The House Minority Leader said that he’s particularly concerned about losing the senior vote, which historically leans right. “I tried to show [Trump] … you know who is most afraid of COVID? Seniors. And if they’re not going to go vote, period, we’re screwed,” McCarthy said.
A new 9th Street Journal tally of absentee ballot requests from the North Carolina Board of Elections shows why McCarthy is so concerned. Democratic voters older than 65 have requested nearly twice as many ballots (13,319) as their Republican counterparts (7,007), according to the data available on Sept. 14.
The numbers also show that Republicans account for 36% of the state’s voters who are older than 65, but only 23% of the absentee ballot requests for that age group. Meanwhile, Democrats represent 40% of the state’s senior voters and 44% of voters older than 65 who have requested ballots.
Unaffiliated senior voters, who account for 24% of all senior voters, have requested 32% of the ballots.
As McCarthy feared, Trump’s repeatedattacks on mail-in voting seem to be having an impact — particularly with Republicans. A WRAL poll last week found a third of likely North Carolina voters have little to no confidence that votes cast by mail will be counted correctly. The sentiment varied by party: While 42% of Republicans and and 39% of Independents said that they had little to no confidence in the mail-in voting process, only 28% of Democrats felt the same way.
Republicans usually depend on senior voters, who voted 55% to 42% for Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016.
People over the age of 65 make up 23% of the statewide electorate. In the 2016 and 2018 elections, they had the highest voter turnout compared with other age groups.
But COVID-19 has re-written the expectations for 2020: Adults ages 65 years old and above are the most vulnerable to the virus, representing eight out of every 10 coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S. People in this age group may decide it’s in their best interest to stay home and mail in their ballots. But Trump’s repeated attacks on absentee balloting might discourage his older supporters from voting at all.
Republicans can still overcome the disparity in mail-in balloting by getting people to vote in person. Early voting starts Oct. 15 and Election Day is Nov. 3.
Terri Benforado, a 57-year-old Durham resident who plans to vote for Trump, said that she and her husband, who is over 65 years of age and also supports Trump, will vote early in person.
Benforado said that she has always casted her ballot at an early voting site, and this year will be no different. She also volunteers as a poll worker on Election Day. She’s not concerned about potential health risks due to the coronavirus, which she said are exaggerated by Democrats and the left-leaning media.
“I think there’s a risk, but there’s not a risk to my husband and I,” Benforado said.
Staff writer Rose Wong can be reached at email@example.com
Assistance with data analysis was provided by Joel Luther of the Duke Reporters’ Lab; graphic by Henry Haggart of The 9th Street Journal
About 10 blocks from the U.S. Capitol is a townhouse office with the kind of generic name you expect to find in Washington: Capitol Compliance Associates. It doesn’t seem like the kind of place that would help North Carolina Democrats funnel tens of thousands of dollars to their campaigns.
Capitol Compliance is involved with a fundraising effort that sounds like a band that performs at weddings, Swing NC. In reality it is a joint fundraiser between four Democrats running for the U.S. House and Senate: Kathy Manning, Patricia Timmons-Goodson, Cal Cunningham and Deborah Ross.
I stumbled across Swing NC, and then Capitol Compliance, when I was going through Ross’s campaign finance records for The 9th Street Journal. (She is running for the 2nd Congressional District, which is in Wake County.) It took days for me to unpack what this group entails and their money and I’m still not completely sure about the details. (I’ll update this story as needed!)
But I’m sure about this: our campaign finance system is a messy tangle of groups and bundlers and it’s difficult for anyone to make sense of it. The laws that govern the system are supposed to bring transparency to political contributions. But in practice it is hard to know the source of money and where it goes.
This was the largest sum of money, out of 2,876 contributions, made to her campaign other than the $57,783 leftover from her 2016 Senate race.
This was the first mystery for me. According to the Federal Election Commission contribution limits, the largest donation to an individual candidate committee is $5,000 per election from multicandidate PACs, local party committees or national party committees. Individual donations are capped at $2,800.
Yet Swing NC contributed $43,795 and $6,539.17 on May 27 and $2,935 and $68.75 on June 30.
In the spirit of transparency, all candidates must report their contributions and disbursements in filings leading up to Election Day.
I wondered why Swing NC was able to give beyond the allowed amount and, to add to the mystery, I found virtually no information about them.
If you do a Google search for Swing NC, the first result will tell you to “find your swing” — at a 45-acre paddle and racquet sport campus that is coming to Raleigh in 2022.
Ross could be a racquet sport enthusiast for all I know, but I ruled out the Swing NC sports complex as the source of her substantial campaign donation.
At this point in my search, with nearly 25 tabs open and my computer fan hissing at me, I found the original FEC filings from Swing NC. The group’s filing statement of organization would solve the mystery, I hoped.
It provided some answers, but also raised new questions.
It turns out that Swing NC is a joint fundraising committee between Ross, Cunningham, Manning and Timmons-Goodson. The organizers filed to be a committee on March 3 and have raised $192,615 and spent $10,543.39, as of June 30.
It is a collaboration between the four candidates to raise money, but it doesn’t have a website, team or much communication about the effort.
The report listed a Washington D.C. address, and it clarified that the group is a joint fundraiser. It also mentioned Judy Zamore, who was listed as the custodian of records and treasurer.
Those were important clues.
* * *
So what is a joint fundraising committee and why would these four candidates opt into it?
To answer this question, I sought out Andrew Mayersohn, a researcher at the Center of Responsive Politics, a non-partisan group that tracks money in U.S. politics. He pointed me to their glossary of terms, which explains that the joint committees are a convenient way to raise money together. A committee can include two or more candidates, political parties (or both).
Think of it like a co-hosted fundraising party (or parties). The group hosts events together, splits the costs and, ultimately splits the gifts that the guests bring (the donations).
