The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

North Carolina tests how Republicans see themselves after Trump

President Donald Trump is reflected in the sunglasses of a supporter during an Oct. 15 campaign event in Greenville, N.C. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Former congressman Mark Walker learned early as a Southern Baptist pastor that you can’t make everyone happy when preaching before thousands.

“If you say anything that has any conviction to it, you are at risk of losing people,” he said.

It’s a lesson that has come in handy as he campaigns as a Republican for a U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina, trying to win over a party that has been losing people on both edges because of the defining divide that emerged after President Donald Trump encouraged a Jan. 6 protest at the U.S. Capitol that turned violent.

“There are many people who have turned their back on the Republican Party because they didn’t feel their elected officials stood up enough for Trump,” Walker said of what he has heard in recent weeks as he tours the state.

Yet others are leaving because of Trump’s actions, reflecting an outrage that recently led the state party’s senior politician, Sen. Richard Burr, to vote to convict the former president of inciting an insurrection.

Robert F. Orr, a former North Carolina Supreme Court justice and onetime Republican gubernatorial candidate, announced his resignation from the party last week. “Just in the last day or so I’ve had several people tell me or call me or email me about how they are going to do the same thing,” he said. “With these people leaving, it really just reinforces that it’s a Donald Trump cult, and most people don’t want to be a part of it.”

Big donors in the state are also going to ground. Billionaire Jim Goodnight, who gave heavily to the Republican House and Senate efforts last year, has signaled that none of his money henceforth will go to candidates who “did not support the integrity of the election process, which is so vital to our democracy,” according to a spokesman.

Less than two months after a pro-Trump mob ransacked the U.S. Capitol, highlighting the extent to which the former president retains his grip on the GOP’s most ardent supporters, the early jockeying ahead of the 2022 race to replace the retiring Burr is exposing the challenges in rebuilding a coalition that can win in closely contested states.

The risks for a deeply pro-Trump party were clear in the GOP’s stunning losses in two Georgia runoffs in January, and now Republican leaders are struggling to avoid a similar setback in another changing Southern state. Adding to the complexity is the prospect of a Trump family member, daughter-in-law and North Carolina native Lara Trump, entering the Senate race, as party leaders assess how to balance the need to energize those who believe that Trump’s election defeat was illegitimate as well as suburban moderates dismayed by the former president’s behavior.

The Republicans’ dilemma comes as Democrats face their own challenges now that President Biden is in the White House. The last time a president gained House and Senate seats for his party in a midterm election was 2002, following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The GOP’s worry — and the Democratic hope — is that the domestic terrorism of Jan. 6 will have a similar effect.

“We have to pay particular attention to unaffiliated voters,” North Carolina GOP Chairman Michael Whatley said. “We have to pay particular attention to college-educated voters. In any swing district in North Carolina, you have to make sure you’re selling to the middle while also playing to your base.”

The state Republican Party’s Central Committee called for a censure vote against Burr, which passed unanimously, after Whatley concluded that he needed to prevent the drip-drip of multiple counties passing separate resolutions against the senator, according to two Republicans with knowledge of his thinking.

Democrats are hoping the divide becomes too heavy to bear in the coming Senate race, given the party’s growing weakness in suburban areas and its strong dependence on Trump’s provocations to drive turnout in rural areas. The nightmare scenario for Republicans is a repeat of the Georgia special elections in January, in which some Trump supporters stayed home amid the president’s anger over his loss in the state, while Black and suburban voters remained motivated to cast their ballots for Democrats in opposition to Trumpism. The twin Democratic wins gave the party effective control of the Senate.

“There is a universe of voters that is big enough to cause Republicans to lose that will only get out to vote for the cult leader,” said John Anzalone, a pollster for Biden who has done extensive work in the South. “Everyone believes this is going to be the most exciting and entertaining Republican primary season in modern history.”

The state GOP apparatus already is trying to push itself away from intraparty squabble, which continues to thrive on internal party message boards across the state, activists say, as grass-roots Republicans call for further condemnation of Burr and his supporters in the party. Elected leaders in the state have been trying to refocus the political debate on more unifying issues of school reopening and religious freedom.

A recent appeal from the state party asked nothing more than that voters “stand with us to take back the Republican Senate majority by voting RED.”

Whatley, the state chairman, is one of the Republicans seriously considering adding his own name as a Senate candidate, according to two people familiar with his planning, along with former governor Pat McCrory and Rep. Ted Budd, who voted to reject the electoral college count on Jan. 6. Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who served in Congress from North Carolina, has ruled out a run, according to an adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the plans.

Complicating matters further is the possibility that Lara Trump will run. She grew up in Wilmington and spent large parts of 2016 and 2020 campaigning through the state.

Three Trump advisers familiar with her deliberations said they consider it unlikely that she runs for the seat, even though Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) floated the idea after Burr’s vote to convict. A spokesperson for Trump said she continues to consider a Senate campaign, without giving a time frame for her decision.

