GOP faces tough fight to keep North Carolina

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY TOM HOW­ELL JR.

GRA­HAM, N.C. | Spread out like a Bur­maShave ad, the mes­sage on a trio of road­side signs was jar­ring but fa­mil­iar: Lock. Her. Up.

Auto body owner Danny Hu­lon said he can’t stand the idea of Demo­cratic nom­i­nee Hil­lary Clin­ton mov­ing back into the White House, so he stuck the lit­tle signs along North Carolina High­way 87 to echo the mantra of Repub­li­cans who say the former sec­re­tary of state should be pun­ished for her unau­tho­rized use of pri­vate email and wob­bly re­sponse to the at­tack on Beng­hazi, Libya, dur­ing Pres­i­dent Obama’s first term.

Mrs. Clin­ton is ahead of Repub­li­can ri­val Don­ald Trump by the low sin­gle dig­its in North Carolina, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est polls, yet folks like Mr. Hu­lon say the bat­tle for his swing state will go down to the wire, even if he isn’t im­pressed by Mr. Trump’s over­all strat­egy.

“He’s fight­ing too many peo­ple,” he said, as Mr. Trump held ral­lies in Greens­boro and Char­lotte.

A short drive away, the Chatham County Democrats plot­ted to turn doubts about Mr. Trump into wins for Mrs. Clin­ton and a slew of down-bal­lot can­di­dates, stuff­ing 7,500 mail­ers with “blue bal­lots” that high­light this year’s Demo­cratic op­tions.

North Carolina is in play, and it’s about much more than the pres­i­den­tial race.

Se­nate Repub­li­cans cling­ing to a 54-46 ma­jor­ity face an un­ex­pected headache in the Tarheel State, where two-term in­cum­bent Sen. Richard Burr is at risk of los­ing his seat to his Demo­cratic chal­lenger, Deb­o­rah K. Ross, a former state law­maker.

If that weren’t enough, Gov. Pat McCrory, a Repub­li­can, faces an up­hill re­elec­tion bat­tle against At­tor­ney Gen­eral Roy Cooper, a Demo­crat, amid a high­pro­file feud over a trans­gen­der bath­room law that prompted econ­omy boost­ers such as PayPal and the NCAA to re­treat from the state.

“I find it ex­haust­ing, for the vol­un­teers,” said Joanne Wit­ten­born, former pres­i­dent of the Greater Greens­boro Repub­li­can Women’s Club. “But it’s ex­cit­ing, and it has ral­lied ev­ery­body, and we’re all hands on deck.”

The in­ten­sity of the cam­paign took an ugly turn over the week­end when some­one fire­bombed the Or­ange County Repub­li­can Party head­quar­ters in Hills­bor­ough and scrawled graf­fiti de­nounc­ing “Nazi Repub­li­cans.”

Both Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clin­ton con­demned the at­tack.

In the Raleigh-Durham area, nor­mal tele­vi­sion ads hardly seem to ex­ist. They are crowded out by a steady roulette of 30-sec­ond spots about Mr. Burr’s per­for­mance in Wash­ing­ton, the dan­ger of men us­ing the ladies’ room and Mr. Cooper’s boasts that as at­tor­ney gen­eral he cleared a back­log of untested rape kits.

Mr. Trump even shifted vol­un­teers from Vir­ginia, which has swung heav­ily to­ward Mrs. Clin­ton, into North Carolina, hoping to keep the rest of the South in Repub­li­can hands.

Pres­i­dent Obama won North Carolina in 2008, end­ing a Repub­li­can win­ning streak that stretched back to Jimmy Carter’s elec­tion in 1976, only to cede the state back to Mitt Rom­ney four years later.

But Randy Voller, a former chair­man of the North Carolina Demo­cratic Party, said there seemed to be more en­thu­si­asm for Mr. Rom­ney than there is for Mr. Trump, par­tic­u­larly among Repub­li­can op­er­a­tives who sup­ported pri­mary chal­lengers such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

“I don’t see that same level of, like, ‘joy­ful war­rior,’” he said.