When I called Mayersohn, he told me this is a common practice in campaign finance.
A joint fundraising committee is not a loophole to accept larger campaign donations, he said. Individuals can still give no more than $2,800 per candidate in the committee, regardless if they are donating directly to the candidate or through the team. With four candidates joined together in Swing NC the maximum individual donation is $11,200 to the team.
But it’s easier for campaign contributors this way. Rather than receiving four separate calls or emails from Ross, Manning, Timmons-Goodson and Cunningham, the contributors just get one. This is all about efficiency.
* * *
Alan Swain, Ross’s Republican challenger, probably wishes he had his own Swing NC. He is alone in his fundraising efforts and is struggling. For every dollar Ross has raised, Swain has less than a nickel. He has raised a total of $53,867.13, compared with her $1.3 million.
Put another way: The Swing NC collaboration alone has raised about the same amount as Swain has raised from all sources.
The address listed for Swing NC is Capitol Compliance’s townhouse. Zamore, who signed the FEC documents, happens to be the principal and founder of the firm as well.
Her bio indicates she is a skilled political fundraiser with more than 14 years of experience. This election cycle, Zamore served as chief financial officer in Sen. Cory Booker’s presidential campaign. Under her direction, Booker raised a record $1.35 million in just 36 hours towards the end of his campaign in Iowa.
Throughout the 2020 election cycle Capitol Compliance is tracking $3.2 million to 130 campaigns, funds and PACs helping candidates up and down ballots. Other clients include Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood of Illinois, who are both running for reelection.
Mayersohn clarified that Capitol Compliance is not raising funds on the candidates’ behalf, but instead is just filing FEC reports for the Swing NC team.
“There’s a lot of ins and outs to filing FEC reports and these are the people who are very familiar with them,” Mayersohn said.
Hiring an outside firm to manage these regulations is a common practice, he said.
“It is the same reason that you would use an accounting firm or anything for any other purpose,” he said. “It’s their specialized expertise on how to handle loans and things like that.”
* * *
The list of donors to Swing NC ranges from ecologists in San Francisco, to people who are unemployed. Donations started at $100 and were capped at the maximum individual donation of $11,200. There are 181 donations listed on the FEC itemized receipts filing.
In Ross’s FEC filings, the Swing NC contributions are listed under lump payments. If you want to look into individual donors, you have to go to the joint committee’s filing, which is where I found more details on who was contributing to this four-way team.
But that means if you’re a citizen of the 2nd Congressional District and you want to find out who gave to Ross through Swing NC, you need to do the detective work I did.
I am still unsure if candidates solicit these donations, or if these committees are well known or if individuals know their funds will be split four ways when donating to Swing NC.
When I called Capitol Compliance to ask, they were not particularly eager to help me untangle this. Neither was the Ross campaign.
I called Capitol Compliance and was told I would receive a follow up from “compliance” (a department there?) with more information.
At Ross’s campaign, my question about the formation and existence of Swing NC was met with silence.
Eight days later, I have yet to receive a call back from either of them.
Staff writer Michaela Towfighi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Most Americans don’t think about war every day. Many don’t even personally know a service member or veteran. At Fort Bragg, the nation’s largest Army post and one of the world’s largest military bases, the word carries a different meaning.
“War is not just three letters in the alphabet here. It’s a way of life,” said George Breece, an Army veteran, former state representative and former chairman of the North Carolina Military Affairs Commission.
With its outsized influence in the 8th Congressional District, Fort Bragg automatically has the ear of its Washington delegation. Now, voters of the 8th District — which stretches from Charlotte’s eastern suburbs eastward to Cumberland County — must decide who they want as Fort Bragg’s next House representative.
A military town that ‘beams with pride’
More than 120,000 soldiers and military family members live on base at Fort Bragg, and roughly 140,000 more live nearby in Fayetteville and other communities, said Elvia Kelly of Fort Bragg’s public affairs office. As the largest metropolitan area in the 8th District, Fayetteville’s voters could play a large role in the outcome of the congressional election.
One could think of Fayetteville as a “monotown” with one big employer: Fort Bragg. It’s hard to understate the installation’s influence on the local economy, said Kelli Cardenas Walsh, an Army veteran and a history and military studies professor at Fayetteville State University.
“People on both sides like to remind the community that without Fort Bragg, the economy of Fayetteville would greatly suffer, and I have no doubt about that,” she said.
Unsurprisingly, the Fayetteville community “beams with pride” and strongly supports the military, Breece said. But there’s also a downside to living near a major base. The community hurts when someone from Fort Bragg gets injured or killed in combat, said Dan Dederick, a retired Marine and one of North Carolina’s civilian aides to the secretary of the Army.
“You know these people, you like them, you go to church with them, your kids go to school with them,” Dederick said. “And then when something bad happens, they get killed or wounded, it’s real close and personal.”
The base makes that close-knit community more diverse, too. Fort Bragg attracts people from around the country, Breece said, and sometimes service members marry overseas. The city hosts an international folk festival each year with a parade of nations to celebrate the different cultures represented.
That combination of diverse city and traditional military base makes for intriguing voter demographics in Cumberland County: 43% of voters are registered Democrats, 23% are registered Republicans and nearly 33% are registered independents, according to Sept. 19 numbers from the North Carolina State Board of Elections.
Unlike the rest of the 8th District counties, which traditionally vote Republican, Cumberland County historically votes Democratic. It was previously split between two districts, with the city of Fayetteville divided down the middle.
This year, though, the redrawn maps reunite the entire county in one district and concentrate the power of the Fayetteville vote.
A proven incumbent, or a hometown challenger?
