North Carolina Republicans Seek To Balance The Forces Of Trump

May 9, 2016

For seven generations members of the Wallenda family have pulled off incredible tightrope performances.

They've walked between skyscrapers, over Niagara Falls—and even the Grand Canyon—without a safety net. 

Republicans from Cherokee to Corolla gathered for their state convention this past weekend. There were no high-wire stunts in Greensboro at the state convention this weekend. But there was certainly a balancing act. 

National delegates were elected, party leaders spoke, and the process of unifying around de facto presidential nominee Donald Trump began.

"He won it fair and square, so he's entitled to the support of the Republican Party," said Art Pope. He's one of the most powerful Republican operatives in the state. And while he supports the system, he isn't backing the billionaire tough-talking mogul. Pope was asked about how a Trump ticket will affect other Republicans running this fall.

"I think that is a genuine concern, the down ticket ballots—and this is where I'm going to focus my efforts on Pat McCrory, the state legislature, our county commissioners and our U.S. Senate candidate. I think that's almost going to be a separate race from the presidential. I'll be active at a volunteer, as a donor to candidates of my choice, I'll speak out on the issue in favor of the candidates I support," Pope said.

He was the first budget director of Governor Pat McCrory. After speaking at the party gathering Saturday, McCrory wasn't keen on discussing Trump, the on-going national controversy sparked by House Bill 2, or really anything else for that matter. As a gaggle of reporters waited outside a meeting room, McCrory's security team snuck him through a service door and into a waiting black car.

Donald Trump emerged from a crowded Republican presidential field and is the party's presumptive nominee.
Credit Jeff Tiberii

U.S. Senator Richard Burr also spoke to the conservative convention center crowd on Saturday. He called Trump, Hillary Clinton's worst nightmare. But when asked by a reporter if he would be appearing with Trump at campaign events, Burr said he would be focused on his own re-election campaign.

Burr is a two-term incumbent facing a challenge from former state legislator Deborah Ross. Burr has a deep campaign piggy bank, though Ross has been climbing in the polls. He called this election cycle "unpredictable" and "ever-changing."

"It is a little crazy," agreed Will Antico, a lifelong Republican. The former Navy Veteran was at the convention serving as a delegate from Durham, sporting a Trump hat and button.

Antico said coalescing around Trump is important, using history as a reminder.

"I was just talking to a friend of mine, another fellow delegate, how in '92 when Ross Perot ran his third party it ended up putting Bill Clinton in office, cause a lot of conservatives instead of voting for Bush, voted for Perot and that siphoned off a lot of votes," Antico recalled at the Koury Convention Center in Greensboro over the weekend.

There is not presently a notable third party presidential candidate in this race. Wake Forest University Politics Professor John Dinan would be surprised if that changes. What wouldn't surprise him is if some regular voters avoid the polls this November. He also invoked a history lesson, in offering a strategy for the GOP.

"For a number of decades Democrats in North Carolina faced that situation where the presidential nominee was often to the left of where the state Democratic Party was. So the challenge was how do you maintain proper independence while still acknowledging your party's nominee. It's a delegate balance to walk," Dinan said.

This weekend marked the first time that some elected officials were seen wearing Trump gear. His name was mentioned regularly and there were no melees between the Cruz Camp and Team Trump.

"This is a political party, it is dysfunctional by nature. So our role, in addition to winning elections, is to put the 'fun' back in dysfunctional," said GOP State Chairman Robin Hayes earlier in the week.

For the first time since reconstruction, Republicans are defending majorities in both chambers of the general assembly as well as the Governor's mansion. Just how much fun they have November may depend on their balance act over the next few months.