Why Clinton eyes GOP-led North Carolina: It's more purple than it looks

An influx of college-educated millennials, Trump's perceived weaknesses, and a backlash against the GOP state legislature could push the important swing state into Clinton's column in November. 

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Hillary Clinton greets audience members at a campaign voter registration event in Charlotte, N.C. on Sept. 8, 2016. The Democratic presidential candidate holds a razor-thin lead over her GOP rival in the latest state polls.

Hillary Clinton returns to the campaign trail Thursday after her rest-up from pneumonia, picking battleground North Carolina for her reappearance.

It’s a state where the race is tight as a tick – only a 0.8 percent margin separates the two candidates, with the slight advantage going to Mrs. Clinton, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls. If she can pry this state away from Donald Trump, say analysts, she’ll have the White House, because no Republican since 1956 has won the presidency without the support of the Tar Heel State.

Given that Republicans control the state legislature and the governorship, both US Senate seats, and all but three House seats, why is Clinton even contesting this southern state? A Democrat has won a presidential campaign here only twice in the last 10 elections, in 2008, when Barack Obama worked his tail off and won by less than 1 percent, and in 1976, when southerner Jimmy Carter won handily.

One answer lies in the changing political hue of the state – purple,  with a population influx that points to blue, despite the red appearance. Then there’s the perceived weakness of Mr. Trump. A third factor could particularly benefit Clinton: voter backlash against a GOP state legislature in overdrive, symbolized by the “bathroom law,” or HB2, that requires transgender people to use restrooms that correspond to the gender on their birth certificate.

This week, two major collegiate athletic associations – the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Atlantic Coast Conference – said they were withdrawing championship games from the state because of the law. The withdrawals, on top of other business boycotts over the law, are a huge blow for a state that thrives on college sports. Democrats believe the backlash will spur voter turnout that favors them.

“This year, as in 2008, Hillary Clinton has a chance in this state, not simply because of Trump, but because of demographic change, growth of metro areas, strongly Democratic areas of Charlotte and Raleigh, and the influx of new people into the state. But she’s got to work at it,” says Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

More than half a million people have moved to the state since 2010 – the year of the tea party wave in Congress, and the year North Carolina's legislature turned Republican for the first time since 1896. Many of those new folks have moved to Mecklenburg County, home to Charlotte, the largest city in the state and a fast-growing banking center with sparkling skyscrapers and shady residential streets.

Half the newcomers to Charlotte are under the age of 35 and have a four-year degree or higher, says Mayor Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat. They lean Democratic, turning the already blue city a deeper hue. The state has also seen an influx of Latinos and Asians.

Tipping point?

At the same time, Mayor Roberts points out, the bathroom law has become a “tipping point” for reaction against the state assembly. “Issues have been piling up,” she says – issues such as gerrymandered redistricting, which has kept the state legislature crimson, and a voter ID law. Courts have rejected both as discriminatory in intent.

Both of those measures put Democrats at a disadvantage, says Roberts, particularly African-Americans, who make up almost half of registered Democrats in the state.

“There are a lot of people who are highly motivated to vote. I think turnout will be good,” she says. If you look only at the HB2 law, she estimates, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community and its business allies could be 10 percent of the vote. As mayor, she is acutely aware of the new law's hit to business. Before this week’s collegiate announcements, the NBA canceled its 2017 all-star game in Charlotte because of the law.

“That bill was blown out of proportion, but you can’t undo public opinion” and that’s hurt the sate, says Brett Ford, a resident of the Charlotte suburb of Mint Hill. Although he has always voted Republican, Mr. Ford says he will not be voting for GOP Gov. Pat McCrory, who signed and defended the law. Mr. Ford says he’ll probably “hold his nose” and back Trump.

The bathroom law “just made a joke out of our state,” says Kelly, a Democratic voter and Clinton supporter emerging from a Harris Teeter grocery store in Charlotte on a warm September day. The psychiatrist, who did not want to use his last name, is in a same-sex relationship, but his complaints with state Republicans go far beyond the controversial law.

He faults Governor McCrory, a moderate and the former mayor of Charlotte, for being co-opted by the legislature. “He tried to take away our airport!” cries Kelly, speaking of a plan to turn over control of the airport from the city to a regional authority.

With three teachers in his family, the psychiatrist also complains of the state’s low ranking in teacher pay. It’s 41 in the nation, despite raises, according to a May report by the National Education Association. Teacher pay has become a big issue in the gubernatorial race, which McCrory is in serious danger of losing.

“The government is very conservative, but the public is not,” says Ted Arrington, professor emeritus of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Clinton's ground game

To take advantage of the demographics and the discontent, the Clinton campaign has to have a superior ground game, observers such as Professor Arrington say. So far, it looks like it does.

It’s got more than 30 field offices set up, with workers trolling even rural areas for votes. The Washington Post reported this week that Clinton and her supporters have outspent Trump and his allies by 7 to 1 on TV ads.

As a result, Republicans are playing catch-up, with the Republican National Committee sending an army of workers to the state. Outside conservative groups are pouring in ad dollars to help buttress the US Senate campaign of the incumbent Republican, Richard Burr, who is also in an unexpectedly close race.

As has happened nationally, the Clinton-Trump competition has tightened in the state. Trump supporters at a recent GOP women’s luncheon in a suburb of Raleigh commend his new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, for keeping him on message and fleshing out his policies. They expect “closet” Trump supporters to show up at the polls.

But interviews with North Carolinians of all stripes – Republican, Democrat, and unaffiliated – reveal what the nation knows, that voters have serious questions about both of these candidates.

“If Hillary wins, it’s not because they love Hillary … it’s because they dislike Trump” even more, says Carter Wrenn, a longtime Republican observer and strategist in the state.

Mr. Wrenn is particularly concerned about Republican transplants to the state who were supporters of Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, but who are turned off by Trump. Mr. Romney won the state by only 2 percentage points – another indication that North Carolina is far more purple than it looks.

Wrenn points to the upcoming presidential debate on Sept. 26 as the next big opportunity for either candidate to influence the race.

“The debates,” he says, “are the next big act in this play.”

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