CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For most of the past decade, North Carolina was a showcase for the Republican Party’s growth — its strength in the suburbs, in rural areas and in races up and down the ballot proving that it could dominate in parts of the country where demographics favored the Democrats. Now it could be a victim of its own excess.
After victories in 2010, when Republicans took control of the state legislature for the first time in more than 100 years, and in 2012, when a Republican won the governor’s race, they used their power in the State Capitol to carry out a sweeping conservative agenda that included tax cuts, caps on medical malpractice damages and ending tenure for teachers.
But some of their most contentious moves — creating highly gerrymandered congressional districts; restrictions on gay and transgender rights that prompted national boycotts; and curbs on the power of the Democratic governor — backfired with voters and the courts, which struck down many of them. And after defeating the Republican governor in 2016, Democrats won enough seats in the legislature in 2018 to break the supermajority Republicans had for eight years.
Now, embattled Republican lawmakers find their fates intertwined with those of President Trump, a deeply polarizing figure who won here in 2016 by three percentage points but has pushed many voters to their limits with his hectoring style and mismanagement of a coronavirus outbreak that is still spreading throughout the state.
North Carolina was supposed to be a more promising opportunity for Republicans, which is why they selected Charlotte, its largest city, as the site of the Republican National Convention this year. The presence of tens of thousands of Trump supporters would be a display of confidence for a party that has carried the state in all but one presidential election since 1980, and planned to do so again. But when the pandemic made that kind of mass gathering unsafe, Mr. Trump got into a spat with state and local officials and moved the festivities to Jacksonville, Fla., only to cancel once that plan proved unfeasible.
A much more scaled-down gathering is taking place in Charlotte this week as several hundred Republican officials from across the country meet to vote on relatively mundane party matters — their movements tracked by Bluetooth sensors and their faces shielded by masks, a must per the party’s rules.
Polls show former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. tied with Mr. Trump here. And the president’s standing is dragging down the incumbent Republican senator, Thom Tillis, who is trailing his Democratic opponent, Cal Cunningham, in most polls.
The challenges in North Carolina are an extension of Republicans’ vulnerabilities in other states across the Sun Belt like Georgia and Arizona. As these places grow more racially diverse, the Republican Party has lost support in the fast-growing communities around large cities by supporting an agenda that some people see as hostile to minorities, immigrants and women.
“They say most people get more conservative as you age, but I’ve gotten more liberal,” said Cindy Strom, an educational consultant who lives in the Charlotte suburb of Mooresville after moving from Chicago four years ago.
In a sense, Ms. Strom is like other recent transplants who are helping to transform the state’s political dynamics by bringing their liberal sensibilities to a traditionally conservative state. As the mother of a child with special needs, she said she has come to see Republicans as the party that doesn’t care about people like her. “You realize not everybody can pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” she said as she stood in the doorway of her house on recent afternoon. “Some people do need a helping hand from the government.”
But if the Republican Party and Mr. Trump were more attuned to women and working families, Ms. Strom said she might not be leaning so much in favor of the Democrats. “Had the Republicans run anybody else, I might not have voted for Hillary,” she said, referring to the 2016 election, when Mr. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in North Carolina. “But it’s almost not about politics. I don’t think he has any morality. I don’t think he’s a very good person.”
While Ms. Strom’s vote for Mr. Biden is all but certain, she is not as firm about her vote in the Senate race. Republicans see people like her as their path to holding the Senate majority. But voters’ antipathy for Mr. Trump, combined with the exhaustion that many say they feel when it comes to politics, makes it harder for activists like Chris McCoy to break through.
Mr. McCoy, the state director of the conservative political outfit Americans for Prosperity, was preparing for an afternoon of door-to-door canvassing for Mr. Tillis in Ms. Strom’s neighborhood recently. Political division has grown so intense, he said, that many voters have shut down.
“Even the smallest things that were never political before now have a slant, and I think people are on overload,” he said. “It just never stops. And you hit a point where some of these folks are thinking they just want to turn everything off.” The organization, which is funded by the libertarian billionaire Charles Koch, has had to refine its algorithms to find its target voters, fewer of whom are registering with either of the major parties, Mr. McCoy said.
