North Carolina a Battleground State Brimming with Controversies

September 26, 2020 by Dan McCue
Madison Cawthorn, the much talked about 25-year-old who won the GOP primary runoff in North Carolina's 11th Congressional District.

WASHINGTON – In the battleground state of North Carolina the conventional wisdom is simply put: President Donald Trump can win re-election even if he just squeaks out a victory in the Tar Heel State, but he might as well pack his bags for Mar-a-Lago Election Night if the state’s voters turn against him.

That statement, heard time and again in different forms, from political observers around the state, is now context for a raging political controversy that erupted this week over the settlement of a lawsuit on mail-in ballots.

Earlier this week, the North Carolina Board of Elections, which runs the state’s elections, approved a proposed settlement to a lawsuit that would, among other things, make it easier for people who make mistakes on mail-in ballots to correct those mistakes without having to start over with a brand new ballot.

The settlement, unanimously approved by the elections board on Tuesday, was seen as a bipartisan breakthrough.

On Tuesday night, during a televised debate in Raleigh, N.C., even Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican fighting for his political life in a re-election bid against Democrat Cal Cunningham, a former state lawmaker, said he supported mail-in voting.

“The North Carolina absentee ballot no-excuse voting system is a great way to vote,” Tillis said Tuesday. “I would encourage everybody to do it. I would actually even encourage Cal to be a role model, put fewer people at polling locations and maybe be a little less traditional, because these are untraditional times.”

North Carolinians appear to agree. With early voting already underway in the state, more than 153,000 voters have cast their absentee-by-mail ballots in the state, according to the board of elections. And in all, nearly 1 million absentee ballots have been requested.

But the next day, Wednesday, top GOP lawmakers in the state criticized the settlement, and immediately thereafter the board’s two Republican members resigned.

In their resignation letters, one claimed lawyers for the state withheld important information. The other claimed the settlement did more than he was led to believe it would do.

This prompted North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican who is running to unseat Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, to write U.S. Attorney General William Barr asking him to look into the potential changes of voting policy.

Damon Circosta, the Democratic chair of the Board of Elections, addressed the brewing scandal by acknowledging the Republicans’ claims but said, “This is not true.”

By Thursday, Tillis went on the record again, telling the News & Observer newspaper that he is now skeptical of mail-in voting as a result of the board’s action.

Pope “Mac” McCorkle, a longtime political consultant who is now a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, told The Well News he believes the Republicans on the election board were pressured to quit.

“I hate to be too conspiratorial, but the controversy that erupted after everybody on the board signed off on change appears to follow a Republican pattern to try to delegitimize the electoral process wherever they think things are going to be tight,” he said.

McCorkle, who worked as an “issues consultant” for state and federal candidates for more than two decades before joining the Duke faculty, said strangest of all was that the election board’s vote did not mandate an immediate loosening of North Carolina’s mail-in voting rules, but rather sent the proposed settlement to the presiding judge in the case to consider.

“So it’s really strange that they quit,” he said.

If approved by the court, the primary changes the settlement would make, are:

  • It would be easier for voters to correct mistakes on mail-in ballots, including missing signatures.
  • Voters could put their absentee ballots at specialized drop-boxes instead of mailing them or hand-delivering them to election officials.
  • The cutoff for ballots to arrive after the election on Nov. 3 and still be counted would be moved from Nov. 6 to Nov. 12.

As for Tillis, McCorkle said, “to come out criticizing mail-in voting after time and again saying North Carolina’s process is fine, just smacks of political pressure.”

On Friday morning, Circosta and the other Democrats who remain on the board released documents they said proved their version of events leading up to Tuesday’s unanimous vote on the settlement.

These included the official minutes of previously secret settlement discussions and previously confidential memos from the board’s legal staff and attorneys.

But that transparency only fueled a perception that Republicans in North Carolina are growing worried that Trump will lose the state.

Most observers believe mail-in voting this year has been significantly more popular with Democratic voters than with Republicans. Therefore any change to make it harder for the state to throw out people’s ballots is likely to be more helpful to Democratic candidates.

Ferrell Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said it’s a shame to have a controversy like this erupt now “because the Board of Elections system we have here has worked for a good long while.”

“Over a two decade period, with the help of the federal Motor Voter law, we’ve seen steady progress on making voting more accessible and easier,” Guillory said.

“Of course, it’s also been a very contentious state,” he added. “It’s a state that has had issues for many years over Voter ID and other rules that critics call voter suppression.”

“I guess all we can hope is that the Republicans put up two new members to join the board and for the governor to appoint them, so that we won’t have an interruption in our election process,” Guillory said.

State Key to Democrat’s Bid to Take the Senate

As McCorkle expounded on the mail-in ballot brouhaha, a clearer vision of where North Carolina fits in the electoral puzzle began to emerge.

“I think what we’re seeing is Republicans acting on the realization that Trump must absolutely have North Carolina,” he said. “If Biden loses here, there’s still a clear path for him, through the Midwest for instance… to get the Electoral College votes he needs to win the presidency.

“If Trump loses here, it’s really hard to figure out a path for victory that makes sense,” he said. “I mean, where does he make up that loss?”