Since boosting her candidacy in a television interview, Graham said, he had spoken with her.

“She said she appreciated the compliment. Like everybody, she has some interest, but she has to balance that against family. I think she’s trying to do that,” Graham said. “I don’t know what she’ll do, but I think there will be more people filing in the primary. I just want to make sure we put our best team on the field.”

Walker, the only declared candidate so far, said he was not swayed by Graham’s initial comments about Lara Trump, though he said he welcomed her to the race. He said he hoped to eventually win the support of the former president’s entire family, a posture likely to be adopted by all the Republican candidates.

“Lindsey’s opinion is kind of like the weather,” Walker joked. “If you don’t like it, it is going to change in 24 hours.”

Some of former president Trump’s fiercest supporters in the state, like freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R), have already endorsed Walker, as have Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.), despite a record of tension between Walker and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Michael Luethy, a consultant for Budd, says Lara Trump’s entry in the primary would reshape the field. But the general election presents other challenges.

“The new growth here in the state of the unaffiliated voters is a concern,” he said. “The party definitely has to unite with a forward-looking vision if we are going to attract those voters. A circular firing squad is going to hurt us.”

Doug Heye, a former aide to Burr, said the data he’s seen suggests that most of the thousands of Republican voters who have dropped their registrations in recent weeks are from the prized suburbs — where elections are often won and lost in North Carolina and other competitive states. He expects the state party’s censure of Burr to accelerate the shift.

“It’s another sign of the party signaling to unaffiliated voters, or those Republicans who saw enough in November or certainly on Jan. 6, that the North Carolina Republican Party isn’t interested in their vote,” Heye said. “It scares off voters and the party gets smaller, which also means they’re getting Trumpier.”

Of the more than 20,000 who have left the party since the November election, according to data compiled by Michael Bitzer, a professor at Catawba College, the overwhelming majority have re-registered as unaffiliated. Republicans have made some offsetting gains, however: During the same period, about 13,000 Democrats have changed their registrations, including about 4,500 who have registered as Republicans. Comparable data from January 2017 shows that the number of defections from both parties is much higher now.

Complicating the landscape further is uncertainty about who will make up the electorate in the next election, when Donald Trump’s absence from the ballot will deny both Republicans and Democrats their most prominent recent incentive to vote.

Democrats were shocked last year by the turnout the president was able to drive in North Carolina’s smaller counties. The 72 counties with less than 50,000 likely voters each accounted for 1.5 percentage points more of the final vote count than models had predicted, said Jill Normington, who advised Democratic Senate candidate Cal Cunningham. Cunningham lost to Republican incumbent Thom Tillis.

She said that coalition was unlikely to materialize in 2022 without Trump on the ticket. “I don’t think any embracing of Donald Trump from the Republican side means you can repeat that turnout,” Normington said. “One of the reasons it worked is that he was the epicenter of basically everything. The press was enamored of covering every fire he lit.”

That escalates the need for Republicans to turn out other voters. They are hopeful that the same diminished focus on Trump could open the door to improving their margins among Black and suburban communities. Walker, in particular, has been talking up his support for criminal justice overhaul efforts and historically Black colleges and universities — positions Trump also adopted in an effort to appeal to those groups.

“You just can’t be a bomb thrower, and you can’t be someone who is willing to lie down at the first liberal challenge,” Walker said, describing his strategy for winning the GOP nomination and the general election.

Paul Shumaker, a longtime Republican strategist in North Carolina who has worked for Burr and McCrory, acknowledged the pinch his party finds itself in, but he said the midterm elections are “about anger management and failed expectations for the party in control of the White House.”

“If they overreach, the unaffiliated voters gravitate back to the Republicans,” he said. “If they don’t overreach, they will go into the midterms facing a suppressed voting base themselves.”

As Republicans focus on the traditional off-year themes of overreach and Democratic policy failure, Democrats are hoping to keep the race framed around what they expect will be Biden’s success on the coronavirus and the economy — as well as the Republican divisions.

Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist in North Carolina whose clients include Gov. Roy Cooper, said it’s notable that Trump did two percentage points worse in the state in 2020 than he did in 2016, even with the surge in GOP turnout. That’s evidence of shifting suburban alliances and proof that most of the college-educated, younger voters rushing into the state are not Republicans, he said.

Jackson also said that the heavy Republican turnout was fueled in large measure by occasional voters from rural counties without college degrees — people, he said, who were attracted to Trump’s “crazy talk” and are loyal to him, not the party.

“Republicans are in a really bad spot,” he said. “The only way you can replicate that turnout is to double down on the crazy talk, and that turns off swing voters. And meanwhile they are kicking out people who don’t pledge their fealty to Donald Trump. That’s a lot of Republicans.”

Lenny Bronner contributed to this report.