The incumbent in the race, Republican Rep. Richard Hudson, proudly calls himself “Fort Bragg’s congressman.” Serving the base is his “most humbling and most important duty,” spokesperson Greg Steele said. Hudson’s commitment to Fort Bragg is proven by recent victories, Steele said, citing increased hazardous duty pay for certain troops and the creation of a pathway for service members to seek malpractice compensation from military health care providers
But Pat Timmons-Goodson, the 8th District’s Democratic challenger and the child of a Fort Bragg military family, argues Hudson has not earned the moniker he’s adopted. Standing up for soldiers, veterans and military families involves more than passing favorable legislation, she said.
“What our veterans and service members need are folks who will stand up with them in tough times,” she said. “That’s what leadership is, and that’s what it calls for.”
She criticized Hudson for his silence after intelligence officials concluded that Russians placed bounties on the heads of American soldiers and for his absence during a vote on the latest National Defense Appropriations Act. (Steele confirmed to The 9th Street Journal that Hudson was indeed not present for the vote.)
“I do believe that my opponent puts his political fortune ahead of the people within our district, including our military families and veterans,” she said.
Hudson declined The 9th Street Journal’s request for an interview. Breece, who knows both candidates personally and will not endorse one, praised Hudson’s accomplishments and said he deserves the “Fort Bragg’s congressman” designation.
“Without question,” Breece said. “He’s worked very hard to get funding for whatever Fort Bragg needs.”
If reelected, Hudson will continue prioritizing military and veterans affairs, Steele said. His top priorities are pushing for additional funding to improve on-base housing and passing a bill he introduced in January to extend healthcare benefits for veterans’ caregivers.
‘Losers’ and ‘suckers’
A piece published by The Atlantic in early September said President Donald Trump called service members who died in combat “losers” and “suckers” for “getting killed.” He also reportedly told former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” while visiting the gravesite of Kelly’s son, who was killed in action in Afghanistan
“I was there the next day when he stood in the rain to honor our fallen,” Hudson tweeted in the president’s defense.
Steele offered no further comment, but said voters should look at Hudson’s track record to see what he’s done for the military community.
Timmons-Goodson, however, was outspoken on Twitter in her criticism of the president’s reported remarks.
“My father, brothers, nephews, and neighbors are not ‘losers’ or ‘suckers,’” she tweeted. Her father, Edward Timmons, served as a sergeant first class and an 82nd Airborne Army Ranger at Fort Bragg. “We all should honor the sacrifice of those who serve, our leaders should too,” she added.
Amidst the debate, Breece sees common ground: both candidates highly value the military. He’ll feel good about the election’s winner regardless of who it is.
“Both of these candidates are very good and decent people, and they both understand Fort Bragg,” Breece said. “I am confident that Fort Bragg will be well served.”
North Carolina’s governor and lieutenant governor don’t seem to agree on anything.
As candidates for governor, Roy Cooper, the Democratic incumbent, and Dan Forest, the Republican challenger, have sparred most bitterly over the response to the coronavirus. And they don’t see eye to eye on another group of issues that are important in this year’s election: systemic racism and police brutality.
The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers prompted countless protests across North Carolina and lots of discussion about what government can do on the issues of racism, protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. Cooper and Forest have emphasized drastically different messages.
Cooper has spoken out against systemic racism and excessive use of police force. In a press briefing in late May, he proclaimed that “Black lives matter” and urged North Carolinians not to let people who destroy property undermine the message of peaceful protesters.
Forest has focused more on the threat of violence from the protests. He has said relatively little about racial inequality and instead emphasized the importance of law and order. He said he stands proudly with the police.
Forest: ‘We don’t put up with anarchy’
Forest says he will protect North Carolinians when “anarchists” take to the streets. Gov. Cooper failed to do so, he said.
In an interview with John Woodard, a North Carolina YouTube user and podcast maker, Forest said the mainstream media didn’t tell the full story about the disorder in downtown Raleigh in May, when protesters smashed windows and destroyed storefronts. He said the coverage, or lack thereof, essentially gave Cooper a “free pass” to avoid action.
“Not only did he not do a good job, he didn’t do anything,” Forest said.
“[People] shouldn’t have to wonder, when the violence comes to my town, what’s the governor going to do?” Forest said.
In the interview, Forest didn’t spend much time discussing why the protesters were there. While he acknowledged that “there will always be a racism problem,” he cited the nation’s success in eradicating slavery more quickly than other parts of the world.
“I do not believe that the vast majority of Americans think that we have a systemic racism problem,” Forest said.
He said he finds it unfair that a handful of cases of police misconduct around the country have led some to believe that there is a systemic problem.
Police officers put their lives on the line everyday to protect citizens, Forest said in the interview.
“We don’t put up with anarchy,” he said, “We don’t want to see our cities destroyed, we don’t want to see our police defunded.”
Restoring law and order is a central part of his platform. “Here in North Carolina, we Back the Blue!!!” says one Facebook ad.
Cooper: ‘People are more important than property’
After the violence in Raleigh, Cooper spoke at an emergency briefing. While he thanked police for working to keep the peace, he emphasized the importance of the protests.
“Today the headlines are not about those protestors and their calls for serious, meaningful change,” Cooper said, “They are more about riots, and tear gas, and broken windows and stolen property. I fear the cry of the people is being drowned out.”
When the mayors of Raleigh, Charlotte, Fayetteville and Greensboro requested state highway patrol and National Guard soldiers to maintain order during protests, Cooper complied.
But he focused on the issues that caused the unrest.
“We cannot focus so much on the property damage that we forget why people are in the streets” he said.
“Let me be clear,” he said, “People are more important than property. Black lives do matter.”
In June, Cooper formed a task force to address racial inequity in North Carolina’s criminal justice system. He also criticized Forest for failing to speak out against racism.
