Nominating Trump Could Lose North Carolina For Republicans, But His Fans Don’t Care

Trump’s margin of victory there in 2020 was less than half what it was in 2016, and that was before his coup attempt and his indictments.

GREENSBORO, N.C. — If Republicans choose Donald Trump as their 2024 nominee and wind up losing North Carolina for the first time since 2008, activists like Camilla Zapolsky will be a big reason why.

The 64-year-old transplant from Chicago is not interested in any of the other Republican candidates who could be on the state primary ballot next Super Tuesday. She also doesn’t care about the growing number of criminal charges the coup-attempting former president faces.

“If he’s in a jail cell, I’ll still vote for him,” she told HuffPost at the state GOP’s recent convention.

And when it’s pointed out to her that a number of Republican candidates are running for president who are not under indictment, her response is to point out that President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Vice President Mike Pence were also investigated for possessing classified documents. “The others should be indicted, too,” she said.

Zapolsky’s promise to vote for an incarcerated Trump was extreme even by the standards of a party convention where he was the most popular, by far, of the three 2024 candidates who appeared. Some 1,000 Republicans paid $150 each for tickets to Trump’s dinner, compared to about 900 who paid $150 for a DeSantis dinner and 600 who paid $75 each for a Pence luncheon.

Among the dozens of attendees interviewed by HuffPost at the event, not one said that Trump’s chaotic four years in office, his attempt to remain in power despite losing the 2020 election or his now two felony indictments made him unacceptable.

All of which is why Biden, who barely lost the state in 2020, is planning a concerted effort to win there next year, hoping to take advantage of the same demographic changes that turned Virginia into a Democratic state 15 years ago and let Biden win Georgia in 2020.

“I think you’re seeing the same transformation in North Carolina,” said Morgan Jackson, a top political adviser to the state’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper.

The turnout numbers from 2020 tell a story that should have Republicans in the state alarmed. From 2016 to 2020, Democratic turnout increased 7 percentage points, while Republican and independent turnout increased 6 percentage points. Trump nevertheless saw his margin of victory drop from 3.6% in 2016 to 1.3% in 2020 — suggesting that small but significant slices of independents and even Republicans who supported Trump in 2016 moved to Biden.

Jackson said that, as has occurred nationally, college-educated voters in the state and particularly college-educated women turned against Trump and are not likely to return. What’s more, the fastest-growing areas of North Carolina have disproportionate numbers of these voters, he said.

“They’re getting bluer as they grow,” he added.

One alum from Biden’s 2020 campaign familiar with the 2024 strategy to win North Carolina, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that even if Trump winds up not winning the nomination, his rivals’ efforts to outdo him will end up hurting the eventual winner. “Whoever the Republican nominee is will have just emerged from a contest to be as extreme, divisive, and angry as possible,” he said.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks on June 10, 2023, in Greensboro, North Carolina. Trump spoke during the North Carolina Republican Party’s annual state convention two days after becoming the first former U.S. president indicted on federal charges.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks on June 10, 2023, in Greensboro, North Carolina. Trump spoke during the North Carolina Republican Party’s annual state convention two days after becoming the first former U.S. president indicted on federal charges.
Win McNamee via Getty Images

Greensboro-area Rep. Mark Walker, who is running for governor next year, agreed that a successful statewide candidate has to appeal to voters beyond the GOP voting base. He is running for the Republican nomination against the sitting lieutenant governor, Mark Robinson, who believes all abortion should be banned and who got Trump’s endorsement during his 90-minute convention appearance on June 10.

Walker said having Trump at the top of the GOP ticket would present challenges for the party but that even the federal charges that could send Trump to prison for decades are not likely to prevent that. “At this point, I don’t think it moves the needle either way,” he said.

Joshua Smith, the chair of the Pender County Republican Party, said the new federal indictment accusing Trump of withholding secret military and intelligence documents and then conspiring to hide them from authorities would actually help Trump, like his April indictment in New York City for falsifying business records to hide hush money paid to a porn star. Smith wondered, though, whether there might eventually be a cumulative effect.

Trump is also under federal investigation for his coup attempt that culminated in the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol, as well as a Georgia state probe for his efforts to overturn his election loss there. Both could produce additional indictments against Trump.

“After four or five indictments, that might start hurting him,” Smith said.

“The general won’t be won or lost by either party’s base. This is especially true in North Carolina.”

- Doug Heye, Republican consultant originally from North Carolina

Mark Easley, a 33-year-old electrical engineer from Durham, said he has doubts that any of the Republicans running against Trump can beat him, even the current leading challenger, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. “Unless Trump drops out, [DeSantis] can’t beat Trump,” he said, but acknowledged that Trump is damaged goods in a general election. “It’s not a positive for us.”

Melissa Crespo, who began her Republican activism as a county chair for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, said she appreciates the case against another Trump nomination. “I understand that argument. I know people who feel that way, as well,” she said.

Arrayed against that, though, are the legions of loyal Trump supporters who have no interest in approaching the primary choices strategically. Many further continue to believe Trump’s claim — repeatedly proven false — that the 2020 election had been stolen from him. “These people wholeheartedly think Trump is the man, and that he is able to win,” she said. “A lot of people in my circle feel like he deserves a second term.”

Doug Heye, a Republican consultant who is originally from North Carolina, said that he still sees signs like “Trump 2024 … or sooner” as he travels and that the party voting base’s loyalty to Trump is going to wind up creating a golden pickup opportunity for Biden.

“Obviously, the base of the party, with those attending a state convention being the most hard-core, will back Trump in the primary,” he said. “But the general won’t be won or lost by either party’s base. This is especially true in North Carolina, perhaps the most purple state and the closest state Biden lost. The suburbs and independent voters will loom very large.”

Which leaves North Carolina Republicans with only one realistic strategy, should Trump wind up leading their ticket: Hope that however much voters are fed up with Trump, they are fed up with Biden even more.

Bill Moore, the chair of the Brunswick County Republican Party, said Trump’s “mouth” and constant drama will diminish in importance as the pain to average families from high grocery prices and elevated interest rates continues and worsens.

“And as people get hurt, they are going to be less bothered by his mouth,” he predicted.

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