CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When President Donald Trump last visited the Carolinas, it was a relatively nonpartisan stop to offer sympathy and aide to those affected by Hurricane Florence. But now the big names heading South are placing politics front and center.
It’s a sign of the high stakes of November’s midterm elections, particularly in North Carolina, a state that mirrors the turbulent national political scene. At issue in the state and across the country is not only getting out the vote, but also who gets to vote, and how gerrymandering affects the fairness of the vote.
That is the message of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, whose chairman, former Attorney General Eric Holder, called North Carolina “ground zero for gerrymandering on both a partisan basis and on a racial basis” during a visit this week. It’s one of 12 states the organization is targeting in its quest to help Democrats earn seats at the next redistricting table.
Holder was not the only name or party with North Carolina on the itinerary. Karen Pence, wife of the vice president, and Donald Trump Jr., the presidential son in the middle of the administration’s boasts and scandals, all graced the state, though not together and in very different forums.
Trump Jr. headlined a fundraiser and campaigned for 9th District Republican nominee Mark Harris, doubling down on the drama that seems to be a family trait with a #MeToo joke. That happened at a photo-op with female voters that also included Kimberly Guilfoyle, formerly of Fox News and currently vice chair of the pro-Trump organization America First Action. “Can I say that I’m gonna like taking this picture, or am I gonna get #MeToo-ed,” WCNC-TV quoted him as saying, which was either hilarious or tone-deaf, depending on one’s sense of humor and political team.
Pence took her kinder, gentler reputation to a “Women for Mark Harris” event, perhaps to help close the gender gap in his tight race against Democrat Dan McCready. Outside groups have already spent plenty for both candidates, evident to anyone with a TV. (The two candidates were scheduled to debate Wednesday night.)
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A clarion call
Holder was stumping for Democratic candidates, with repeated pleas for voters to pay attention to those running down ballot. In Charlotte on Monday, he said: “People tend to focus on only federal races, and don’t understand that on a day-to-day basis, it’s people who are elected at the state level that have the greatest [impact] on their lives.” That includes county commissioners, mayors, school board members and those serving on the state Supreme Court, he noted.
And that led to his endorsement of Anita Earls, a candidate for the North Carolina Supreme Court. The two worked together in the Clinton administration, in the Justice Department’s civil rights division — he as deputy attorney general, and she as deputy assistant attorney general — and Earls founded the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. The first-time candidate is facing two Republicans, including incumbent Justice Barbara Jackson.
Earls told me she admired Holder’s “commitment to principles.” Holder said, “She’s a Democrat, yes, but she is going to do things in a fair way.” He said Earls’ success in bringing cases against partisan and racial gerrymandering is one reason why he thinks her candidacy is important. “Let’s make this a battle of ideas, not who can draw up the best lines,” he said. “It reinforces the importance of these elections for these Supreme Court spots in the states.”
Holder did offer some advice for the current attorney general, though he joked that he was “still waiting” for a call. “What I would say to Attorney General Jeff Sessions is that you don’t serve the president of the United States, you serve the people of the United States, and your job is to protect the institution … that is the United States Department of Justice. That has to be an organization, a part of the executive branch that is neutral, that fully applies the law to the facts. It doesn’t serve a political master, and so to the extent that the president is trying to push him to do things that attorneys general do not do, he has to resist that. He has to protect the institution at all costs.”
Tar Heel complexities
Holder, however, always returned to the main point of his message and the focus of his trips through targeted states — motivating voters, especially in local and state races.
In North Carolina, he delved into the complicated politics of a state where a Republican supermajority in the legislature wields a great deal of power (and looks to consolidate more through state constitutional amendments on the November ballot) despite a Democratic governor and an electorate that is fairly evenly divided politically. An amendment that would restore voting restrictions that have been struck down by the courts is also making an appearance on the ballot, though its wording offers no details on what those restrictions would look like.
North Carolina is emblematic of states where Democrats lost House and Senate seats and a voice during the eight years of the Obama presidency. It’s hard to remember that Barack Obama actually won the state in 2008 and barely lost it in 2012. With Republicans planning their convention in Charlotte in 2020, they no doubt hope to keep it more red than purple.
That is probably why Holder did not take the bait when asked about his own political ambitions for 2020. The important date is Nov. 6, 2018, he said. “People need to be focused on that date. People need to be registered. People need to come out to the polls on Nov. 6, and we’ll see what happens about 2020 later on,” he added.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.