He accused Forest of failing to denounce a racist incident that occurred at 311 Speedway, a race track in Stokes County. Mike Fulp, the owner of the track, posted a Facebook ad for a “Bubba rope” for sale, shortly after a rope fashioned into a noose was found in NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace’s garage.
Cooper launched an ad campaign against Forest for not speaking out against Fulp, a Forest supporter.
Defending the police and promoting law and order is a smart strategy for Forest, who is still behind in the polls, said Mac McCorkle, a former Democratic strategist who is now a public policy professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.
But McCorkle said he thinks Cooper has played it wisely. He hasn’t supported defunding the police, which has made it difficult for Forest to label him an extremist.
The unrest has eased since the summer, so the issue has less urgency.
“He needs a specific bill of indictment against Cooper,” McCorkle said, “He needs to be able to really concretely say something that makes people think that Cooper has failed on the job.”
Unless he finds that, Forest faces an uphill battle.
“The race seems very static, very stable,” McCorkle said, “and if it stays that way, Forest is in trouble.”
Never mind what the pundits and the prognosticators think. Moe Davis says he has a fighting chance to win the 11th Congressional District in Western North Carolina because his opponent is inexperienced and the district has new lines that make it more winnable for a Democrat.
In a wide-ranging interview with The 9th Street Journal, Davis, the Democratic nominee, said the district may have voted for Donald Trump in 2016, but voters have become disillusioned with the president and his party. That lack of enthusiasm should help Davis defeat his Republican opponent, 25-year-old Madison Cawthorn.
According to The Cook Political Report, the 11th District is rated likely Repubican. But Davis said that evaluation is too dependent on results from the 2016 presidential election.
Davis said the most revealing statistic about the new district isn’t Trump’s 17 point margin over Clinton in 2016. It is the more narrow 6.5 point margin in the governor’s race the same year.
“Two polarizing New Yorkers are probably not the best barometer for Western North Carolina,” said Davis, referring to Trump and Clinton. “The Roy Cooper, Pat McCrory governor’s race [is] a better measure.”
That indicates the race is “doable,” Davis said. “And our polling is showing that we can win.”
Internal campaign polls are always questionable because they are often used to persuade donors to give money and to convince journalists that a race is winnable. But Davis insists his poll, conducted in July, shows real promise for his campaign.
Respondents were more supportive when they were read information about the candidates’ records and policy stances. By the last question, they preferred him 52% to 35%, he said.
“Our challenge over the next 48 days is to inform the voters so they can make an educated choice,” he said in the interview Wednesday.
Davis was dressed casually in a denim button-down shirt and sat in front of a Zoom background with blue mountains and stars and stripes. Among the highlights:
Davis was unapologetic about angry tweets in recent years that sometimes were vulgar or called for violence. He said that as a commentator for CNN, MSNBC, Fox, and NPR, “you tend to use bombastic language because you want to get noticed.” He compared himself to Seb Gorka and Rick Wilson, who have also generated controversy with their tweets and comments.
Asked about the spectrum of ideologies of the Democratic Party, Davis said he considers himself a moderate Democrat.
After the election, Davis plans to go to one of the many breweries in Asheville. “Win or lose, I’m getting an IPA and sitting on the porch,” he said.
At top, Moe Davis in an interview with The 9th Street Journal with his patriotic Zoom background.
As he continued to sow distrust in the electoral process at a Sept. 8 rally in Winston-Salem, Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to take on alleged voter fraud themselves.
“Watch it,” he said. “Be poll watchers when you go there. Watch all the thieving and stealing and robbing they do.”
Trump previously stated he had plans to send law enforcement officials to monitor the polls, which is prohibited by federal and state law. Poll watchers, on the other hand, are legal, so long as they don’t interfere with the voting process. But officials say their job isn’t quite as action-packed as the president would make it seem.
The role of poll watchers
Poll watchers have long been deployed by political parties to observe election proceedings and ensure each party gets a fair shot, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. They are prohibited from directly communicating with voters, but they can watch for potential offenses and track turnout to help estimate how a party’s candidate is doing.
If they witness a potential instance of voter fraud, they can bring it to the attention of precinct officials or contact the county board of elections, “as long as it’s done in a nonobstructive manner,” according to Derek Bowens, Durham County’s director of elections. But such disputes are rare, he said.
“Election Day challenges are pretty nonexistent here,” Bowens said. “When we do get them, a lot of times it’s a misunderstanding of process on the observer’s part.”
Not just anyone can be a poll watcher. In North Carolina, the county chair of each political party can nominate two poll watchers per polling place. The nominees have to be approved by the county board of elections. Poll watchers must be registered voters of the county, cannot be candidates on the ballot, and must possess “good moral character,” according to state statute.
“It’s probably more subjective than it could be,” Bowens said. “But the threshold is pretty high for the board to reject someone. I’ve never seen that happen.”
Each county party may also nominate up to 10 at-large observers that can monitor any precinct, and state parties can nominate up to 100, but a maximum of three poll watchers from each party may observe a precinct at a time.
While the president can’t mobilize law enforcement to oversee the polls, North Carolina statute does not prohibit law enforcement officials from independently serving as poll watchers. However, they must follow the same rules as all other poll watchers and cannot communicate with or intimidate voters.
The prevalence of voter fraud
What about the “thieving, stealing, and robbing” Trump mentioned? “I have no clue what he’s talking about,” Bowens said.
Voter fraud is rare, but Republicans have latched onto a few recent cases. On Sept. 8, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger revealed investigations into 1,000 cases of double voting in the state’s June primary election and August runoff. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement also announced on Sept. 3 that 19 foreign nationals would face charges for illegally voting in the 2016 federal election in North Carolina.
However, neither case of voter fraud altered the outcome of any race, state officials from Georgia and North Carolina confirmed. Trump has similarly claimed fraudulent ballots caused him to lose the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election, despite losing by almost 3 million votes. Now, he’s urging supporters to try out the same fraudulent techniques he denounces.
At a Sept. 2 briefing with reporters in Wilmington, Trump encouraged Republicans planning to vote by mail to visit their local polling place and attempt to vote again in person.
“Let them send it in and let them go vote, and if their system’s as good as they say it is, then obviously they won’t be able to vote,” he said. “If it isn’t tabulated, they’ll be able to vote.”
Intentionally voting more than once is a felony in North Carolina. Karen Brinson Bell, the executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, issued a statement the next day reminding voters of the state’s protections against double voting. The board also launched an online service called BallotTrax last Friday to allow voters to track the status of their absentee ballots.
“If someone has voted, and we’ve logged their vote at the board of elections, when they present to vote in person, they won’t be able to cast their ballot,” Bowens said.
Damon Circosta, chair of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, said voter fraud is “so exceedingly rare that it’s almost laughable.”
“Any time you get a conspiracy big enough that it could impact the outcome of an election, too many people know that you’re trying to do something fraudulent,” he said. He referenced one such case in the 2018 election for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, where a Republican operative was accused of tampering with absentee ballots. That operative was indicted last year.
Some worry that Trump’s fear-mongering tactics will embolden his supporters to intimidate voters. But Circosta said such attempts at voter suppression won’t be tolerated — they’ll be met with “the full weight of the law,” he said.
“I don’t think there’s anything more sad than intimidating your fellow citizens out of the franchise,” he said. “We should pause and think about what we’re trying to do with democracy, and it’s certainly not silence other voices.”
The Trump rally in Winston-Salem on Sept. 8 was as much a campaign stop for the president as it was a reward for political allies.
“Representatives Greg Murphy, Virginia Foxx, Mark Walker, Dan Bishop, and Ted Budd, what a group. What a group. What a group, thank you fellas. They’re warriors. Boy, I’ll tell you, those House guys, they were in there, they were fighting for us,” Trump said halfway through his hour-long remarks, peering over an elevated podium at the recipients of his praise.
On cue, rallygoers cheered, waving red, white, and blue signs from the tarmac at Smith Reynolds Airport.
A few minutes later, the president directed his supporters to Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, Republican candidate for governor, and Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill, Republican candidate for attorney general. Applause erupted once more for both candidates, familiar faces from speeches preceding Trump’s.
Lee Haywood, Republican candidate for North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District, which includes Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and High Point, sat three rows in front of the president. He went unmentioned.
“Loved it, loved it, loved it,” Haywood said of the rally. “I like to hear Donald Trump get up there and tell the truth the way he sees it.”
The rally was a continuation of the candidate’s unreciprocated adulation of president and party, even as the GOP seems to be giving up and cutting its losses in the former Republican stronghold. Kathy Manning, the Democratic candidate, is heavily favored to win. Haywood has troubles with visibility and money, and the Republican establishment has balked at backing his campaign. The president not mentioning Haywood during a visit to the candidate’s district is only the latest example.
Last year, the General Assembly redrew the 6th’s lines from eight predominantly rural counties to Guilford County and part of Forsyth County. In the new district, Hillary Clinton won by over 20 points in 2016. No House Republican elected in 2018 represents a district that voted for Clinton by more than four points.
“It’s not just a major long shot. It’s an impossibility,” said David Wasserman, House editor at The Cook Political Report. “Republicans have abandoned [the district] for good reason, because it’s unwinnable.”
The new borders signal underlying social and political change in North Carolina’s Triad. If the district were on the ballot in the late twentieth century, it would have been very competitive, Wasserman said. But the urbanization of the Triad has driven a major blue shift.
“That’s probably not an area that [Republicans] would be too wise to invest their resources,” said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball.
One of those resources is the president’s political capital, which has not yet been spent on Haywood.
“There’s no reason for Trump to mention Haywood. It would not have any kind of beneficial effect for the president or Haywood,” Wasserman said.
Haywood remains loyal to the president. One of his campaign Facebook’s first posts since the rally announces plans to attend a “Trump convoy and ride” in nearby Alamance County on Saturday, an event unlikely to provide much-needed local name recognition.
The campaign has also struggled with fundraising. Up to the most recent campaign finance filing on June 30, the Haywood campaign raised $15,365, while the Manning campaign raised $1.4 million. As of Sept. 13, Haywood estimated that his campaign has now raised a total of about $60,000.
“I’m going up against a very wealthy person over here. She can self-fund her campaign, and I’m just a regular guy,” Haywood said. Campaign finance filings show that Kathy Manning has made one $67.06 contribution to her own campaign.
Closing the gap has been impeded by the coronavirus pandemic, which has already shuttered six months of opportunities to woo voters face-to-face. What Haywood calls “a narrow path to victory” is now even narrower. He said he is focused on social media and grassroots outreach, so in an effort to materialize his campaign, in-person doorknocking is slated through the next month.
“The heavy hitters that usually give money, they’re reluctant to do so,” Haywood said. “Everybody knows this is a tough race. They’re starting to come through. They’re starting to realize that this is a winnable race.”
While the Forsyth County and Guilford County GOPs have supported the campaign since its start, Haywood declined to comment on state and national support. However, he said that the Trump campaign was aware of his own and that he hoped for a shoutout if the president returns to North Carolina — Haywood’s best bet against a difficult pandemic and a difficult map.
“About the only thing my campaign is missing is a swarm of locusts,” Haywood said.
Update: This story has been corrected to indicate that Kathy Manning has made one $67.06 contribution to her own campaign. An earlier version incorrectly said she had not made any.
After his first question prompted a puzzling response from the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, the debate moderator asked a second time. Would Cal Cunningham take a coronavirus vaccine that was approved by the end of the year?
“I would be hesitant,” Cunningham said. “I’m going to ask a lot of questions.”
