Politics & Government

Will Trump unify or damage the Republican Party in the Carolinas?

GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, NC on Monday, March 14, 2016.
GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, NC on Monday, March 14, 2016. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Republicans woke up Wednesday morning to the realization that Donald Trump, once the host of a TV reality show, had finally defeated the last of his 17 GOP primary rivals and would almost surely become the party’s 2016 presidential nominee.

The reaction from top Republicans in the Carolinas?

Mixed.

Some, like U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., welcomed Trump to the general election fight against Democrats trying to take back control of the Senate and keep the White House.

“I always said I would support the nominee and it’s clear Donald Trump has won the Republican presidential primary,” Burr, who is running for re-election this year, said in a statement. “I look forward to working with Mr. Trump at the top of the ticket and to maintaining a GOP Senate. There will not be a third term for a Clinton/Obama Administration in the White House.”

Those sentiments were echoed by U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., of Charlotte.

“I fully support Donald Trump, nominee for the Republican party,” Pittenger said in an email to the Observer. “Four more years of progressive-socialist Obama-like policies would have a devastating affect on our economy and our national security.”

Other N.C. Republicans, though, were not ready to jump on the Trump bandwagon.

N.C. Sen. Buck Newton of Wilson, who will be on the ballot in November as the GOP nominee for attorney general, was asked if he plans to vote for Trump.

His answer: “We’ll see.”

And N.C. Sen. Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville, who chairs the influential Senate Rules Committee in Raleigh, put it this way: “I haven’t decided if I’m voting for president yet. Don’t blame me. I voted for (Jeb) Bush.”

The governors of South Carolina and North Carolina repeated their months-old pledges to back the eventual GOP nominee without mentioning Trump by name.

“I have great respect for the will of the people, and as I have always said, I will support the Republican nominee for president,” S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley said in a Wednesday statement.

But she also discouraged widespread speculation that she might end up as Trump’s running mate.

“While I am flattered to be mentioned and proud of what that says about the great things going on in South Carolina,” she said, “my plate is full and I am not interested in serving as vice president.”

Ricky Diaz, a spokesman for N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory, who is running for a second term this year, said this: “The governor has always said he will support the GOP nominee, but the real question is will (Democratic gubernatorial nominee) Roy Cooper support Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders?”

‘GOP changed forever’

At a Wednesday news conference, new N.C. GOP chairman Robin Hayes sounded the same theme as Reince Priebus, the party’s national chairman, who called for the party to unite around Trump after the billionaire businessman won Tuesday’s crucial Indiana primary.

“Now that we’ve gone from the primary to the general election cycle, that automatically creates a sense of unity,” said Hayes.

Sen. Jerry Tillman of Randolph County also applauded Trump’s victory.

“The national GOP has been changed forever by Donald Trump,” he said. “People power is back in and establishment elitism is gone. It will never be the same.”

But around the country, some shell-shocked Republicans have said they’ll vote for Clinton. Others said they worried Trump had tarnished the Republican brand with a say-anything style that has alienated key voter groups, including women, Hispanics and young people.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., appeared to speak for these Republicans on Tuesday, when he tweeted: “If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed...And we will deserve it.”

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill

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