Republican Greg Brannon pulled up to a Charlotte early-voting site Saturday in a bus emblazoned with the message of his underdog U.S. Senate campaign: “Defeat the Washington Establishment.”
Like many candidates, Brannon hopes to ride the wave of anti-establishment sentiment that has fueled the campaigns of presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
By winning 22 of their party’s first 24 nominating contests, the two outsiders have left much of the GOP establishment reeling. Both lead in North Carolina polls heading into Tuesday’s primary. One showed them winning nearly seven in 10 GOP voters between them.
But will that outsider sentiment reach down to races such as U.S. Senate or governor?
“We’ve been on the lookout for that all primary season,” said John Dinan, a political scientist at Wake Forest University. “That has so far not happened.”
Some N.C. voters hope it does.
“Washington is just entrenched,” Diane Hass, a 62-year-old flight attendant from Charlotte, said at a rally for Cruz in Kannapolis last week. “They’re the elites. They govern over us. They’re not part of us.”
Democrats also have their outsider candidate in U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is calling for a political “revolution.”
Among Republicans, the tension between the grassroots and establishment that has marked party primaries flared in North Carolina last week.
State GOP Chairman Hasan Harnett accused party staffers of locking him out of his email account and generally disregarding him. “It is apparent that my sincere help and service to the Republican Party is not appreciated or welcomed,” he wrote to executive director Dallas Woodhouse.
Brannon and Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert Brawley are both courting the anti-establishment vote. But a High Point University Poll Friday showed both GOP Sen. Richard Burr and Gov. Pat McCrory with a wide lead over their opponents.
Brannon, who got 27 percent of the vote in an eight-candidate 2014 primary, hopes the outsider sentiment will boost his campaign, though he said he’s not new to the anti-establishment bandwagon.
In an email to supporters Saturday, Brannon cited a poll that showed nearly three in four GOP voters favoring Trump over Cruz. “These folks will cast their vote on the same ballot as they do for U.S. Senate,” he said. “You and I have a real opportunity to kick the establishment to the curb on Tuesday.”
But longtime Republican strategist Carter Wrenn said long-shots like Brannon and Brawley aren’t likely to benefit much from the outsider fervor.
“There’s a big difference in a competitive race, (and) with a guy … saying, ‘I’m an outsider’ and waiting for the angels to come down and anoint him,” Wrenn said.
In North Carolina, anti-establishment sentiment is not hard to find.
Daniel Rufty of Charlotte, the GOP’s 12th District chairman, said grassroots Republicans “are sick and tired of the same-old, same-old.”
“These establishment hacks could care less about … conservative principles,” said Rufty, who ran Harnett’s 2015 race for chairman. “All all they care about is maintaining power.”
Jane Bilello, president of the Asheville Tea Party, hopes such sentiment spreads down the ballot.
“I have a feeling (it) might because people have had it,” she said. “They’re looking at their tax bill. … Things like that are getting under people’s skins and they’re realizing government doesn’t have the answers.”
Edwin McCora of Charlotte wore two Cruz buttons as he waited for his candidate at a Baptist church in Kannapolis Tuesday. He said the GOP establishment “keeps putting up candidates like Mitt Romney and John McCain.”
He said he doesn’t like McCrory and will “never cast another vote for Richard Burr.”
But for some voters, the appeal of outsider candidates doesn’t extend to other races.
Greg Seawell attended a Trump rally in Fayetteville last week. He said establishment efforts to stop Trump in the primaries or at this summer’s convention in Cleveland would backfire. “They’re going to alienate a lot of people who have always voted Republican,” he said.
But Seawell, 55, seemed to compartmentalize the presidential contest. N.C. GOP office holders, he said, are “not as much a part of the problem as Washington.”
William Ward Jr., a retired car dealer in Fayetteville, called himself a “staunch” Trump supporter “because he’s got enough backbone to stand up to everybody. In Washington, they’re spineless. And there’s no respect for America anywhere in the world now.”
But he plans to vote for Burr and McCrory. “I like both of them,” he said. “They seem to be pretty good, straight-forward people.”
In any case, it’s hard to beat incumbents.
Challengers such as Brannon and Brawley trail their rivals in fundraising, organization and name recognition. And with no runoffs this year, incumbents just have to win the most votes, not the 40 percent they’d normally need to avoid a second primary.
“Knocking off incumbents is just so hard the way it is,” said Dinan, the political scientist. “Everything’s got to line up right.…I haven’t seen anything to change those fundamentals”