Republicans scramble to hold once-reliable North Carolina

Megan Chambers, a graduate student at North Carolina State, said she won't vote for Trump but has not yet settled on Biden.
(Noah Bierman / Los Angeles Times)

If Democrats are to have a shot at winning North Carolina in November’s presidential election, they need to close the deal with voters like Megan Chambers.

Chambers is one of hundreds of thousands of out-of-state transplants — many highly educated and from Northern cities — who have helped transform many of the state’s rural communities into suburban subdivisions and shopping centers linked by a maze of wide highways.

The influx also has propelled a shake-up of the state’s politics and its effect on the national political map, giving Democrats new life in the traditionally conservative South.


Yet the shift is incomplete. Chambers, a 26-year-old graduate student, believes President Trump is ignorant and self-centered. But she has reservations about 77-year-old Joe Biden due to his age and other reasons, and is considering an obscure third-party candidate.

“I don’t know anybody that is really, really excited and loves Joe Biden,” Chambers, an Ohio native, said amid the peaches and tomatoes at a farmers’ market in Raleigh.

Polls show Biden and Trump locked in a dead heat in North Carolina, perhaps the closest contest of the battleground states.

Trump almost certainly needs North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes to win reelection. It’s one reason Republicans initially chose Charlotte, the state’s biggest city, to hold their four-day national convention, which starts Monday.

The coronavirus crisis put severe limits on in-person attendance and the party will instead hold most of its events online, as Democrats did last week.

The state is not as critical for Biden given his hold on vote-rich California and New York, and his apparent advantage in other major swing states, including Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

But a Biden win here would almost guarantee his path to the White House. And North Carolina also could hand Democrats control of the Senate, and thus of both houses in Congress, giving a Democratic president the ability to make major legislative changes.


Given the high stakes, the parties are spending a fortune on TV advertising.

Polls show Sen. Thom Tillis, the Republican incumbent, trailing Cal Cunningham, his Democratic challenger. Their campaigns and outside groups are spending $10 million a week on television ads, according to a Democratic operative who tracks the money.

The presidential race, including the Democratic primary last spring, has generated nearly $160 million in television spending so far, the operative said.

“It’s going to be very expensive and brutal and you’re seeing unknown third-party money coming in in droves,” said Pat McCrory, a former Republican governor who is now a radio host.

McCrory got slammed by the demographic shift in his 2016 reelection race.

He won 72 of the state’s 100 counties, but narrowly lost to Roy Cooper, a Democrat who racked up big margins in the suburbs and cities, including Charlotte, where McCrory had served as mayor for 14 years.

“New York has moved to North Carolina,” McCrory said.

Morgan Jackson, a political advisor to Cooper and Cunningham, said Virginia is a better comparison. The once reliably Republican state has trended Democratic in recent years due to the growth of diverse and liberal suburbs near Washington, D.C.

In addition to statewide races, Democrats in North Carolina are expected to pick up at least two U.S. House seats and hope to win back the state legislature, in large part because the courts struck down gerrymandered district maps last year and ordered new ones more favorable to Democrats.

If Democrats win either the state House or Senate, they will have a voice in drawing up the next set of maps following the 2020 census, which could help their party at the national level for the next decade.

Valerie Biden Owens, sister of Joe Biden, participates in a virtual town hall.

But Democrats have seen their hopes dashed here in the past.

In presidential races, Democrats have won only once in the past four decades — when Barack Obama eked out a tight win over Sen. John McCain in 2008.

Four years later, Democrats nominated Obama for a second term at a convention in Charlotte, but Obama lost narrowly to Mitt Romney. North Carolina was one of only two states that flipped that year.

In 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton here by 3.6 percentage points.

Since then, the state’s voter rolls have grown by about 160,000 people, almost as many votes as Trump’s winning margin. To win, Biden would need many of the new residents, and also inspire more young and Black voters — who make up about a fifth of the electorate — to turn out.

The pandemic has made organizing and get-out-the-vote efforts more difficult. A virtual “watch party” held on Zoom during last week’s Democratic National Convention lacked the pizzazz of an in-person event.

“I am so happy to be with you today. I wish I was physically there,” said Rep. Karen Bass, the Los Angeles Democrat who Biden had considered as a running mate before he picked Sen. Kamala Harris of California.

“I want to be, hugging you, but this is the best we can do,” Valerie Biden Owens, Joe Biden’s sister and longtime campaign leader, responded. “It’s working pretty darn well. ... We’re rocking it.”


The campaign said the Zoom call drew hundreds of people, but it’s unclear if it helped raise enthusiasm for Biden.

“The key group in this election is still people who are Democratic leaning but don’t like Biden,” said Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, a national Democratic firm based in the state.

Brandy Allen, a 27-year-old on a lunch break from her job as a cashier at a Harris Teeter supermarket, said she did not vote in 2016 but plans to show up this time.

Allen said the recent death of civil rights leader John Lewis had inspired her, but said she has not heard much from the Biden campaign or the Democratic Party, despite her interest in healthcare and the environment.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen them reach out to us,” said Allen, who is Black.

Michael Whatley, chairman of the state GOP, said he has sent fliers urging voters to register for absentee ballots and has instructed county leaders to reassure voters that the system is safe, despite Trump’s unfounded charges that mail-in ballot will lead to rampant fraud.

Whatley blames the state’s economic woes — 8.5% unemployment in July — on Cooper’s cautious approach to the pandemic. But Cooper has proven popular and most polls show a majority of voters blame Trump for the country’s coronavirus failures.

Retiree Robert Farrow, left, with friend Dean Patton in Cary, N.C., plans to vote for President Trump this year.
Robert Farrow, left, a retiree who voted for Gary Johnson in 2016, plans to vote for President Trump this year. He’s sitting with his friend Dean Patton in Cary, N.C., after having coffee at a bagel shop.
(Noah Bierman / Los Angeles Times)

Trump hopes that voters will overlook his perceived failings, and that enough white conservatives will help him hold onto the state.

Robert Farrow, a 78-year-old retiree who moved six years ago from Ventura to Cary, a Raleigh suburb, said he probably would “hold my nose” and vote for Trump, despite misgivings about the president’s character. In 2016, he voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson, the first time in his life that he failed to vote for a Republican presidential candidate, he said.

“We’re voting for a commander in chief,” he said, explaining why he is with Trump this time around. “Not a pastor.”