With Trump as GOP’s choice, Dems eye North Carolina comeback in upcoming race

Published 10:01 am Tuesday, May 10, 2016

CHARLOTTE, N.C.— Four years ago, North Carolina was the one that got away for Democrats — the only battleground state President Barack Obama didn’t carry in his resounding re-election triumph.

Now, with Donald Trump at the top of the Republican ticket and state GOP officials embroiled in a contentious fight over transgender rights, Democrats see a ripe opportunity for likely nominee Hillary Clinton to grab North Carolina back in November, as well as boost her party’s prospects in competitive races for Senate and governor.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

“Trump just opens up possibilities, opportunities for Democrats to say, look, this is at least a possible winnable race in North Carolina,” said John Dinan, a politics professor at Wake Forest University.

Email newsletter signup

Obama stunned Republicans by carrying North Carolina in 2008, the first time a Democratic presidential candidate had won the state in more than 30 years. Democrats saw his winning coalition of young people, black voters and Hispanics as a model for how the party could regain a foothold in the South as the region becomes more diverse.

But that excitement was tempered after Republicans consolidated power throughout the state during Obama’s first term and North Carolinians frustrated with a sluggish state economy rebuked the president in 2012.

This fall’s fight for North Carolina will probably be shadowed by the mounting legal battle over a new state law restricting the use of public restrooms by transgender people. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who is running for a second term, and the U.S. Justice Department filed competing lawsuits against each other Monday, with the governor trying to keep the law in place and the federal government seeking a court order declaring the law discriminatory.

For Democrats, the measure is an example of North Carolina Republicans overreaching and wading into issues that run counter to the needs of the state’s voters.

“On a statewide basis, I think people are saying, ‘What have we gotten ourselves into?’ “ said Kay Hagan, who won a Senate seat in North Carolina on Obama’s coattails in 2008 but was pushed from office in 2014 when the Democratic president was out of favor. “If they moved here in recent years, they say, ‘If I’d known all this, I would have picked a different state.”

Indeed, businesses in North Carolina, the home of Bank of America and a prime destination for technology firms, vigorously oppose the law. Trump initially said he opposed the law, then said the matter was for states to decide.

Ferrel Guillory, a politics professor at the University of North Carolina, said the response to the bathroom law has exploded for Republicans “in a way that I don’t think they anticipated.” But he said it was too early to know whether the GOP-led effort would result in a backlash from voters in November.

“Is that overreaching? That’s some of what the election is going to test,” Guillory said.

Even if the bathroom law has a negative fallout for Republicans, Clinton’s success in North Carolina will still depend largely on her ability to register and turn out the young, diverse coalition Obama cobbled together to win the state in 2008. But Democrats also see an opportunity for Clinton to outperform the nation’s first black president with white voters, who made up 70 percent of North Carolina’s electorate in the last presidential race.

“If you increase your support with white voters in North Carolina two or three points, that probably would make the difference,” said Mitch Stewart, who oversaw Obama’s 2012 campaign operations in North Carolina and other battleground states.

Obama carried just 31 percent of North Carolina’s white voters in 2012, 4 points fewer than when he won the state during his first campaign.

Democrats are in particular eyeing white women in the middle class suburbs of Charlotte and Raleigh who may typically vote Republican, but can’t stomach a vote for Trump. The billionaire is viewed unfavorably by nearly 70 percent of women, according to a recent AP-GfK poll.

Patty Funderburg, a 54-year-old from Charlotte, is among the voters the Clinton campaign could reach. A mother of three who voted for Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 election, Funderburg is no fan of Clinton, but knows she can’t vote for Trump.

“I think he’s a loose cannon,” she said.

Trump’s advisers have repeatedly dismissed the businessman’s poor standing with wide swaths of the American electorate, noting that Clinton is also viewed negatively by many Americans. Trump political director Rick Wiley said that in North Carolina and other battleground states, the presumptive GOP nominee won’t be pigeonholed by traditional definitions of Republican voters and would reach out to those who backed Obama.

“All of it is on the table,” Wiley said.

Republicans vowed to not be caught off guard in North Carolina again after Obama’s 2008 win, and the party’s national committee has spent the last three years building a sophisticated operation in the state. The Republican National Committee currently has 200 highly trained volunteers working in the neighborhoods Trump will need to carry if he’s going to win the state.

In April, Republicans registered about 11,000 more voters in the state than Democrats, though Democrats continue to hold a 600,000-person edge in overall registration, according to state records.