At a rally in Missouri this fall, President Donald Trump made clear how he sees Tuesday’s election.
“Get out in 2018,” he told Republican supporters, “because you’re voting for me in 2018.”
And for many Democrats, it’s a chance to vote against him.
Trump may not be on the ballot but in North Carolina and elsewhere, he’s motivating voters on both sides.
“He’s my main reason (for voting),” said Karen Hampton, 49, a Matthews Democrat. “Just to check the president is important. We need a better balance.”
He’s also why Sandy Hausfeld, 55, is voting.
“We love our president,” the Mooresville Republican said at a Trump rally last month in Charlotte. “We need to keep the House and the Senate. He’s doing great things, but he needs some help.”
A sitting president and his record are often an issue in midterm elections. Historically, that’s often meant a loss of congressional seats for the president’s party. But interviews with voters and polls suggest Trump is a bigger factor than earlier presidents. They also reflect the deep polarization that appears to be fueling a record turnout for midterms in North Carolina and across the country.
An NPR/PBS/Marist poll released last week showed about two-thirds of voters said Trump was a factor this year. Close to half, 44 percent, said he was a major factor. During the last midterm, in 2014, only 28 percent said President Barack Obama was a major factor in their vote.
Trump’s schedule of nearly daily campaign events around the country have included two in Charlotte: a rally and a fundraiser, both designed to boost the prospects of GOP congressional candidates Mark Harris and Ted Budd.
Harris is running against Democrat Dan McCready in North Carolina’s 9th District, which stretches from south Charlotte to Cumberland County. It’s been represented by Republicans for decades and Trump carried it by nearly 12 percentage points in 2016. But the Cook Political Report and a New York Times Upshot/Siena College poll this week rated the race a tossup.
In North Carolina overall, it’s not clear whether Trump will end up helping the Republicans — or the Democrats — on the ballot
This week a Spectrum News survey found that 45 percent of North Carolinians are more likely to vote Democratic because of Trump while 30 percent are more likely to vote Republican. The finding mirrors some national polls.
But midterms in North Carolina generally see a higher percentage of registered Republicans at the polls than registered Democrats, according to an analysis by Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist.
In Washington and Raleigh, the stakes are high.
Democrats have to flip 23 seats to reclaim control of the 435-member U.S. House. They need four seats in the state House and six in the Senate to give Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper more clout by breaking GOP super-majorities that all but nullify his vetoes.
A new Meredith College poll found North Carolina Democrats expanding their lead in polls asking voters which party they favor in both congressional and legislative races. It also found Democratic voters slightly more excited about the election than Republicans.
Don’t tell that to Ted Ebner, a Charlotte Republican who voted early at Morrison Regional Library. He was one of about two-dozen voters interviewed by the Observer.
“I just think Trump’s performance has been fantastic,” said Ebner, 75. “We can’t sit on our laurels.”
‘He does it’
Excitement for the president was palpable at last week’s Trump rally at Bojangles’ Coliseum. Sandra Thigpen was there wearing a pink “Women for Mark Harris” T-shirt. One reason she plans to vote for the GOP congressional candidate: He’ll help the president and support his agenda.
“I’m going to vote straight Republican so they can get something done in Washington,” said Thigpen, 69, of Charlotte.
Besides his past success as a businessman, she believes Trump understands and represents people like her who have felt left behind by politicians.
“He speaks for the little person,” she said. “When I saw him in Rock Hill (in 2016), I about cried: He’s the man we need in office.”
Republican Linda Harr of Huntersville wore a knit “MAGA pussy hat” to the rally. The MAGA hats, for “Make America Great Again,” were red, white and blue — not the pink worn by women who marched against Trump by the hundreds of thousands last year.
“Jobs, jobs, jobs,” Harr said, explaining one reason for her support. “People are making more money and spending more money.”
Bill Williamson, 42, who lives in Steele Creek, is registered unaffiliated but said he tends to vote Republican. At the Charlotte rally, he wore a T-shirt backing Trump’s war of words with CNN and said it’s “an extra motivation” to go to the polls this year knowing that his vote will help the president.
“If he says he’s going to do something, he does it,” Williamson said about Trump. “I haven’t seen that in politics in my lifetime.”
Trump has fueled turnout and activism on the other side too.
He motivated Carolyn Eberly not only to vote, but to organize.
Last month the former chemist from Waxhaw was featured in a cover story for Time magazine on anti-Trump groups. After the 2016 election, she started a chapter of the resistance group Indivisible in the 9th Congressional District. Now she and her friends are knocking on doors for Democrat McCready.
“All of us are in for different reasons,” she told the Observer. “But the underlying reasons have to do with the current administration’s policies.”
Karen Wilson, 60, who lives in Dilworth, is an unaffiliated voter who has voted for Republican and Democratic presidential candidates. A nurse who also serves in the Army Reserves, she said there are a lot of reasons to vote this year, including the proposed N.C. constitutional amendments. But she also wants her voice against Trump to be heard.
“He’s probably the worst president I’ve ever experienced,” she said. “He’s not well-versed in anything. He takes credit for the economy, but the deficit is swelling.”
Avis Meeks, a west Charlotte Democrat, wanted to vote early so she could be among those turning out to object to what’s happening in Washington and in Raleigh. She blames Trump for raising racial tensions with his words.
“He called himself a nationalist,” said Meeks, who is African-American. “What word usually goes before nationalist? White nationalist.”
Democrat Mel Battle, who lives in Myers Park, called Trump “an instigator of mayhem.”
“We need more responsible government than we’re getting,” said Battle, 84. “I find (Trump’s) rhetoric to not be very helpful in solving problems.”
It’s not just Democrats who are turned off by the president. Around the country and in North Carolina, there are signs that some voters in suburban congressional districts who have voted Republican in the past have soured on Trump because of rhetoric and behavior they don’t consider presidential.
These voters could hurt Republican candidates like Harris who have pledged to support Trump and his agenda.
“I’m going to vote McCready, I’m just frustrated with Republicans,” Suzanne DiOrio, 46, a personal trainer, told McClatchy. Asked at an early-voting site in southeast Charlotte to name the last Republican she voted for, she replied, “That would be Trump.”
She saw the 2016 campaign as a choice between the lesser of two evils, and was “tired of the Clintons.” But now, she said, “I’m not happy at all,” pointing to Trump’s “tone, rhetoric.”
Asked if she regrets her vote for the president, she replied, “A little, yes. But that’s why I’m here.”
Analysts say Republican voters sticking with the party in 2018 point to a surging economy. Democrats, meanwhile, talk about issues such as Social Security and health care.
“(Trump) is the reason the Democratic base is so fired up,” said David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report. “But Democratic candidates have actually gained the most ground talking about healthcare and pre-existing conditions, not Trump.”
State Sen. Jeff Jackson, campaigning for his own re-election, has seen that close up.
“I knocked on a lot of doors this summer and I didn’t meet anyone with a tempered view of the president,” said Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat. “Everyone has strong feelings one way or the other.”
Katie Glueck of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed.