The last time I thought Republicans were in disarray, the seemingly long-shot candidate for president came from behind to beat the establishment Democrat in an election that shocked the entire nation and world and, well, you all know pretty well how the story goes after that. So I don’t want to jump to the conclusion from reading this Washington Post story about North Carolina being the bellwether for Republican rejuvenescence that the party is having an identity crisis, or is struggling with how to move forward post-Trump.
But that does kind of seem like what’s happening here. Some takeaways:
1. A lot of people are leaving the GOP–and so are donors.
Whether they’re leaving because they’re disgusted with the events of January 6 or because they don’t feel their leaders are standing up for Trump enough, they’re leaving all the same. More than 20,000 N.C. Republicans have left the party since November, according to data from Catawba College politics and history professor Michael Bitzer, and most have re-registered as unaffiliated. A former aide to U.S. Senator Richard Burr suggests these Republicans are largely from the suburbs where “elections are often won and lost,” and the state party’s vote to censure Burr likely won’t help the matter. Then, there are the donors; local billionaire James Goodnight, founder and CEO of SAS, gave a lot of money to Republican congressional candidates last year but a spokesperson says he won’t be giving any more to candidates who “did not support the integrity of the election process” that’s vital to our democracy.
2. The race for Burr’s Senate seat in 2022 could be crowded.
Mark Walker is definitely running. Mark Meadows is likely not running. Wilmington native and Trump daughter-in-law Lara Trump might be running but, despite proclamations from Sen. Lindsey Graham, Trump advisers familiar with her thinking say they don’t think she’ll be running. Former N.C. governor Pat McCrory is mulling running. So is U.S. Congressman Ted Budd, who voted to reject the electoral college vote count on January 6. And here’s something new: Michael Whatley, the relatively unknown chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, who coordinated efforts across the state’s parties at the county level to censure Burr for his vote on Trump’s impeachment, says he is also thinking about running.
3. Depending on how things shake out, Republicans could face a nightmare scenario in the 2022 mid-terms.
Without Trump on the ballot, Republicans are unlikely to do turnout numbers that rival 2020’s, experts say. And if Biden does a good job managing the coronavirus and the economic recovery, Black and suburban voters may remain as motivated to go out and vote for Democrats again as they were last year to vote Trump out of office. “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,” says John Anzalone, a Biden pollster who’s done a lot of work in the South. On the other hand, Paul Shumaker, a longtime Republican strategist in North Carolina, says the midterm elections are “about anger management and failed expectations for the party in control of the White House.” If the Biden administration overreaches, he says, we can expect unaffiliated voters to break for Republicans.
4. Democrats are feeling bullish–at least at this point in the game.
Jill Normington, an adviser to Democratic Senate candidate Cal Cunningham–a guy who lost to Sen. Thom Tillis in a U.S. Senate race last fall–is one who doesn’t think the Republican vote will materialize again in 2022 like it did in 2020. “I don’t think any embracing of Donald Trump from the Republican side means you can repeat that turnout,” Normington says. “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.”
5. The demographics in North Carolina aren’t favorable for Republicans.
Even with a surge in GOP turnout in 2020, Trump did worse in North Carolina by two points that year than he did in 2016. Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist for Gov. Roy Cooper, says that shows suburban voters are shifting towards Democrats and most of the state’s college-educated, young voters are not breaking for Republicans. Jackson says he thinks heavy Republican turnout in 2020 was fueled largely by voters in rural counties without college degrees drawn in by Trump’s “crazy talk” and loyal to him, not to the GOP. Jackson ends the piece with this damning final thought: “Republicans are in a really bad spot. 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.”
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