‘Rural values’ can tilt voters Republican – even for some minorities

Why We Wrote This

Democrats might assume that a minority people in North Carolina’s poorest county would vote with them. But as one observer puts it, “This is not about Native American identity. This is about rural Indian values.”

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Lumbee Tribe member Sarah Baxley staffs a small county dump in Robeson County, North Carolina, the heartland of the 55,000-member tribe. Though she voted for Democrat Dan McCready, she estimates that about half of her Lumbee family and friends voted for Republican Dan Bishop, in part due to his close relationship with President Donald Trump.

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In the recent do-over election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, Robeson County proved pivotal. It’s home to the Lumbee people, a tribe with polyglot roots that blend Native American, escaped slave, and European colonist traditions. And, though nearly all of them are registered Democrats, about half ended up voting Republican.

“Bottom line: We are red-blooded Americans,” says Lumbee member Jason Locklear, a health care executive. “There are guns in the trucks in the church parking lot – not AR-15s, but shotguns. We are deeply Christian. And we are self-determined.”

They helped push Republican Dan Bishop to victory in this district. And some political analysts see lessons here for a coming national election in which rural voters are sure to play an important role.

“Now we know there are swing votes in that part of the world because the Democratic Party has moved so far to the left,” says Larry Shaheen, a local GOP strategist who has worked on federal recognition for the tribe. “This is not about Native American identity. This is about rural Indian values.”

The Lumbee Indians of Robeson County about broke Dan McCready’s heart.

The former Marine and clean-energy investor spent 27 months wooing the Lumbee Tribe in rural North Carolina, in a bid to turn the state’s 9th Congressional District Democratic for the first time since 1963.

They were so close. Mr. McCready’s Carolina-blue signs were all over the suburbs of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, where Republicans had always ruled. A GOP fraud scandal had invalidated the 2018 election, forcing the do-over. President Donald Trump had won the district by 12 points in 2016 but, days before a special election, Mr. McCready had a small lead in the polls.

The Lumbees, nearly all of them registered Democrats, could put him over the top. Yet in the end, by some estimates about half the Lumbees voted for the Republican, Dan Bishop, the architect of the state’s controversial 2016 “bathroom bill.”

The hard-right turn of the Lumbees didn’t just turn the election, but turned identity politics on its head, political scientists say. The conflict among the Lumbees goes to the core of how identity politics plays at the ballot box: whether to be defined or to define oneself. At the crux of that divide in this case: minority voting rights versus rural values around guns, faith, and self-reliance.

“Bottom line: We are red-blooded Americans,” says Jason Locklear, a health care executive and member of the 55,000-strong Lumbee people. “There are guns in the trucks in the church parking lot – not AR-15s, but shotguns. We are deeply Christian. And we are self-determined.”

What played out in southeastern North Carolina in September could offer a path for the GOP to woo rural Democrats and perhaps stave off deep gains by Democrats in red-state suburbs.

“NC-9 could very well be the road test for 2020,” says J. Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina. “This district went from a 12-point Republican win in 2016 down to 2 points in 2019. That math seems to indicate that there’s real pressure for Republicans to ... really figure out where they need to go in a state that is shifting more and more competitive.”

Suddenly a group with its divides exposed, the Lumbee people of Robeson County say they have come to embody how polarization is straining societal bonds.

“People of the dark water”

In these scrubby plains along the South Carolina border, dotted with swamps around the Lumber River, “the people of the dark water” were born – in a kind of backcountry melting pot.

On a day in the mid-1700s, company surveyors stumbled on native people wearing European clothes, farming using modern methods, and hailing them in the King’s English. Over time, escaped slaves and Confederate deserters joined their ranks, Lumbee identity based more on culture than blood.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Brothers Donovan (left) and Jason Locklear were among an expanding bloc of Lumbees who, while traditionally voting Democratic, helped Republican Dan Bishop win a recent special congressional election in North Carolina's 9th District. Their swing was largely based on rural values like gun rights, Christian faith, and self-determination.

That polyglot identity – and the difficult path it has presented for federal recognition, which the tribe only partly won in 1956 – has always involved a deep sense of assimilation and patriotism. The Lumbee never went to war against the U.S. Instead, its members have fought for the Republic going back to the Civil War. Yet their love of country hasn’t always been reciprocated, forcing them to endure a label: “those Indians.”

“We do come from a long history of having to be very self-reliant, because nobody would give us anything,” says Mary Ann Jacobs, a Lumbee who chairs the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke. “Lumbees couldn’t get bank loans, wouldn’t be seen by doctors, or be served in stores. Jim Crow was a very long and hard time here in Robeson County, so that really did ingrain this idea that you could or should make it [if you worked hard]. But we also had a lot of people who didn’t make it.” Too often “we don’t talk about them,” she adds.