Americans for Prosperity has said it will not campaign for Mr. Trump or help with his re-election, a split that stems from differences over both substance and style. Instead, the group is using its super PAC to focus on the Senate, the battleground where other Republican-friendly organizations like the United States Chamber of Commerce are also shifting resources in an attempt to defend the majority and maintain a bulwark against the Democratic-led House — and a possible Biden White House. States like North Carolina, along with Maine and Iowa, are their firewall.
The United States Chamber of Commerce started running an ad this weekend in the Raleigh market aimed at voters who might be persuaded to vote Republican even if they had written off the president. There is no mention in it of Mr. Trump, the Republican Party or bread-and-butter conservative issues like fiscal responsibility. Instead, the ad focuses on Mr. Tillis’s support for the nearly $700 billion Paycheck Protection Program, which has helped small businesses during the pandemic, and it praises the senator as responsible and reliable. Mr. Tillis is shown wearing a mask as he meets with constituents and greets them with a friendly elbow bump.
In any other year, it might seem strange if allies of a conservative Republican like Mr. Tillis were highlighting his support for a deficit-swelling bailout. But there are few Republicans today who believe the way to winning is through talking about reducing deficits.
“Nobody cares,” said Scott Reed, chief political strategist for the United States Chamber of Commerce, adding that what is more important to voters is believing that someone will help restore a sense of normalcy. “People want to get back to the new normal,” Mr. Reed said. “And that’s how we’re trying to present Tillis.”
Republicans hope to capitalize on the relatively unique circumstances of the Biden-Trump matchup, with many likely Biden voters now saying that their choice is driven more by opposition to the president than by affection for Mr. Biden. In private polling, Republicans have found that as many as 29 percent of Biden supporters in states where there is a competitive Senate race say they are open to voting for a Republican.
But Democrats are making an aggressive play for traditional Republican voters in North Carolina, seeing an opportunity to remind voters about the least popular parts of the Republican agenda.
During a commercial break during Rush Limbaugh’s radio show recently, an ad by an independent group supporting the Democrat running against Mr. Tillis — Mr. Cunningham, who is an Army veteran and a former state senator — blamed Republican budget cuts for the closure of health care centers in the rural parts of the state.
“There’s a scab there,” Morgan Jackson, Mr. Cunningham’s chief political strategist, said in an interview. “And if you pick it, it will bleed.”
Beyond the rural areas, Mr. Jackson said Democrats had ample opportunities in the suburbs around Charlotte and Raleigh to pick up voters whose tolerance for Mr. Trump’s style had worn thin.
“Before they didn’t like his behavior and they thought his policies were good,” Mr. Jackson said. “But now his policies are hurting them, and hurting the economy.”
Disliking Mr. Trump or how he conducts himself does not always translate into a vote for Democrats, and many are likely to vote again for the president in spite of his conduct. Ms. Strom’s neighbor Kirk Domanick told a canvasser from Americans for Prosperity that he was likely to vote Republican because he was worried that Democrats were going too far in shutting down the state to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Mr. Domanick said that Mr. Trump “needs to shut up sometimes” but “does the best he can.”
“Joe Biden is not a bad guy — he’s just not the guy for now,” he said, adding a caveat: “Maybe Joe will surprise me. November is a long way off.”
Intense interest in the election is expected to drive voter turnout incredibly high.
So far that interest appears to be helping Democrats. Requests for mail-in ballots among registered Democrats far exceed requests from registered Republicans, according to a state records reviewed by Michael Bitzer, a professor at Catawba College in North Carolina. Compared with 2016, Mr. Bitzer said, Democrats have requested 16 times as many ballots while Republican requests are up only fivefold. The two parties are typically on par with each other, he added.
That doesn’t necessarily mean people are making straight party line decisions, though. When an Americans for Prosperity canvasser asked Ms. Strom, the relatively recent Charlotte-area transplant, if she would accept a door hanger with Mr. Tillis’s picture on it that listed his policy positions on a number of issues, Ms. Strom agreed and glanced at it.
She said she didn’t believe Mr. Tillis was as bad as Mr. Trump. The stakes of this election are so high, she added, that her vote will ultimately come down to a judgment of who is best qualified to make things normal again.
“We need someone who can save us,” Ms. Strom said.