Republican Sen. Thom Tillis pounced.
“We just had a candidate for the U.S. Senate look into the camera and tell 10 million North Carolinians he would be hesitant to take a vaccine,” he said, waving his hands up and down for emphasis.
It felt like a role reversal for the two parties. It’s typically the Republicans who are skeptical of scientific expertise and public health measures such as mask requirements.
But on Monday night, it was Cunningham who said it was “incumbent on every American” to question the government and Tillis who responded, “I trust Dr. Fauci,” referring to Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease doctor.
If you didn’t see it live, you will surely see it and read about it again in ads and mailings. The exchange was the most memorable moment in the first televised debate between Tillis and Cunningham, two candidates in one of the most competitive and costly Senate contests in the country.
In the hour-long debate, the candidates sparred on healthcare and systemic racism, while also repeating barbs from their campaign ads.
Cunningham quoted the Gospel of Matthew. Tillis called Biden Cunningham’s “running mate” and zinged Cunningham for using a tax incentive to renovate his butler’s pantry.
“I didn’t know what a butler’s pantry was because we didn’t have them in the trailers I grew up in,” Tillis said.
From the outset, the pandemic dominated the debate.
Before either candidate spoke, the debate moderator, WRAL anchor David Crabtree, explained that the candidates had been spaced 12 feet apart and had worn masks until reaching their podiums.
Asked to comment on the president’s handling of the pandemic, Tillis sidestepped. He praised the administration’s travel ban and then pivoted to boast about his efforts to increase testing and access to personal protective equipment.
Cunningham put the blame on President Trump and the federal government.
“I think that we are exceeding and experiencing an unprecedented failure of leadership in this country,” he said. “We have tens of thousands of Americans who have lost their lives, often without being able to be with their loved ones in their final hours. We’ve had millions of people out of the workforce, tons of jobs lost, but it’s also the lost moments. It’s missing high school graduations. It’s grandparents who can’t be there for birthdays, weddings, funerals.”
Cunningham also accused Tillis of dilly-dallying after being briefed on the coronavirus in January.
“It took him almost six months to come up with priorities,” he said. “Instead, I was listening to North Carolinians, talking about the priorities I hear.”
Following the pattern of the president, who has called the coronavirus the “China virus,” Tillis shifted blame overseas.
“Make no mistake about it. China’s responsible for this crisis,” he said.
And then came the surprising exchange over the COVID-19 vaccine. Cunningham defended his position, describing skepticism of government as one of the “finest traditions of America.”
“I think that’s incumbent on all of us right now in this environment with the way we’ve seen politics intervening in Washington,” he said.
“Cal’s a trial lawyer. He’s not a doctor,” Tillis replied. “He’s not a scientist. He’s not an epidemiologist. What he’s saying is what he thinks will get him elected. Because that’s what (Kamala) Harris said.”
Tillis and Cunningham are scheduled for two more debates on Sept. 22 and Oct. 1.
On the third night of the Republican National Convention, the would-be youngest member of Congress, Madison Cawthorn, got a moment in the national spotlight when he gave a speech in front of more than 17 million viewers. But his national debut was marked by a gaffe when he mistakenly said James Madison signed the Declaration of Independence.
Instead of being celebrated as a rising star, Cawthorn faced stories that said he had fumbled American history.
It was a high-profile misstep for the candidate from Western North Carolina whose campaign has been marked by several controversies in the past few months. He has come under criticism for a 2017Instagram postcelebrating his visit to Adolf Hitler’s vacation home known as “Eagle’s Nest,”which he said had been on his “bucket list for awhile,” and “it did not disappoint.” He referred to Hitler as “the Führer,” a German term of reverence.
Cawthorn also has a real estate investment company called SPQR Holdings LLC, which stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus, a Latin term for the Senate and the Roman People that some people link with white nationalist groups.
His Democratic opponent Moe Davis has seized on the controversies to portray the 25-year-old Republican as naive and out of step with the 11th Congressional District, which has new boundaries for the 2020 election that make it more friendly for a Democrat. In a statement to CNN, Davis said the controversies “paint a pretty clear picture of someone that’s got some explaining to do.”
Perhaps. But the district, formerly home to Mark Meadows, now the White House chief of staff, is still considered pretty safe territory for a Republican.
Cawthorn, a business owner from Hendersonville, North Carolina who has not held elected office before, wants to claim Meadows’s open seat.
Cawthorn was home-schooled in Henderson County and spent one semester at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia before dropping out. He worked at a Chick-fil-A restaurant and as a staff assistant to then-U.S. Rep. Meadows.
AVL Watchdog, a local news website in Asheville staffed by Pulitzer Prize winners, has revealed inconsistencies in Cawthorn’s campaign biography, which suggested that he was unable to attend the U.S. Naval Academy because of a car accident that left him partially paralyzed. But AVL Watchdog obtained a deposition in which Cawthorn acknowledged that his application to the Academy had already been rejected before the crash. He is now CEO of a real estate investment company and a motivational speaker.
Cawthorn has said he wants to be a voice for Generation Z, those born in the late 90s and early 2000s, and is running to oppose “AOC, The Squad and the radical left-wing mob,” referring to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive Democrats.
His opponent is Davis, 62-year-old retired Air Force colonel and former chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay. Davis earned his bachelor’s degree from Appalachian State University and his law degree from North Carolina Central University School of Law.
A once ardent prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay and defender of the terrorism policies, Davis resigned when he refused to be pressured by what he alleged was political influence from the Bush administration to streamline high-profile terrorist cases and use evidence obtained by waterboarding. He then became a vocal critic of the handling of cases there and the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which critics say is a euphemism for torture. In 2008, Davis testified on behalf of Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s personal driver, a fact that Cawthorn uses as ammunition to call Davis a “terrorist defender” on a website Cawthorn created to attack his opponent.