Mr. McCrory, mean­while, faces head­winds for sign­ing the law known as “HB2,” which re­quires peo­ple to use public bath­rooms that cor­re­spond with the bi­o­log­i­cal sex on their birth cer­tifi­cates.

State law­mak­ers passed the law in re­sponse to a Char­lotte or­di­nance that extended cer­tain anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion pro­tec­tions to the LGBT com­mu­nity.

Op­po­nents of the or­di­nance said it would es­sen­tially cre­ate safe zones for peep­ing Toms in women’s bath­rooms, yet the Repub­li­can push to over­turn the city’s decision re­sulted in a back­lash from en­ti­ties that viewed HB2 as a cod­i­fi­ca­tion of anti-LGBT dis­crim­i­na­tion.

“Our gov­er­nor has taken the state back 100 years,” said David Spear of Madi­son, who stood among pro­test­ers a few blocks from a Trump rally in Greens­boro.

As com­pa­nies or ath­letic com­pe­ti­tions pull out of the state, the con­tro­versy threat­ens to dis­tract from the fo­cal point of Mr. McCrory’s cam­paign — his stew­ard­ship of a “Carolina come­back” that has added nearly 300,000 jobs and slashed the un­em­ploy­ment rate since he took of­fice in 2013.

“He’s turned the state around, he’s turned the econ­omy around. Things are work­ing again in North Carolina,” said Lee Green, chair­woman of the N.C. GOP District/County Chair As­so­ci­a­tion.

Yet Steven Greene, a pol­i­tics pro­fes­sor at North Carolina State Univer­sity, said the die may al­ready be cast.

Mr. McCrory ran as a cen­ter-right, probusi­ness Repub­li­can in 2012 and picked up some Democrats and left-lean­ing in­de­pen­dents, he noted, yet those same vot­ers are link­ing the gov­er­nor to this year’s “cul­ture wars.”

“McCrory has be­come the face of HB2 for bet­ter or for worse, and I think most polling in­di­cates that it’s for worse,” the pro­fes­sor said.

The is­sue has spread to the state’s com­pet­i­tive race for U.S. Se­nate.

In their only tele­vised de­bate, Ms. Ross called the state law dis­crim­i­na­tory. Mr. Burr also said the law should be re­versed, but only if Char­lotte re­vis­its its or­di­nance with greater in­put from the public.

Mr. Burr, a former House mem­ber and two-term Se­nate in­cum­bent, is cling­ing to a lead in the low sin­gle dig­its, ac­cord­ing to polls, as he fends off Ms. Ross’ as­ser­tions that he hasn’t achieved much for North Carolina dur­ing his two decades in Wash­ing­ton.

Mr. Burr’s sup­port­ers say he has achieved plenty, in­clud­ing the ABLE Act, which helps fam­i­lies who have chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties pay for lifelong ex­penses through tax-ad­van­taged sav­ings ac­counts.

“He doesn’t gal­li­vant to the me­dia,” said Tom Shu­maker, who was among state Repub­li­cans wav­ing pro-Burr signs to pass­ing mo­torists in Re­search Tri­an­gle Park ahead of the de­bate.

The Burr cam­paign has por­trayed Ms. Ross as soft on crime, cit­ing her record with the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union, and pointed to her sup­port for Oba­macare — she said it is “bet­ter than what we had” — de­spite an ex­o­dus of com­pa­nies from North Carolina’s in­surance ex­change.

Ms. Ross has been able to draw out­side money from na­tional Democrats and su­per PACs, keep­ing the race close, yet some an­a­lysts say Mr. Burr is in bet­ter shape than Mr. McCrory or Mr. Trump.

“I think the big­gest threat for [Mr. Burr] is re­duced Repub­li­can turnout be­cause vot­ers are so de­mor­al­ized by Trump and be­cause the Repub­li­can ground game in North Carolina is much weaker than usual,” said Ja­son M. Roberts, a pol­i­tics pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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