One of those who did make it is farmer Donovan Locklear, Jason’s brother. Their great-great-grandfather, W.L. Moore, helped establish a teaching college which became UNC-Pembroke.

In 2016, Mr. Locklear voted for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in the Republican primary. Today, he is a huge Trump supporter. But it has come with a cost. After the pastor at the church his grandfather founded backed Mr. McCready, Mr. Locklear left the church.

Mr. Locklear says part of the tribe’s identity is tied to the Battle of Hayes Pond in 1958. In reprisal for Ku Klux Klan leader Catfish Cole’s burning of crosses on Lumbee front yards, several hundred of them, firing rifles into the air, routed the klansmen away.

“Not being on a reservation is what made us what we are today,” he says. “We’ve had to fight for everything we’ve got.”

For the Lumbees, that has meant a long struggle over whether they are a legitimate tribe deserving of rights or a group of African Americans trying to pass themselves off as American Indians to get government handouts.

“The Lumbee theory has always been that they were a marooned community of escaped slaves and native people – a refugee community in the swamps that had coalesced,” says Mark Miller, author of “Claiming Tribal Identity.” “The biggest issue is that the government doesn’t believe they can prove what tribe they came from, and then they cast aspersions on their acknowledged African-American blood, and that affects how they’re perceived into the present. They have spent a lot of history trying to distance themselves from the African-American community, not in a racist way, but to assert their identity.”

That conflict is now exacerbated, some Lumbees say, by a sense of decline: of people, of values, of livelihoods. In 2015, Robeson was the poorest county in North Carolina. Racial tensions have dogged the post-Hurricane Florence consolidation of two rival high schools: one largely black, the other largely Lumbee.

“There’s always been sort of a dangerous mix in Robeson around politics and race, and as times get tougher that gets more challenging,” says Democratic strategist Morgan Jackson, who worked on Mr. McCready’s campaign. “In Trump’s America, this is the rhetoric that works. As folks are sliding down the scale, they are pointing at each other.”

That rural Democrats are increasingly voting Republican is nothing new of course, but part of an ongoing political realignment. But it has taken on greater relevance now as Americans square up to “two competing world views” – capitalism versus socialism – that will likely define next year’s election season, says Larry Shaheen, a GOP strategist in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Whether there are enough votes among rural Americans – including other tribes across the U.S. – to provide winning margins for Republicans is far from assured, notes Mr. Miller, the Utah historian.

“This is about rural Indian values”

A few weeks before the recent vote, someone brought a box of brand-new red “Make America Great Again” hats to Linda’s Restaurant, a Lumbee hangout. Half of the room cheered and doffed them. The other half was aghast. One MAGA hat wearer was told, referencing President Trump: “You know he doesn’t care who you are, right?”

“What you have stumbled upon in Robeson County is the method by which Trump is going to be reelected in 2020,” predicts Mr. Shaheen, who has worked on federal recognition for the tribe. “That part of the world has traditionally been the worst for Republicans, period. But now we know there are swing votes in that part of the world because the Democratic Party has moved so far to the left. This is not about Native American identity. This is about rural Indian values.”

After the state election board invalidated last year’s election – which Mr. McCready lost by 900 or so votes – Mr. McCready came back to the campaign emboldened to fight for the voting rights of minorities and Native Americans who had in part been the target of election abuses by the GOP in 2018.

For his part, rival candidate Mr. Bishop embraced Mr. Trump. He called Mr. McCready an “Elizabeth Warren Democrat.” Mr. McCready ended up returning a donation by Rep. Ilhan Omar, part of a minority bloc among Democrats pushing for broader benefits for the disenfranchised.

According to Sarah Baxley, a Lumbee who voted for Mr. McCready, “lots of Lumbees” attended Mr. Trump’s rally in nearby Fayetteville the night before the election.

On election night, Mr. Bishop added more than 3,000 votes to the 2018 winning total – with Robeson County, crucially, seeing support for Mr. McCready drop by more than 10% in key Lumbee-majority precincts, compared with 2018. At play were national political currents joined with local issues – ranging from full recognition to grants for a new swift water rescue program secured by a Republican senator.

“The Republican Party has showed a particular interest in working with us, which broke down some barriers, that the Republican Party is not evil or against us, and, in fact, that they represent a lot of our same values,” says Lumbee businessman Jarrette Sampson.

That is not to say that Democrats in Robeson County don’t share a lot of those same values, adds Mr. Sampson.

“I have many good friends who are die-hard in the Democratic Party here in the county, and they don’t represent [the far-left] at all. They go hunting with us, they go to church, they are the same people as we are.”

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