In 2011, Davis joined the faculty at Howard University School of Law, and in 2015 he became an administrative judge with the U.S. Department of Labor, retiring last year.
Davis told AVL Watchdog that he decided to run for Congress after surveying the likely candidates and deciding that he had the strongest credentials to take on Meadows.
“I was disappointed when [Meadows] dropped out of the race because I thought he was an easy target,” he said to AVL Watchdog.
Davis now faces a candidate who lacks experience but has star power in the Republican Party.
In June, Cawthorn pulled off an upset when he beat Trump-endorsed Lynda Bennett in a runoff. Cawthorn then made it clear that he supports Trump and has tied himself closely with the president. He sums his positions up on his Facebook ads with a four-point list: “Pro-Trump, Pro-Life, Pro-Gun and Pro-Law Enforcement.”
That seems to have pleased the president.
“Madison Cawthorn, a real star. You’re going to be a star of the party,” Trump said to a crowd of supporters at the Flavor 1st Growers and Packers facility in Mills River on August 24. Cawthorn, bound to a wheelchair from a car accident that left him partially paralyzed at 18, beamed as he sat maskless in the crowd.
Cawthorn has been on the defensive because of the controversies.
In addition to the visit to Hitler’s home and the name of his company, he has been criticized for a July appearance at a private border wall in El Paso, Texas.
AVL Watchdog reported that his Instagram video in front of the wall included debunked claims about human trafficking of American children across the border. The claims originated with the far-right conspiracy movement, QAnon.
Cawthorn’s spokesperson John Hart told AVL Watchdog that the candidate “categorically disavows QAnon.”
Davis seized the opportunity to call out Cawthorn for a lack of integrity.
“My QAnon cult, alt-right opponent’s #StolenValor effort proves the USNA made the right call,” Davis tweeted, referring to his rejection from the Naval Academy.
Where they stand
The candidates generally follow their parties on the major issues in the campaign. Davis supports a public option healthcare system, which consists of expanded Medicare while still allowing people to opt for private insurance. Cawthorn wants to foster a competitive free-market system that he predicts would “drive down costs.”
For gun rights, Cawthorn advocates for few restrictions while Davis supports background checks, red-flag laws, and restrictions for purchasing assault weapons that are similar to a concealed carry permit.
When asked about reparations to compensate people for slavery and racial inequality, Cawthorn said he strongly opposed the idea and called the concept “racist.” Davis supports it and thinks the recently approved reparations resolutions passed by the Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Commission should be expanded to the federal level.
Both candidates agree on the importance of securing broadband service in rural areas, but they disagree on how to do it. Davis supports HR 7302 Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act that would use $80 billion of funding to provide internet access for rural communities. Cawthorn proposes a reform to the formula used by the federal government for payments in lieu of taxes to give local governments more money to fund their unique infrastructure needs. He also suggests offering tax incentives to corporations to provide the service.
The Republican grip on the 11th District has slightly diminished in the new map. The district now has all of Buncombe County, including liberal Asheville, which had been partly carved out of the old map.
That made the district more competitive, said Chris Cooper, professor of political science at Western Carolina University.
Counties now included in the district are Polk, Avery and parts of Rutherford, all three of which voted for Trump in the 2016 election. Trump won Polk by 28.2 points and Rutherford and Avery by about 50 points each. But Burke and Caldwell, two counties that also heavily voted for Trump, were moved to the 5th District.
Still, that’s only a small boost to Davis.
“Even with redistricting, even with large proportions of unaffiliated, it is still a district that tends to vote for Republicans,” said Cooper.
According to the latest financial reports from June 30, Cawthorn raised a total of $803,058, compared with $493,434 for Davis.
“Davis is the best candidate the Democrats have had in this district since Heath Shuler,” said Cooper, referring to the former NFL quarterback and moderate Democrat who represented the district from 2007-2013. When the district was redrawn to remove half of Asheville, Shuler announced his retirement from the House in 2012.
The district is now closer to when Shuler first ran and won, giving Davis a better shot.
But Mac McCorkle, a public policy professor at Duke University, said Davis needs a significant push from a Democratic wave across the state in order to win.
“If Moe Davis beats Cawthorn, Joe Biden is gonna be winning North Carolina, and he’s gonna be winning the nation pretty big. It’s gonna be a blowout,” said McCorkle.
At top, Madison Cawthorn and Moe Davis. Campaign photos.
Update: This story has been corrected to indicate Davis’s position on assault weapons is not to support a ban but instead to seek the same requirement for purchasing them as for obtaining a concealed carry permit.
In a different year, the race might seem humdrum: a Republican boasting about jobs and the economy pitted against a Democrat promising better healthcare.
But this is 2020, and few things are run-of-the-mill, including the tight, high-profile competition for a U.S. Senate seat between Republican Sen. Thom Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham.
Congress doesn’t always hang in the balance.
“I just think everybody recognizes that this is going to be the most expensive race, probably in the country, just because of the tightness of North Carolina in terms of its political dynamics” said Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College. “Certainly, I think the Senate hinges on how this particular race goes.”
If party nominee Joe Biden wins the presidency, Democrats will need to net three seats to gain a Senate majority, since the vice president has a tie-breaking vote. If President Donald Trump wins, they’ll need four. In either scenario, the Democrats have their sights trained on North Carolina, where most polls aggregated by FiveThirtyEight show the two candidates tied or Cunningham with a single digit lead.
Both candidates have stuck to the conventional party playbooks while targeting the sliver of swing voters that could decide the outcome of this election — and the future of the Senate.
Tillis, 60, was elected in 2014, ousting Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. His campaign emphasizes humble beginnings: in one Youtube advertisement, Tillis describes how he moved throughout the South as a kid.
