The decision by Republicans to host their national convention in Charlotte this week was always a politically risky one: North Carolina is famously unpredictable when it comes to which party’s candidates it will support.
But it also underscored how much is at stake for the GOP in North Carolina this year, with control of the governor’s office, state legislature, U.S. Senate and presidency all potentially hanging in the balance.
“There is no state in the country that is more of a ground zero for this election than North Carolina,” said Jessica Taylor, the Senate and governors editor for the Cook Political Report, a non-partisan newsletter that analyzes elections and campaigns.
Whether the largely virtual convention will give the North Carolina GOP the kind of boost it sought is unclear, though.
With the convention schedule skewered by coronavirus, President Donald Trump will accept the nomination on Thursday night accompanied by fireworks in Washington, D.C., not Charlotte. And right now, North Carolina Republicans face either uphill climbs or at least tight races across the ballot.
Polls show Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, with a comfortable lead in his re-election bid. Cal Cunningham, a Democrat, is outperforming the incumbent, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican. And Trump is basically tied with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in North Carolina surveys.
The Democratic advantage this year may not prove to be permanent, though. There are unique circumstances in each of
those contests that have seemed largely to go Democrats’ way.
Plus, concerns about the president’s handling of the coronavirus have damaged his reputation and the standing of Republicans nationwide. But that may be enough for a big Democratic year in North Carolina.
“If you’re in a 50-50 state, and you’re sitting right there on the fence, it doesn’t take much of a national breeze to push the state over either way,” said Rob Christensen, a longtime political columnist for Raleigh’s News & Observer and author of the book The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics.
Christensen and other close watchers of North Carolina voters caution that the Democrats’ apparent advantage now, though, could easily narrow or evaporate altogether between now and Election Day.
“North Carolina is inherently a 50-50 state. It is inherently a purple state. But as of August 25, 2020, it is not behaving like a purple state. It is behaving like a blue state,” said Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist who has worked with both Cooper and Cunningham.
“As Democrats, though, I can tell you we are keenly aware that we have won a lot of races in August only to lose them in November.”
“The belief that there’s a double-digit win out there for a Democrat in any race is a fallacy,” he added. “A 4-point or 5-point win is a blowout in North Carolina.”
Carter Wrenn, a longtime Republican strategist in North Carolina, said he thinks Republicans can still win some of the races where they appear behind.
“There’s nothing happening today to change the structure that underlies politics in North Carolina,” where a small group of “volatile” ticket-splitters determines who wins statewide, he said.
“What you’ve got is a boxing match where nobody can knock anybody out. They might score a few more points than the other side and squeak by with a win.”
Of course, the high stakes in North Carolina were part of the reason why Charlotte appeared so attractive to Republicans when they selected it two years ago to host their convention, said the Cook Political Report’s Taylor.
Charlotte’s experience helped, too. The city hosted the Democratic National Convention in 2012, when President Barack Obama accepted the nomination for a second term. (Although Obama won the national election, he lost North Carolina and a Republican, Pat McCrory, won the governorship that November.)
The COVID-19 pandemic has short-circuited the Republicans’ plans for a major gathering in Charlotte this week. Instead, a few hundred party loyalists convened on Monday to start the nominating process. Republican officials and other supporters are attending virtually, and giving their speeches from around the country.
But the political contests in North Carolina are heating up all the same. In the presidential race, Biden and Trump are neck-and-neck in North Carolina polls. Trump won the state by just 3 points in 2016. Republicans have traditionally fared well at the presidential level in North Carolina, winning 11 of the last 13 contests; only Jimmy Carter and Obama in 2008 have carried the state for Democrats.
The state’s metro areas are attracting college-educated residents from out of state, which helps Democrats shore up their position. “But large portions of small-town North Carolina are really, really hurting” because of the decline of the textile, tobacco and furniture industries, Christensen said.
“So when Trump talks about being in a bad place, that really rang true in a lot of these small-town areas. It’s not that much different a story than Ohio or Michigan, but it’s very much true here.”
On the other hand, Christensen said, Biden is probably the strongest candidate Democrats could have picked to try to pick up North Carolina, because he is viewed as moderate and familiar with the state.
Both the Cook Political Report and the Sabato’s Crystal Ball predictor from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics consider North Carolina a toss-up in the presidential race.
The national forecasters also consider the U.S. Senate race in North Carolina this year to be a toss-up, even though Cunningham, the Democratic challenger, has had a consistent lead in polling and fundraising.
J. Miles Coleman, an analyst for the Center for Politics, said Tillis has had a hard time nailing down the Republican base. Tillis, a former speaker of the North Carolina House, won his seat in a bruising contest in 2014 that left many voters with an unfavorable impression of him.
Tillis has at times tried to distance himself from Trump and at others to stand by the president. Those shifting stances mean he has alienated both independents and the Republican base.
“A substantial contingent of Trump voters just don’t trust Tillis,” Coleman said. “The question is: When push comes to shove, how many Republicans who are on board with Trump but not Tillis are going to vote for Cunningham? Tillis may have room to grow, so we don’t really count him out.”
But ticket-splitting is common enough in North Carolina that Cooper was able to win the governorship at the same time that Trump won the state in 2016. Political analysts say the governor has kept up a wider appeal throughout his four years in office.
For his entire term, the Democratic governor has had to work with a Republican legislature, Coleman noted. That has prevented him from overreaching with moderate voters, because he couldn’t pass anything too controversial through lawmakers.
“He’s had a pretty good foil in the Republican legislature even before the pandemic,” Coleman said.
Cooper has received generally positive marks for his handling of the coronavirus outbreak, even when that meant going toe-to-toe with the president over Trump’s wishes to have a crowded convention hall this week.
Cooper’s opponent, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, on the other hand, has landed in trouble for suggesting that masks do not help in stopping the spread of the coronavirus.
Both the Cook Political Report and the Center for Politics consider Cooper the favorite to win in the race.
Democrats also stand to gain at least two U.S. House seats and have a chance at taking control of the North Carolina General Assembly, because of court-ordered changes to the district maps used by North Carolina to elect those offices.
If Democrats do retain the governor’s office and win the legislature, they could pass a new set of district maps for the next decade that could give their candidates an advantage. The maps passed by Republican lawmakers who took control of the legislature in 2010, after all, were a key component in maintaining the GOP majority in Raleigh over the last decade.
Daniel C. Vock is a States Newsroom Washington correspondent.