Duffy of the Cook Political Report has heard that refrain from candidates all over the country.
“If you say you’re not going to support the nominee, you’ve got a base problem,” she said, referring to that part of the Republican electorate that’s the most conservative and the most likely to vote.
In the last two presidential elections, Burr didn’t wait for the conventions to endorse the eventual nominees: The senator was an early backer of Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008 and former Massachusetts Gov. Romney in 2012.
This year, with his name on the ballot, Burr said he plans to endorse no one until the party officially nominates a candidate for the White House. But he said his decision was related not to his re-election campaign, but to his role as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee at a time when national security is a top issue with voters.
“I don’t think it’s fair to my colleagues (running for president) for me to step out and make an endorsement that could in some way, shape or form suggest that one is stronger than the other on national security and specifically on addressing terrorism,” Burr told the Observer last month. “I would rather the candidates be allowed to go out and present their case to the American people free of any stamp of approval by the chairman of the Intelligence Committee.”
In the Senate, Burr serves with two of the candidates still in the race, Rubio and Cruz. And Burr called the other surviving GOP contenders friends.
Asked if he shared the worry of many Republican leaders that nominating Trump or Cruz could hurt candidates lower on the ballot, including him, Burr said this:
“I’m certainly not in a panic because I can confidently tell you I’m going to support the Republican nominee.”
McCrory, speaking last week to Time Warner Cable News, stuck by his pledge to back the eventual GOP nominee for president, though he expressed frustration with the negative tone of the debates – in both parties.
“I will support the Republican nominee. But I’m staying out of the presidential race,” he said. “Let the process work. This is a long, drawn-out process. My only critique of all the candidates is, ‘Start talking about your strengths as opposed to the other person’s weaknesses.’ ... I’m concerned about the maturity level of the debates and also the lack of pragmatic solutions.”
Democrats have tried to cast these cautious comments by McCrory and Burr as tantamount to endorsements for Trump.
“Donald Trump would be a disaster as president,” North Carolina Democratic Party Chair Patsy Keever said in a statement released not long after McCrory’s TV interview. “And North Carolinians should be embarrassed that Gov. McCrory would even consider helping him get there.”
The history of North Carolina elections shows that a presidential candidate can sometimes help and can sometimes hurt the gubernatorial and Senate candidates of the same party.
In 1972, Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern was so weak at the polls in North Carolina that voters disenchanted with the Democrats’ liberal direction elected Jim Holshouser, the state’s first GOP governor, and launched the Senate career of Republican Jesse Helms.
But in 2008, a record turnout among African-Americans for Barack Obama in North Carolina helped Democrat Kay Hagan defeat incumbent GOP Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
Trump to be in N.C.
Trump does have the support of some Republican leaders in North Carolina.
State Sen. Ronald Rabin of Harnett County has endorsed him and plans to be in Fayetteville on Wednesday when Trump speaks at the second of two North Carolina campaign rallies scheduled this week. Trump will also address supporters in Concord on Monday.
As a successful businessman, Trump “understands the economy a lot better than Rubio and Cruz,” Rabin said. “And his skills will translate into being a good chief executive and commander-in-chief. ... He’s used to consulting with experts in different areas and making good clean decisions.”
But state Rep. Jason Saine, a Republican from Lincolnton who co-chairs Rubio’s campaign in the state, said Trump “talks on a third-grade level,” a trait that would hurt him with serious voters who begin focusing on their presidential choice in the fall.
And, Saine added, Trump is “a Johnny-come-lately” to the Republican Party who has contributed money over the years not only to the Democratic National Committee but also to Hillary Clinton.
“For the general election,” he said, “a choice between Hillary and a Hillary donor is pretty hard for Republicans to stomach.”
Staff writer Jim Morrill contributed.