“The other thing I think about a loss in North Carolina, is that while it might not be causally related to other key states he might lose, like Florida or Arizona, and maybe even Georgia, a loss in North Carolina is going to be a reflection of an anti-Trump mood in places he’s had support in the past. And if it manifests itself here, that anti-Trump mood is probably going to be shared nationally.”

McCorkle said the other reason North Carolina is so important in 2020’s electoral calculus is that it’s likely a “must-have” state for Democrats if they want to succeed in taking control of the U.S. Senate.

“They’ve got a real shot here and that’s why you’re seeing the Democrats completely focused on North Carolina, aside from Biden,” he said.

Sen. Tillis himself has acknowledged he’s in a tough spot.

Introducing Trump at a recent rally in Fayetteville, N.C., the first-term senator told the crowd “no one believes we can keep a Senate majority unless we win North Carolina.”

A New York Times-Siena College poll earlier this month found that 12% of Republican voters in the state are still undecided about who to vote for, which bodes extremely well for Cunningham, a former state lawmaker and military prosecutor who has positioned himself as a moderate.

Without the support of most, if not all those undecided Republican voters, Tillis, who has trailed Cunningham in most polls, faces near certain defeat.

That’s one reason Tillis has aligned himself ever more closely to Trump as the Election draws nearer. Calculating that the president will pull off a win in North Carolina, he’s banking his electoral future on being a Trump acolyte.

In recent days, he’s joined the chorus of Republicans who want the Senate to vote on a new Supreme Court justice before Election Day, and he’s now joined the president in expressing “grave concerns” about absentee-by-mail voting.

“They have undermined the integrity of the process in North Carolina. It’s a sad day,” he said of the latter issue on Thursday.

McCorkle said the thing he’s taken notice of in the race isn’t Cunningham’s polls numbers, but how low, uniformly, Tillis’ poll numbers have been throughout the race.

“I mean, you look at Real Clear Politics, and an incumbent’s numbers just shouldn’t be that low, consistently, regardless of what’s going on,” he said. “I think that’s a real problem sign and it’s absolutely why he’s had to really follow the Trump line.

“I’m still expecting the U.S. Senate race to reflect very much what is going on in the presidential race, but there’s a sense out there that Tillis is just not as popular in his district as Trump is, that he’s had some defections in the base, and he’s having to shore that up,” McCorkle said.

Cooper Appears Golden After COVID Stand

If Republican Tillis is faltering in his bid for re-election (he’s currently running about 4% behind Cunningham), North Carolina’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, appears to be doing just fine, with the most recent polls showing he’s currently got a lead of around 8% over Dan Forest.

According to McCorkle and others, the coronavirus has virtually defined the gubernatorial race.

When the pandemic reached North Carolina in late February, it was up to Cooper to decide how the state would respond.

While some of his decisions, like those of his counterparts in other states, were controversial, the crisis and exercise of power made him look like a leader willing to take the flak for unpopular but important decisions.

This was never more obvious than this summer, when he stared down President Trump and the Republican National Committee over their desire to hold their national convention in Charlotte without taking pandemic safety measures.

Cooper said no, and the Republicans announced they were moving the convention to Jacksonville.

Forest responded with a curt message to voters:

“Gov. Cooper has delivered a clear message that North Carolina is not open for business, and the repercussions to jobs and livelihoods will be long-lasting.,” he said. “When other states’ ‘science and data’ shows that it is safe to host a convention in August, it is clear the Cooper administration is playing politics.”

But when a resurgence of the virus in Florida caused that plan to fall apart, a portion of the convention moved back to North Carolina, a turn of events in the governor’s favor.

McCorkle said there was a point, right after the RNC pulled out, Cooper’s cautious approach to the coronavirus appeared to be hurting him.

“But then when they had to cancel Florida, you know, the air went right out of that kind of criticism,” he said. “The feeling you get is that people feel Cooper handled the virus correctly, and that’s carried over to voters’ feelings about other things he’s done. In the meantime, Forest hasn’t really found an attack issue.”

“If this were a non-presidential election year, I’d say the governor’s race is safely Democrat, but given the dynamics of a presidential year, you still have to have a little question mark next to this race,” he added.

Cooper is running for his second, and final, term as governor, as the state has term limits. Forest is finishing up his second term as lieutenant governor.

The Cook Political Report, a non-partisan newsletter that analyzes elections, continues to characterize the race as “leans Democrat.”

Court-Ordered Redistricting Makes Congressional Races More Favorable to Dems

John Dinan, a professor in American politics at Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, N.C., said the court-ordered redrawing of congressional districts is almost certain to move two seats from the Republicans, who currently hold a 10-3 advantage, to the Democrats. 

“But most of the House races are not that competitive and are not attracting all that much money and attention,” he said.

“The race that is attracting the most money and attention is the 8th Congressional District where Republican incumbent Richard Hudson is facing a credible and well-funded Democratic challenger in Patricia Timmons-Goodson. 