“Growing up in trailer parks and rental homes, Senator Tillis understands what so many are going through right now, which is why he’ll never stop fighting to revive our economy and get North Carolinians back to work,” Alex Nolley, Tillis’s campaign spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
According to The Charlotte Observer, Tillis left home at 17 before going on to work at the prestigious accounting and consulting firm Price Waterhouse and IBM.
From 2007 to 2015, he represented District 98 in the North Carolina House of Representatives. In the last four years of his tenure, he served as Speaker of the House.
As the state’s junior senator, Tillis has vacillated between opposing and supporting President Trump, said Jessica Taylor, the Senate and governors editor for The Cook Political Report.
Take Tillis’s response to Trump’s declaration of a national emergency over illegal immigration across the Mexican-American border in 2019. Initially, Tillis said he would vote against the declaration, but he later backtracked and voted for it — a “cautionary tale” for other Republican incumbents contemplating breaking with the president, Taylor said.
“The damage was done,” she said.
Now, Tillis faces the difficult balancing act of shoring up the Trump base while distancing himself from unpopular aspects of the president’s policies, particularly his response to the coronavirus crisis. During a recent Trump rally in Winston-Salem, Tillis stood out for wearing a mask. The president and many of his supporters went without.
“Tillis is trying to walk the Donald Trump tightrope,” said Chris Cooper, professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University. “Not distancing himself from Trump, but also not giving full-throated defense of the more radical parts of the Trump agenda.”
Tillis has doubled down on his track record regarding the economy, including his support for the Paycheck Protection Program, a loan program for small businesses — with the hope of portraying himself as a “common-sense fiscal conservative,” as his campaign website labels him.
His campaign also paints Cunningham as a far-left candidate of the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York.
“His radical liberal agenda of making it easier to sue police officers, enabling sanctuary cities, injecting the Green New Deal into COVID-19 legislation and increasing government control of our healthcare system, proves that Cunningham is nothing but a rubber-stamp for Chuck Schumer’s extreme liberal agenda,” Nolley wrote.
Cunningham, 47, has worked to portray himself as the kind of moderate Democrat swing voters in North Carolina can trust, highlighting his small-town origins and his military service.
He grew up in Lexington and earned his law degree from the University of North Carolina School of Law. After 9/11, Cunningham entered the Army Reserve and was commissioned as a First Lieutenant in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Deployed to Iraq, he oversaw the army’s largest court martial jurisdiction, earning a Bronze Star Medal and the General Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award, according to his campaign website.
“He really kind of is a candidate from central casting,” said Steven Greene, a professor of political science at North Carolina State University. “He’s got the military background. He’s got his classic rural North Carolina accent. … I think people are able to project onto Cunningham what they want to.”
Cunningham was elected to the State Senate in 2000. He later worked as an attorney at Wallace & Graham, a firm with practice areas that include workers’ compensation, personal injury and class action cases, and at Kilpatrick Stockton, where he focused on commercial litigation. He has also worked as vice president of a waste management company called Waste Zero, a role that has provoked negative Republican advertising.
Healthcare is a common talking point for Cunningham: he wants to lower prescription drug costs, guarantee coverage for preexisting conditions and expand Medicaid.
“One of the most frequent issues Cal hears about when he talks to North Carolinians is the need to improve access and bring down the cost of healthcare for families — made more urgent during the COVID-19 crisis as hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians are out of work and uninsured,” Aaron Simpson, Cunningham’s press secretary, wrote in an email.
Cunningham has criticized Tillis for cutting education funding and opposing Medicaid expansion. He’s also accused the incumbent of shady dealing.
“Instead of doing right by the people he should serve, [Tillis] has spent the past six years caving over and over to the corruption in Washington and the corporate special interests bankrolling him,” Simpson wrote.
Senate races are always expensive, but this one particularly so: outside spending groups, including PACs and SuperPACs, have already funnelled nearly $50 million into this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. This race has attracted more outside spending than any other Congressional race; for context, outside groups have spent around $40 million on the Senate contest in Iowa, the next most expensive race in terms of outside spending.
Earlier this year, Cunningham had trailed Tillis in finances. But in the second quarter of 2020 his campaign nearly tripled Tillis’s fundraising, smashing a record for the amount of money raised by a North Carolina Senate candidate in a quarter, according to The News & Observer.
As of June 30, Tillis’s campaign raised about $13.7 million and spent $7.3 million, while Cunningham raised roughly $14.8 million and spent about $8.2 million.
“I think that there should be no surprise that Cal Cunningham would raise a great deal of money from North Carolina and beyond it. That was always in the cards,” said John Hood, chairman of the John Locke Foundation and president of the John William Pope Foundation.
“That was one of the explicit reasons why some Democrats endorsed him early, so he can raise the funds necessary to be competitive in this important race.”
The race plays out in a state characterized by increasing polarization and a schism between rural and urban areas, characteristics that make North Carolina a microcosm of national politics.
Urban areas, like Mecklenburg County and Durham County, are strongholds for the Democrats, while rural counties remain solidly Republican, said Carter Wrenn, a North Carolina political consultant and columnist. Neither base will budge.
“It would take a nuclear blast to fracture either one,” Wrenn said.
Then there are the suburbs, home to many of the state’s unaffiliated or independent voters. Coveted by both candidates, these swing voters could decide the outcome of this razor-thin election, Wrenn said. So could young people.
“For the time being, we’re kind of still a center, lean-right state, but if voters under the age of 40 show up in relative political strength, we could be a pure toss-up, slightly lean Democratic state,” Bitzer said.
One thing’s for sure: as a tumultuous year unfolds, this race — and the state — will continue to be in flux.
“I think 2020 is kind of an inflection point for this state, for the country, as a whole,” Bitzer said.