Donald Trump’s success in galvanizing support from a wide swath of angry Americans has stoked fears among some longtime North Carolina Republican campaign donors that his march toward the GOP presidential nomination could cause an irreparable fissure in the party.
“I think there’s real risk that the party is dividing,” said Shannon Smith, chief executive of the Charlotte-based Abundant Power Group LLC. “I think America will be a difficult place to govern under a three-party system, because we’re not a parliamentary system. I think it’s a big risk for the stability of our country.”
Mainstream Republicans, from unsuccessful 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney to a host of present and former officeholders, have been scrambling to derail Trump’s advance, which could continue Tuesday when North Carolina, Florida, Ohio and two other states hold primary elections.
Trump’s campaign, characterized by his incendiary vows to shut off U.S. borders to Latino and Muslim immigrants, was scarred over the weekend by violent clashes between supporters and protesters at his rallies in the Midwest. At an event in Ohio, Secret Service agents rushed to shield Trump when a man charged the stage.
“Anger and negativity and divisiveness will only harm our country in the long term,” Smith said in a phone interview. “To me, Trump represents that. There is a reason to be angry, but anger is not a policy and not a way to govern our country.”
While about two dozen Republican campaign donors did not respond to phone and email messages, several were concerned enough about the state of their party to speak publicly.
Smith donated the maximum allowable $2,700 last year to the primary campaigns of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, only to see Bush and Graham drop out of the race and Rubio fall by the wayside in recent primaries.
Trey Morgan, a Charlotte commercial real estate developer and manager, and his wife, Kimberly, each gave $2,000 to Bush’s campaign last year. Trey Morgan said he’s been increasingly disillusioned by the deterioration of discourse in the Republican race.
He said if Trump ascends to the nomination, or if the party is too splintered to agree on a candidate during the primaries and faces a brokered Republican National Convention, it “will absolutely split the party in two —or three.”
If Trump wins the nomination, Morgan said, “I’m a Republican who at best case won’t vote for him and at the very best will stay at home. And at the very worst, I might consider leaving the party to become an independent.”
Not everyone feels that Trump’s climb toward securing the nomination threatens the GOP’s future.
Jonathan Felts, a Raleigh resident and former senior adviser to North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, said that if Trump wins the nomination, it won’t mean the Republican Party’s demise, but rather will signal to party strategists and operatives that they need to adjust their elections playbook.
“A lot of principled people are angry, and sadly, don’t care anymore about anything other than sending a message,” Felts said in a phone interview. “They don’t care who the messenger is, and they don’t even care what the message is. They just want a tool they can use to send their message of anger to the (Washington) D.C. establishment. Trump benefits from that.”
Felts, who also worked under President George W. Bush as a political director in the White House and on Bush’s 2004 campaign, said he has not yet decided whom he will support in the North Carolina primary. However, he said he will vote.
Felts said he’s been surprised and disappointed by the sometimes coarse and uncivil tone of the Republican campaign this year, calling a recent debate in Detroit an “embarrassment.”
Echoing Smith and Morgan, he said Bush brought a “mature and measured approach” to the race that now seems to be missing.
North Carolina’s “infighting that led to our delegates being awarded proportionally rather than winner-take-all” has meant the state once again has garnered little attention from presidential candidates this year, Felts said.
Felts surmises the Republican race is really now just between Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a tea party champion who trails Trump by fewer than 100 convention delegates.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s “strategy of skipping most of the early rounds of voting but expecting to win,” Felts said, “is about as likely as the NCAA basketball champion skipping various rounds and expecting to win.”
Morgan, who said he’ll vote for Rubio on Tuesday, said he thinks most longtime Republicans didn’t take Trump seriously during early stages of the campaign or recognize the degree to which his plan to build a wall along the Mexican border to stanch the flow of illegal immigrants into the country would resonate with voters.
“I think that people early on thought that was Donald Trump the entertainer, just mouthing off and being stupid and being funny,” he said. “They were wrong. He’s become a very effective politician.”
Smith, however, said he considers Trump to be “a New York liberal or at best a New York independent” who “is not a standard bearer of the Republican Party that I represent or that has represented me, even with its flaws.”
“I’m concerned about the growing extremism in the parties,” he said. “America has been made great because of our ability to find consensus, not by dividing. I don’t demonize the word ‘mainstream.’ I believe mainstream is about finding ways to get along.”