“Two other races that are attracting somewhat less attention but still are on the radar screen of races to watch are the 9th Congressional District, where Republican Dan Bishop won a special election last year after an absentee-ballot controversy in the 2018 election required that the election be rerun in 2019, and he is defending his seat,” Dinan said.

“The other race to watch this year is for the seat in the state’s 11th Congressional District that Mark Meadows gave up to become White House Chief of Staff,” he said.

The contest pits Democrat Morris “Moe” Davis against a 25-year-old Republican newcomer, Madison Cawthorn, and it has been fraught with controversy almost since the moment Cawthorn won a June primary runoff against Lynda Bennett, a candidate endorsed by President Trump.

Shortly thereafter, Cawthorn came under scrutiny when his three-year-old social media posts, which some say signal support for white nationalism, went viral.

Among them were pictures he posted on Instagram of a 2017 trip with his brother to Adolf Hitler’s German mountain retreat. He said the trip to the Eagle’s Nest “has been on my bucket list for years. And it did not disappoint.”

The name of his real estate company, SPQR Holdings, is also controversial, as SPQR is an abbreviation of a Latin phrase meaning the Senate and the Roman People, and is often used by white nationalists.

In a statement, Cawthorn said at the time, “SPQR is a term for Rome.”

“We can’t let extremists on any side hijack or rewrite history because those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it … No one needs to study this history more closely than today’s far left politicians who favor authoritarian, centralized and top-down policies,” he said.

Then came media reports that refuted his claims that a temporarily paralyzing accident prevented him from attending the U.S. Naval Academy. In a deposition for a post-accident lawsuit, Cawthorn said he’d been notified before the accident that he had not been accepted to the academy.

He later attended Patrick Henry College, a small Christian college in Virginia, though he left before getting his degree.

For all this, some observers say, Cawthorn has a good chance of winning, citing the fact the district leans Republican and that Trump carried it with 57% of the vote in 2016.

McCorkle, for the moment, agrees the district is strongly Republican, but he said there’s a chance that Cawthorn might just prove to be too unacceptable to most voters.

How big would that be? McCorkle was unreserved in his opinion.

“If that district goes Democrat, the Republicans get wiped out nationally. There’s going to be a tsunami after that,” he said.

Davis, 62, is a retired Air Force colonel and former chief prosecutor for terrorism trials at Guantanamo Bay.

He left that post in 2007 over a dispute involving the use of information obtained through the use of torture, which he opposed.

Later assistant director of the Congressional Research Service, he was fired in 2009 for authoring opinion pieces critical of the Obama administration’s handling of Guantanamo cases.

He settled a lawsuit against the CRS out of court.

But he is perhaps best known for the outspoken opinions he’s expressed both on social media and as a frequent guest on cable television.

After Republicans began to make hay of some of his past remarks, he told the Observer newspapers that he had used “the kind of bombastic language you have to use to get noticed in print and on the air.”

“I certainly recognize that being a candidate is a different environment than being a commentator, and I do think I have to be more judicious explaining myself,” he told the newspaper.

Tight Race in 8th Congressional District

If the race in the 11th Congressional District is garnering more than its share of attention, the race in the 8th Congressional District is considered the most competitive house race in the state.

In this race, Democrat Patricia Timmons-Goodson is running against Rep. Richard Hudson.

As an incumbent, Hudson enjoyed a significant financial advantage, but the district became more favorable to Democrats after a federal court-ordered redistricting in 2019.

Timmons-Goodson, the first African-American woman to serve on the state Supreme Court, was later nominated to the federal bench by President Barack Obama, but her nomination did not make it through the Republican-controlled Senate.

Since announcing her intention to vie for the congressional seat, her rising fortunes in the polls, and strong fundraising have prompted the Cook Political Report to change the district’s rating from “likely Republican” to “lean Republican.”

And, Timmons-Goodson has received a coveted endorsement from former President Barack Obama.

Hudson, 48, began his political career as a top aide to former GOP Rep. Robin Hayes and three other House members, and he is now seeking his fifth term.

His wife, Renee, was chief of staff to Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway.

One recent controversy in the campaign involved Rep. Hudson’s use of taxpayer-funded mailings.

According to published reports, he sent out 17 taxpayer-funded mailings or advertisements this year, more than any of North Carolina’s other 12 House members.

While such mailings are designed to allow members of Congress to communicate with their constituents on official business, Democrats accused Hudson of using it to send out political mailings instead.

“Congressman Hudson is campaigning with taxpayer money and abusing his congressional privilege during a global pandemic when many North Carolinians are struggling,” Timmons-Goodson said in a statement.

“This might be the way that it works in Washington but for our community, it’s another example of how politicians are putting self-interest over people,” she said.

Hudson’s campaign responded by saying Hudson is simply a believer in communicating with his constituents often, and that during the pandemic he considered such communications an even higher priority.

Trying to put his arms around the whole of North Carolina politics, Ferrell Guillory said a lot of people call North Carolina a purple state, but the reality is a bit more complex than that.

“I think really what has happened is that North Carolina has become a red state and a blue state within a purple state,” he said. “I think what’s happened over time is that a Republican territory was carved out and a Democratic territory was carved out, and that it all looks mixed together from a certain high level is a matter of perspective.”

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